We seemed to miss the worst of the recent storm but it was still pretty windy.

I love the sea in that kind of weather and went to the shore to watch the waves. When I was wee I used to do the same, sitting on the rocks, defying the waves like a latter-day King Canute, usually getting joyfully soaked.

If I’m being honest I still have that inner child that loves defying the rage of the sea. Of course, I know I will lose, but with my feet firmly on the land the worst that can hopefully happen is that I will return home drookit.

Not so, of course, for those at sea. Storms and raging winds are one thing if you’re standing safely on the rocks, but I always spare a thought for those who are in the waves. So much of our history is dominated by sea storms. For example, the relics of St Andrew landed in Scotland because of a storm and Queen Margaret’s fate was determined by storm-ridden seas as she was forced to seek shelter in Scotland. The list of people shipwrecked on our shore is a long one. But this is dwarfed by those whom the sea had claimed.

We have been a seafaring nation, surrounded by the sea, so no wonder it has dominated our history and identity. Most of us have lost that direct connection as we don’t travel so much by sea anymore. But for fishermen the relationship with the sea remains close. One fisherman I once spoke to always referred to the sea as “her”. He talked of her moods, and the need to understand them. Fishermen and their families more than anyone else have understood that she can give you a living but that she also holds your life to ransom every time you venture upon her.

No wonder the fishing communities had so many superstitions. If two seagulls were seen flying together it was an ill wind and so bad luck, and you shouldn’t go fishing. If you saw a rabbit or hare it was bad luck, and so you shouldn’t go fishing. If someone mentioned an unlucky word, like pig or salmon, you shouldn’t go fishing. If you saw a minister it was really bad luck so you shouldn’t go fishing. If someone wished a fisherman good luck, then that was actually bad luck, so you shouldn’t go fishing. If a fisherman got wet feet before getting into his boat it was bad luck. There were many others and it’s a surprise that fishing ever took place!

It was a minefield of belief framed by the unpredictability of the sea’s moods, the changes of which could literally mean life or death. I have no doubt that seafarers even today still have a catalogue of such superstitions and customs.

Being a minister in a fishing community demanded respect for these beliefs. The Rev Andrew Simpson was minister of Dunbar in the late 16th century, and he knew the ways of the fishing community. But as the post-Reformation minister of the town he saw it as his job also to instil and promote what he considered to be Godly ways. The following tale has been related by John Mackay Wilson, and is known as a legend of Dunbar.

On a sunny and calm autumn day in 1577 the Rev Simpson was walking to church. It was the Sabbath and so he was horrified by the sight that met him. Boats were assembling for a great fishing trip. The boats were not just local but had also come from far and wide, including the north-east and even Holland. It was the herring season and a huge shoal were in the waters just beyond the shore.

But it was Sunday! The Sabbath!

So Rev Simpson felt it his duty to reprimand the fishermen. He spoke to as many fishermen as he could.

“Ye are breaking God’s ain law,” he told the fishermen. But his warnings fell on deaf ears.

One of the fishermen he recognised as one of his own parishioners. He was John Crawford, and he was preparing his boat when Rev Simpson approached him. He was with his wife and children but as the minister approached them he realised that John’s wife Agnes was likewise pleading with him not to go out to sea on the Sabbath.

She had her arms around him, and was tearful. “I feel a terrile forboding if ye dae this John, please fir the sake o’ masel and yer bairns dinnae gang oot on the Lord’s Day,” she said. But the scene was one of mass preparation and her husband was fearful he would miss the opportunity to be part of this great Drave.

The minister then added his voice in support of Agnes’ pleadings. The Rev Simpson was unrelenting: “He know ye not that ye are now braving the wrath o’ him for whom the might ocean is just a drop?” John stood listening, but saying nothing, so the minister continued: “John Crawford harken unto ma voice, tae the voice o’ yer wife and that o’ yer bairns! And be not guilty o’ this gross sin!” But the temptation was too much. A fleet of a thousand boats had assembled. The fish were almost jumping out of the sea in their thousands. Surely this was a gift from God and a sin not to exploit it?

