Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 33 - The devil and the deep blue sea

History & Heritage

This article is available in full as part of History & Heritage, visit now for more free articles and information.


Scotland Magazine Issue 33
June 2007


This article is 11 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

The devil and the deep blue sea

Gavin D Smith explores Scotland's long association with the sea

Humankind has been fishing in the waters off what is now Scotland since around 7,000BC.

In McArthur’s Cave near Oban remarkable evidence of early fishing has been found in a 5,000 year old excavated midden. This dates back as far as the Mesolithic period, and was found to contain limpet, winkle, whelks, mussel, oyster and scallop shells.

Such early fishing was undertaken on a subsistence basis, providing food for the fisherman and his family or immediate community, but by the medieval period Scottish herring and salmon were being exported to Europe, and herring fishing became one of the great success stories of the Scottish economy during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Writing in 1873, James Bertram declared in Harvest of the Sea that: “No country has, taken into account size and population, been more industrious in the seas than Scotland – the most productive fishery of the country having been that of herring.” Dutch, German and Flemish vessels frequently fished for herring off the Scottish coast from the mid-14th century onwards, but it was only during the second half of the 18th century that Scottish herring fishing really began to flourish. In 1766 there were 261 comparatively large herring ‘busses’ fishing out of the River Clyde, and on the east coast, three Caithness merchants fitted out two vessels in 1767 and fished the Moray Firth for herring. They achieved great success and ultimately ensured that Wick became the premier herring port in Europe.

In order to exploit the opportunities of herring fishing to the full, the British Fisheries Society developed harbours and settlements at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull and at Ullapool on the west coast from 1788. These were followed in 1803 by Pulteneytown, on the south side of the Wick River.

A series of bounty schemes was introduced from the early 18th century onwards in order to stimulate herring fishing activity, and herring were comparatively easily caught off the east coast of Scotland in the winter and spring, near the north coast and Shetland during the summer months, and off the East Anglian coast of England in the autumn.

At the peak of the herring boom in the early 1900s, some 2,500,000 barrels of fish were cured and exported, and more than 1,000 boats visited Wick alone during the short summer herring season, employing up to 10,000 people. They included gangs of ‘herring girls,’ with lightning-fast fingers, who gutted the fish and salted them in barrels, and dozens of coopers, making and repairing barrels to hold the vast numbers of fish. The itinerant gutting and coopering crews would follow the fishing vessels around the coast from harbour to harbour as they pursued the silver shoals.

However, the First World War and the Russian Revolution of 1917 killed off the principal markets for herring, and this, combined with a natural decline in numbers of the fish entering coastal waters, effectively ended the large-scale Scottish herring trade.

Herring were caught in drift nets, long ‘curtain-like’ nets suspended from floating corks, while white fish which lived near the bottom of the sea were traditionally caught by highly labour-intensive ‘long-lining’ methods, which involved baiting lines up to 15 miles long with as many as 5,000 hooks.

In the 1880s, steam-powered trawlers were introduced to the Scottish fleet, and from the 1920s, seine-netting, which originated in Denmark, became a popular and effective method of catching white fish. The ‘seine’ consists of a conical netting body with long ‘wings’ which encircles a large area of sea, hopefully well stocked with fish.

Increasingly large and comparatively sophisticated fishing vessels which could venture into deeper waters farther afield, combined with the newer catching methods, helped Scotland to maintain a thriving and lucrative fishing industry. Essentially, this has survived to the present time, although compliance with the European Union’s controversial Common Fisheries Policies has seen the Scottish fleet dramatically reduced in recent years and severely curtailed the number of days vessels may spend at sea.

Remarkably, 65 per cent of British fishing activity remains Scottish-based, despite Scotland having less than nine per cent of the total United Kingdom population. Fishing can be divided into three distinct sectors, including ‘demersal’ – which focuses on white fish living near the bottom of the sea, such as cod, haddock, whiting and plaice.

The ‘pelagic’ sector seeks out oil-rich fish which swim midwater, including mackerel and herring, while ‘shellfish’ fishermen catch prawns, crabs, mussels and scallops.

According to Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation: “In 2005 Scotland had 2,376 registered fishing vessels. This figure included 25 large pelagic boats, 312 demersal, white fish vessels, now mainly fishing for haddock, 387 mixed whitefish/shellfish boats, especially fishing for Scottish langoustines, and 1,652 inshore vessels, fishing for shellfish.

