The Stephen family and the stories of the Fraserborough zulus Violet and Vesper

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Violet Stephen, the girl after whom the zulu Violet was named; Alexander Grieve Stephen, and the zulu Violet

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Violet; William and George Stephen on board Violet, and William Stephen aboard Violet

David Stephen Rennie, great grandson of the first owners of the Violet has sent me some old photos and family history surrounding the old zulu, which is now maintained and sailed by Gary Maynard, and also of Vesper.

To read more about Violet as she is now, click here, and see the comments to this post.

The stories of old boats and of the families involved add a great deal to our apprection and understanding, so many thanks David!

Violet FR451 was built in 1911 at James Nobles for my great-grandfather Alexander Grieve Stephen (1873-1935) for about £90; the boat was named after his youngest daughter Violet (1910-94).

He had been skipper of the George Noble FR6, and during World War I he served in the Royal Navy.

When Violet was launched they went small line fishing with mussel-baited hooks and worked the herring during the season.

Originally Violet had a mast and sail, but was later converted to motor power first with a 15hp Kelvin engine and later a 30hp Kelvin, and in 1936 was fitted with a 48hp Gardner.

Alexander Grieve Stephen returned from the sea about 1931 owing to ill health and took a job as berthing master, and his brother in law James Duthie took over as skipper until about 1935. In 1934 Violet was rescued by Fraserburgh’s lifeboat.

On the 13th November 1935 Alexander Grieve Stephen died aged 61, and in that year his son John took over as skipper and was joined by his brothers George and William.

In March 1975 Violet was put up for sale owing to the failing health of both John, who was now 73, and William, who had suffered a severe heart attack. Violet was sold to the Sprague brothers and left Fraserburgh for the last time on th 12th May 1975.

The generation of the Stephen family who had known and fished aboard Violet lived for some time more, but were all gone within a few years of each other. David again:

On the 21st June 1983 John Stephen died aged 81 after a series of strokes. On the 6th of September 1983 my grandfather George Stephen died aged 74 from lung cancer, and on the 7th November 1986 William Stephen died aged 73 years and was buried on the 11th November, his 74th birthday.

Vesper FR453 was built in 1911 at Fraserburgh and was owned by George Noble and John Buchan. She was sold on the 8th April 1935 to my grandfather’s oldest brother, Alexander Duthie Stephen (Sandy) (1898-1982); by that time he had been Vesper’s skipper since October 1918.

Owing to ill health, Vesper was sold to Edwin Wiseman in 1957. It was then sold to Alexander Ross in 1958 and then in November 1970 to David and Isaac Newlands of Pittenween. In 1972 it was registered as Vesper II KY36, and then from January 1982 as Vesper II AA36 until February 1988, when it ceased fishing. (KY stands for Kirkcaldy and AA stands for Alloa – see a list of fiishing port codes here.) By the autumn of 1989 it was a ruin at Buckie, and only a few years ago it was broken up.

Alexander Duthie Stephen died on the 3rd December 1982 aged 84.

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Alexander Duthie Stephen; Alexander Duthie Stephen aboard Vesper; Vesper

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6 thoughts on “The Stephen family and the stories of the Fraserborough zulus Violet and Vesper”

  1. That is great information supplied by Mr Rennie – thanks to him and yourself for posting it.

    Apart from anything else, the pictures show how well the Scots fishermen looked after their boats in those days.

  2. At's a gye guid bit o' info. I wiz lukin for info aboot ma Dyde o' i' same name 'n a fun es. It's ay fine ti fin oot aboot yer ain heritage, 'n far ye really come fae.

    If you don't know how we speak, then here's a translation.

    That's a good bit of info. I was looking for info about my Grandad of the same name and ound this. It's always fine to find out about our own heritage and where you really come from.

  3. I am John Stephen's grandson. I first went to sea aboard the Violet during schol holidays when I was 12 years old. I was a member of the crew for a couple of years until she was sold on my granda's retirement.

  4. George Noble Buchan was my Great Grandfather! I was very excited to discover this blog on the Vepser, and saddened to here of it’s demise in 1989. My parents had seen it in the water back in the late 70’s I believe.
    I’m also working on our family tree and was surprised to discover the Violet belonged to another family, it was my understanding it belonged to my Great Uncle John Noble Buchan. So now, I’ll be looking for a familial bond to the Stephen family.
    I’m also trying to track down any info on my Great, Great Grandfather Robert Buchan who supposedly went to sea on a clipper ship all the way to China (or so the family stories are told), and he built the home at 9 Duke Lane, Fraserburgh for his sons George Noble & John Buchan. I would love to hear from anyone with information.

    1. Hi leslie

      Robert Buchan (1843-1903) was married to Helen Noble (1843-1895), she was an elder sister of my great great granny Elizabeth noble (1848-1906) , they were daughters of George Noble (1818-1895) and Elizabeth May 1817-1880, please email me at

  5. Re the Vesper, she was bought by a friend of mine a Mr David Findlay of Cellardyke. He bought her from Newlands in Pittenweem, at that time she was a complete sea going vessel, but to my knowledge ever tightening regulations meant it was not commercially feasible to continue fishing with her in her registered role.
    I only have sketchy information about her in later years. She ended up in the late seventies in the ownership of a Priest from Dundee. At that time I had considered buying a Zulu to restore and heard she was for sale. I made contact with the Priest (name escapes me) and met up with him to view her at Tayport harbour where she had been lifted out previously.
    The story I was told is that he had lent her to a friend who had hit the bar at Tayport and she had ended up under water. She was in a terrible state when I viewed her, evidence of hard impact to forefoot and several planks sprung on both sides, sternpost and engine conversion deadwood all gone and plank ends damaged. Hull was stripped out completely, deck, floor, everything. The Gardner engine was lying around in a severely corroded state. The gearbox and stern gear was missing. The owner did say he still had the masts and spars.
    Sadly she was beyond my skill and wallet level and in my opinion was beyond repair other than to a museum with funds and able to muster all relevant skills.
    I heard she had been transported to the north coast, tried to find her one time when touring but no joy.

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