So John kissed his wailing wife and children goodbye, and cast a glance at the now almost hysterically ranting minister, and with his fellow fishermen he pushed his boat to sea with his oar. The Rev Simpson watched as they got lost in the flotilla of boats heading to sea. It was a sight few in Dunbar had ever seen, or were to see again.

The Rev delivered a hell fire sermon against Sabbath breaking, and warned of its consequences. Poor Agnes, who was the daughter of an elder, openly wept. She felt real fear for her husband, whom she loved to his bones. He was a good man, a good father and the thought of losing him was unbearable. So she prayed the hardest she ever had, that her beloved John would be kept from harm.

But as she raised her head from prayer she could see the weather outside had already turned. The roof of the kirk began to rattle as the sky grew dark grey and shadows vanished into daytime darkness. By the end of service there was a fully blown storm raging. Such was the force of the storm that parts of the spire of the kirk itself came crashing to the ground.

The minister urged calm, but how could that be possible? To the howling of the wind was added the noise of wailing women and crying children as they ran from the kirk to the shore. Terror electrified their legs, and when they reached the shoreline it did seem like the end of the world.

The sea was a foaming froth. Upturned and broken boats bobbed on the surface, the fishermen were now mere drowning spots of humanity in the raging waters. Wives and children, sisters and grandparents watched the horror unfold before them, totally helpless.

Nearly 200 boats were sunk that terrible day, and nearly 300 lifeless bodies were washed ashore. As the storm still raged, families began the grim task of identifying their loved ones. It was a terrible sight of carnage, all along the shore towards North Berwick.

Then, suddenly, there was a shout: “Look, look, there! One still lives!” The fisherman was being thrown by the waves. His head appeared and then disappeared. He was so close yet so far. His desperation was matched by the despair of the onlookers. They watched in silence as his exhaustion began to overwhelm him, and the sea began to pull him to her bosom. He called out, his voice briefly heard on the wind as he then began to fade from view into the boiling sea.

Then he was lifted again, a tumble of arms and legs as the sea tossed him just a few metres from the shore by the rock. Despite it closeness the onlookers were helpless. Then a sudden flash of the drowning man’s face and someone cried out: “It’s John Crawford!” Then another shriek was heard. Agnes had been in the crowd and now she leapt into the sea to save her husband. Her dress wrapped around her, spun by the waves. Onlookers gasped with horror but were inspired by her bravery. Some jumped in to help her, but they lacked her motivation and kept themselves away from the clinging distance of the waves.

Agnes was floundering and now she too appeared and disappeared in the dancing sea. Then she was seen with her hand around her husband, but only for both of them to be dragged down again. The sea was unwilling to give up her victims, but Agnes was more unwilling to give up the father of her children and the custodian of her heart.

When a giant wave breathed in for a moment, it uncovered Agnes, who lay with her husband on the beach. They were dragged before the sea could claw them back.

Agnes’ father was also on the beach. He fell to his knees, and the assembled onlookers circled around him and his child and her husband.

“Help me,” he called out and a sea of hands carried Agnes and her husband to their house, their children following, too shocked to cry.

Agnes coughed seawater and sat up, and hugged her hopping bairns. But John lay motionless.

“He’s deid, Agnes, he’s deid,” she was told. But she would not accept it. She wailed and rubbed his chest and temples. And then he moved.

“He lives!” she cried.

She collapsed, exhausted physically and emotionally. But she had saved her husband.

John recovered within a few days, and was told of his wife’s bravery. She was likewise fine within a day, a true heroine of Dunbar.

But the happy tale of John Crawford’s rescue was overwhelmed by the tragedy of 280 widows who mourned their husbands.

The Rev Andrew Simpson was clear as to the reasons for this tragic day. But storms have happened, and always will. But this one has entered legend. The legend John MacKay Wilson called the Sabbath Wrecks also became known as the Lost Drave.