“Just under 4,000 people are directly employed in Scottish fishing, and some 1,200 are partially employed. That compares with 7,300 full time and 900 part time 20 years ago.

The figures didn’t vary much from the 1960s, but then two major de-commissioning schemes took place in 2001 and 2003 to cut fishing activity, principally of cod. The number of white fishing vessels has dropped by 65 per cent since 2000 due to the decommissioning schemes.” Indeed, in 2003 no fewer than 66 Scottish skippers from harbours like Fraserburgh, Peterhead and Aberdeen agreed to scrap their boats and leave an industry which had been the lifeblood of their families for generations. In return they received payment from the Scottish Executive’s £40 million decommissioning scheme, which was designed to restore viability to the Scottish white fish fleet.

Armstrong says that: “The result is an industry which now has some optimism. The fleet is about the right size for the catching opportunities, and there have been price increases at market during the past 18 months, especially for haddock and Scottish langoustines.” Successful measures to cut landings of ‘black’ or illegal, over-quota fish landings has also helped to increase the prices for legallycaught fish. However, increasing fuel prices have hit fishermen hard.

“The axis of fishing is the north-east and up to Shetland,” says Armstrong, “with Peterhead and Fraserburgh being important ports, especially for the larger vessels, which are mainly based in those two and in Shetland harbours.

“You’ve also got harbours like Eyemouth on the east coast and Pittenweem in Fife.

Further north, you have Buckie, and in the west there are Ayr, Ullapool, Campbeltown, Lochinver, Kinlochbervie, Mallaig and Oban, plus Portree on Skye and Stornoway on Lewis. Orkney is significant too, along with Scrabster in Caithness.” Cod is currently subject to a Common Fisheries Policy recovery plan, so, as Armstrong notes: “The main stocks being caught now include mackerel and herring, with mackerel being much more important.

These fish are caught by the 25 large vessels.

Then you have haddock and Scottish langoustines, angler fish in deeper water, plus lobsters, brown crabs and scallops. All these fish stocks are in good health.” So the battle between fishermen, the elements and the elusive fish themselves goes on, just as it has through good times and lean for so many centuries around the coast of Scotland.

Where to visit
In addition to working harbours, there are a number of excellent, Scottish fishing-related visitor facilities, as well as many sections devoted to the fishing industry within local museums and archives.

The best place to find out more about Scottish fishing and its heritage is undoubtedly the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther, in the picturesque and historic ‘East Neuk’ of Fife. The museum was established in 1969, and has subsequently been expanded on several occasions. It now contains more than 66,000 individual items, including 18 boats, and also hosts a dynamic exhibition programme. The Memorial Room, serves to remind visitors that fishing remains the most dangerous occupation in Britain.

The Scottish Fisheries Museum
St Ayles, Harbourhead, Anstruther, Fife KY10 3AB
Tel: +44 (0)1333 310 6 28

Wick Heritage Museum is run by the Wick Society, and is the largest museum in the North of Scotland.
It encompasses a restored fisherman’s house, a full-sized fish kiln, a cooperage, and the fascinating Johnston Collection of photographs, taken over a period of 115 years by successive members of the Johnston family of Wick photographers.

Wick Heritage Museum
18-27 Bank Row, Wick, Caithness KW1 5EY
Tel: +44 (0)1955 605 393

Buckie & District Fishing Heritage Museum Ltd administers the fascinating Museum Cottage in the north-east fishing town.

Museum Cottage
Cluny Place, Buckie AB56 1HB

Newhaven on the Firth of Forth was formerly a thriving centre for fishing, and visitors in the Edinburgh area should seek out:

Newhaven Heritage Museum
Fishmarket, Pier Place, Newhaven, Edinburgh EH6 4L.
Tel: +44 (0)131 551 4165

The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses is based at Fraserburgh, and includes the first lighthouse built on mainland Scotland and an accompanying, purpose-built museum.

Kinnaird Head
Stevenson Road, Fraserburgh AB43 9DU
Tel: +44 (0)1346 511 022

Scotland also boasts a number of festivals and events relating to fishing heritage, including Shetland’s Johnsmas Foy in June, the Eyemouth Herring Queen Festival, Portsoy’s Scottish Traditional Boat Festival in July, and Arbroath Sea Fest in August. See for further information.