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Issue 51 - Silver darlings

Scotland Magazine Issue 51
June 2010


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Silver darlings

Gilly Pickup goes in search of Wine Drinkers* and Glasgow Magistrates*.

Buy my *caller (fresh) herrin’ they’re bonnie fish and dainty fairin’/ Wha’ll buy my caller herrin/ New drawn frae the Forth.’ It was an old cry, familiar for centuries in the streets of Edinburgh. It was not only concerning herring though. Around 160 species of fish swim in Scotland’s seas, rivers and lochs.

However, most popular is the herring, immortalised by the author Neil Gunn as the ‘Silver Darlings’. This Piscean king is the fish of legend and song and regarded since the middle ages as a source of employment and wealth. Scotland exported vast numbers of salted herring to the Baltic countries and prior to the First World War, was a major exporter of herrings to Russia.

In the 14th century, King David II was the first to impose an export duty on this migratory fish and there is a saying that Amsterdam is founded on the bones of Scottish herring.

Silver-bellied herring with their forked tails and blue-green backs swim in shoals near the water’s surface. As spawning approaches, the fish gather in larger shoals and spawn in shallow bays, depositing their eggs – at least 10,000 per herring – on the seabed.

In the herring season, islanders, particularly from Lewis, took the ferry to the mainland en route mainly for Wick, a foot blistering, week long walk. There, men worked on the herring boats while women cured the fish. Living conditions were dreadful. People slept in insanitary bothies, 12 or 15 to a room. The stench in the streets, described as ‘putrescent effluvia from fish offal’, was disgusting.

In the early 20th century, there was an unprecedented development in Scottish herring fishery when it exceeded its European rivals to become the world’s biggest fishery. Herring caught in prodigious quantities were salted for export.

Anstruther was one of Scotland’s principal herring ports until the shoals left the Firth of Forth. During the 19th century, as trading ships grew in size, this quaint East Neuk of Fife town increasingly turned to fishing for employment. Anstruther landed herring was particularly popular in Poland. Over 700 men and boys went out with the fleet with twice as many employed on shore, making nets and barrels, gutting, curing and packing. By the 1880s, there were more than a thousand boats in its fishing fleet and 4000 fishermen.

In fishing communities like this, women grafted as hard as their menfolk. Their duties ranged from gathering bait and shelling mussels to baiting lines. Each line had around 1400 hooks, so this was no enviable task. Women helped to drag the boats out to the beach and often carried their husbands on their backs to deposit them on board, so the men’s feet would be dry when they set sail. Mending nets was the women’s responsibility, although the men would put in a ‘needlefu’’ if they had nothing else to do.

In summer, ‘swithers’ caused problems to the net menders. These invisible mites or dust, thought to be dried-up jellyfish or dried plankton, caused streaming eyes and itchy skin. Carrying the lines to the boats, unloading and smoking the fish also fell to the women. They walked up to 30 miles a day to markets carrying creels often weighing over a hundredweight. Given their lifestyle, it is little wonder fishwives were generally fearsome creatures, offensive and given to swearing, though their morality was impeccable.

Perhaps those who had the toughest walk of all were the unfortunate fishwives of Whaligoe in Caithness. Carrying creels, their journey started by climbing 330 chestpounding steps dug out of the sheer cliff face leading from the harbour to the road.

There was no chance of relaxing in a warm bath with a glass of wine for these fisher “quines” when they got home. They still had all the household chores to see to: cooking, darning, knitting, cleaning and, of course, were responsible for the regular production line of children to, in turn, assume their parents’ role.

An interesting endnote concerns the Fife town of St Monans. It had no church bell to ring so someone hung a bell from a tree in the kirkyard. During the herring fishing season it remained silent because locals thought the sound of the ringing bell frightened the fish away. One day the beadle, who obviously had more on his mind than herring, started ringing the bell vigorously. Immediately, the incensed inhabitants rushed to the churchyard, threw the beadle over the wall and broke the bell. Proof perhaps, if any were needed, of the importance attached to the ‘silver darlings’.

*Names given to herring in parts of Scotland.


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