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James was born and raised in Gills, on the north coast of Caithness. Records give him two occupations. He was a journeyman shoemaker in the 1841 census and a fisher in the birth record of his son Gilbert. He was probably brought up in a crofting and fishing household, so likely had several skills. James married Christina in the church at Canisbay and they started a family in that area. Son James' baptism says their home was in Mey, which is next to Gills. The Canisbay church served a number of communities around it.

Canisbay church, looking north to Orkney

The Dunnet family moved to Wick on the southern coast of the county about 1834. The 1841 census places them in the "blue collar" Whitehouse neighborhood on the north side of the harbor. Family tradition has it that James and his older sons drowned while on a rescue mission. Here is the recollection of his granddaughter Margaret (Dunnet) Sinclair:

James Dunnet married Christina Laird, whose mother's maiden name was Coghill. They were people who lived by the sea. Their livelihood was fishing, boating, etc. Their oldest son was James, Jr. and the youngest was Donald and there were two sons in between...James Sr., the father, and three sons were drowned in the North Sea. The mishap occurred when they were trying to rescue people in a large vessel, sinking in a bad storm. They were employed in emergency by the government as coast guard assistants. Donald, my father, was the only male left. He was too young to be of help in the occasion of life saving, so he was left with his mother.

No evidence of this has been found, but there is undoubtedly some truth to the story. There were five sons, and all of them were living with their widowed mother in 1851. It's likely he was the James Dunnet who was among a group of men on a Wick-based fishing boat who were caught in a sudden gale. A newspaper notice covered the event:

DEPLORABLE ACCIDENT AT WICK - EIGHT MEN DROWNED. It is our painful and melancholy duty this week to record the occurrence of a dreadful catastrophe, by which eight individuals have been suddenly hurried to eternity. On the morning of Friday last, our white fishing boats proceeded to sea, the weather being at that time highly favourable for the prosecution of the fishing. As the day began to break, however, symptoms of a breeze accompanied by rain, began to develop themselves, and in a short time, a strong gale of wind from a southerly direction visited us. Our hardy fishermen immediately left the fishing ground and made the best of their way towards the shore. We deeply regret to say that one boat, with eight men on board, never reached the land, and that all on board hve met with a watery grave! We have been informed by some of those who were at sea that day that on their way home, they observed the sail of the ill-fated boat suddely disappear, but thinking that the mast had broke, or that the sail had been lowered for the purpose of being reefed, they took no particular notice of the matter until, on their arrival on shore, the boat was amissing. Immediately on the report becoming known that fears were entertained of the safety of the crew, several individuals manned a boat and proceeded to the "Cuckoo" steamer, then lying in the bay, and having informed Lieutenant Park, the commander of that vessel, of the circumstance, he, in the most prompt and humane manner, lost not a moment in proceeding to sea in oder, if possible, to discover some traces of the boat. This, whowever was unavailing. Ere that time, the unfortuante crew had been buried beneath the waters, and the "Cuckoo" had to return to the bay from an unsuccessful errand. There are several circumstances connected with this dreadful visitation of Providence of a painful character. The boat was an old one; it was intended to be - as it truly has been - her last voyage to the sea, and 12 o'clock of that day was the period fixed for the launching of a new one for the same crew. But alas! others must man the new boat...James Dunnet, an active member of the Temperance Society, had left orders at home to have his Sabbath clothes in readiness for his return, as he had that evening to take an impoprtant part of a soiree which was to be held...James Dunnet left a widow and 8 children

James and Christina had seven children who were living at the time, but the circumstances, combined with the oral history, leave little doubt this is the same James. If so, their eighth child, Donald, had just been concieved. The 1851 census shows that Christina was a widow with her children at the coffee and boarding house she was running. The Temperance Society had a hall for meetings in the Whitehouse neighborhood. It was particularly active in Wick to try to reduce the number of drunken sailors.
     The design of herring boats at that time was meant to maximize the possible quantity of fish in the boat, leading to a wide, ovoid shape, and the ease of getting them on board, causing the boat to sit low in the water. They also had no significant decking. This made them very unseaworthy, especially since they swamped easily in rough water. The herring fishery in Wick was the largest in the world and undoubtedly ran the local economy, but in the mid 1800s there were enough disasters during bad storms that the problem sparked a public debate. Boat designs were eventually modified, but this was too late for James. The photos below, from the Wick Heritage Society, are of Wick harbor in the later 19th century. The first image gives an idea of the type of boats James fished in.

children of James Dunnet and Christina Laird:

i. Margaret b. 4 October 1825, Gills
ii. Christina b. 23 December 1827, Mey
iii. James b. 10 April 1830, Mey
iv. John b. 31 August 1833, Mey
v. Isabella b. abt 1835, Wick
vi. William b. abt 1839, Wick
vii. Gilbert b. 1 October 1841, Wick
viii. Donald b. 7 August 1847, Wick

vital records sources: James' birth and marriage are in the Canisbay church records.


all text and photographs © 1998-2021 by Doug Sinclair unless where otherwise noted