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Issue 40 - A day in the life of a...fisherman

Scotland Magazine Issue 40
August 2008


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A day in the life of a...fisherman

David Fleetwood examines the hard life of the fisherman in Scotland's once thriving herring industry

The waves smack gently against the keel of the boat as it heads towards harbour. The narrow channel leading to Stein is just visible, and, as the wind begins to take the sail of the small boat, the picturesque harbour looms steadily closer.

The sturdy granite walls of the pier would have been a welcome sight to herring fishermen returning from stormy Hebridean seas. Herring are one of the most abundant and important fish in the seas around Scotland, and they provided a livelihood for many communities in both the east and west of Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries.

After the Clearances, many crofters turned to the sea to supplement the output from their crofts, and by the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Scottish herring industry was amongst the biggest in Europe. It was a dangerous pursuit however, with many tales of great storms and men lost at sea.

The roots of herring fishing lie in medieval times when herring were caught on sheltered inshore waters such as the Clyde and Forth.

Although the catches provided a good local food source, there was little commercial exploitation of the fish. The Dutch supplied most of Europe with herring, and their large boats, which caught, gutted and cured fish, were a common sight as far north as Shetland.

Scotland, however, occupies a unique position for herring fishing. The fish winter off the Norwegian Coast before migrating southwards in the summer, sweeping past Scotland and allowing them to be fished from shore-based boats. Operating from the shore gave Scottish boats advantages over the Dutch. Not only could the boats be smaller and more manoeuvrable, but the fish could also be landed before they were cured.

The industry failed to overhaul the dominance of the Dutch until the second half of the 18th century, when the Scottish government decided to award tonnage bounties for the fitting out of herring boats.

These boats worked mainly along the west coast and were not hugely successful. In some cases, the bounty for the ship was greater than the value of the herring cured.

The introduction of barrel bounties in 1775 had a much more marked effect on the industry. The bounty was also available to open boats, allowing smaller crofterfishermen to increase their revenue from fishing.

The volume of herring caught increased sharply under the new system, leading to the establishment of the Fishery Board in 1809.

The Board set up fishery offices at a number of points around the Scottish coast, where officers inspected the cure.

The curing was often done by women.

Two would gut the fish, and a third would place them into salt and then pack them into the barrel. These women became known as the herring girls and followed the ‘silver darlings’ (herring) along northern coasts from May to October. Up to 5,000 of them were present in Great Yarmouth by October.

Their job was tough, and they would bind their fingers with strips of cloth torn from sacks of flour to prevent cuts from the sharp gutting knives and the herring jaws.

The work of the women was important, as the fishery board officers only gave the stamp of approval to barrels which had been well packed, and the crown brand on the barrel was vital in order to sell the fish.

The rapid development of the industry led to an east west split between the increasingly commercial operations on the east coast and the subsistence fishing of the west coast and the Hebrides. Throughout the 19th century, the size of the boats and harbours along the east coast increased consistently. The fishery board attempted to bring the commercial success of the east coast to the crofters of the west by building a series of villages. Stein was one such village. It contained houses with gardens, curing sheds and a harbour.

The idea was a long running theme in the Highlands, and was first suggested by John Knox in the 1770s. In 1775 George Dempster, Minister of Parliament, visited the Highlands and, on his return, established a committee to consider all aspects of the British fisheries.

The work of the committee concentrated on the fishermen of the northwest coast and tried to establish better facilities and incentives for the exploitation of herring.

The commercial fishermen of the east coast and the crofter-fishermen of the west may have differed in the way in which they exploited fish, but the dangers and long hours they faced were identical. Even today in Stein, fishermen do not talk about loved ones lost at sea.

The fisherman’s day was ruled by the tide, and sometimes the work would last for 24 hours at a stretch, with a few hours sleep snatched on a hard locker or the bottom of the boat amongst the fish, the open boats offering little protection from the harsh elements.

These small open boats were built in clinker fashion, with each plank overlapping another, and had a shallow profile, allowing them to be used close in to the shore. This made them versatile and manoeuvrable, but they were easily swamped in a storm.

The small open boats were gradually replaced in the 19th century with larger decked boats called herring buses, particularly on the east coast. Wooden boats were gradually replaced with iron-hulled vessels from the early 1900s onwards, although this was a very slow process and many of the more remote fishing communities didn’t begin to use iron-hulled boats for many generations.

The life of the herring fisherman could swing wildly from prosperity and hard drinking celebrations to almost penniless misery. In the more commercial fisheries, men were paid in proportion to their catch, which was sometimes huge and sometimes next to nothing.

Their harsh lifestyle reflected the harsh conditions. Their clothing and protection from the Scottish elements bear little relation to the synthetic fibres of the modern fisherman’s garb. Their standard leather sea boots and heavy woollen jerseys were far from waterproof. They quickly became soaked with spray and rain, and provided little protection from biting cold winds.

The herring fisherman often began his day’s work at around dusk. The fishermen used large nets, which they strung out as the light began to fail in places where the fish were likely to be feeding. The nets were then left out over night to drift in the current. Drift net fishing has been practiced for thousands of years, and the technology remained virtually unchanged.

The skill of the fishermen was in the placement of their nets. They had to know the water well and to able to guess where the fish would be feeding in a variety of different weather conditions.

As the net drifted, the boat was swung around to face the wind, pulling on a long warp rope to keep the nets taut. The gaps in the nets were designed in such a way that, when a fish swam into it, it would enter as far as its head, then the net caught behind the gills and the fish could not get out.

The nets floated just below the surface of the water with cork floats threaded along the length of them to suspend them at the correct level in the water. There were also large marker buoys, more widely spaced than the cork floats, which in the 19th century were made of inflated pigs bladders or from dog or sheep skins.

The nets were made of hemp and quickly became waterlogged. Their weight held the nets suspended in the water. By the late 19th century, the hemp nets were replaced with light cotton, and had to be weighted down in order to keep them in the water. The weights used were usually just stones tied along the bottom of the net, and were subsequently replaced with lead.

As the dawn light slowly returned to the horizon what was perhaps the most physically demanding part of the day began: the hauling in of the nets. The hemp nets were very heavy, especially when they were filled with fish, and they had to be hauled onboard by hand. This hard and dangerous work could take several hours.

By the mid 19th century, the manual hauling was made slightly easier by the introduction of a capstan, which allowed the net to be hauled in around a large drum. Later, the steam capstan was introduced which automated this process, although the nets still had to be lifted from the water by hand.

When the nets were finally onboard, they were emptied of fish. In the open boats the fish were left to lie in the bottom of the boat.

Once the nets were hauled in, speed was of the essence, as fresh fish would fetch the highest prices. When the boat finally reached the pier, the fish were removed in large baskets called swills before being weighed and taken to the curing yard to be sold.

Finally the fishermen could enjoy the product of the sale and their hard labour.

It was a dangerous and difficult job, but a job that provided riches to the coasts of Scotland and an essential lifeline for many communities. Although many men were lost at sea in pursuit of the silver darlings, many good times were had after a good catch, and the fabric of coastal communities has been shaped by the ups and downs of this lifestyle.

The sight of an open boat hauling in a net and the waft of cured herring on the breeze has disappeared from all but a few parts of the east coast. Periods of overfishing and the development of large factory trawlers have eroded to extinction the small open boat fishermen of Scotland’s coasts, but their pursuit of the silver darlings remains a key part of Scottish history and has created unique places like Stein all around the Scottish coast.