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Issue 69 - Chasing the silver darlings - Scottish Fishing

Scotland Magazine Issue 69
June 2013


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Chasing the silver darlings - Scottish Fishing

John Hannavy explores the story of Scotland's fishing industry

Standing on the quayside at Newhaven harbour on the Firth of Forth as dusk falls and the lights of Granton brighten against a dramatic late autumn evening sky, it is hard to imagine that the area was once right at the heart of one of Scotland’s major industries. It is even harder when it is one of those magical placid nights on the river when there appears to be hardly a ripple on the water.

Fishing boats started using Granton harbour in the mid 1880s, and eventually numbering about eighty. If Granton was their port of registration, the trawlers carried the registration letters ‘GN’. Newhaven, on the other hand, can trace its fishing heritage back more than five centuries, and by the time of the development of the herring industry, was a busy port supporting a thriving community.

A century ago, more than 600,000 tons of herring alone were landed at British fishing ports each year – a quarter of a million tons of them by Scottish boats – the majority of which were destined to be gutted, cleaned, salted or pickled, and packed in barrels by an industry which predominantly employed women – and women in their thousands. These women were following a tradition of supporting their fishermen husbands which can be traced back for centuries.

At its peak, around 1906-7, two and a half million barrels of herring alone were exported each year from Scotland, and the fishing industry was one of the country’s most important employers.

While men caught the fish and landed them on the quayside, the majority of the work thereafter was undertaken by a huge workforce of women, traditionally the female members of the fishermen’s families, but as the herring industry grew exponentially in the closing decades of the 19th century, and was increasingly concentrated in larger centres, many of them had to adopt an itinerant lifestyle and travel and work where the fish were. That industrialisation of the fish processing industry effectively sounded the deathknell of many of Scotland’s smaller ports, taking away not just the work on the boats, but the women’s employment in processing and selling of the fish. It also created a group of almost legendary women – ‘The Scotch Fisher Lassies’ as Edwardian postcards invariably described them – who travelled the length of the east coast each year following the fish.

The industry employed huge numbers of people, but the herring was a fickle fish. If the huge shoals of ‘silver darlings’ did not appear off shore at the appointed season, then there was very real hardship around the coasts of Scotland and in the many industries which depended on the success of the fishing for their own success – including the barrel-makers and ship chandlers.

Duncan Macara, a photographer and stationer in late Victorian Edinburgh was just one of many photographers to take and market photographs of the fisherwomen – the most famous being the pioneer photographers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in the 1840s. On the back of one of Macara’s cards, he told his customers a version of the history of the Newhaven women:-

They keep themselves entirely aloof from their neighbours, and literally dwell apart though hemmed in by the suburbs of Edinburgh and Leith. Generally supposed to be of Flemish or Dutch descent, intermarrying with “the Scotch” was, not many years before, looked upon as little short of a crime; and though recent years have greatly lessened this strong caste prejudice, such marriages are still looked down upon. The women sell the fish – their husbands’, fathers’, or that of other fishermen – in Edinburgh, each fishwife generally having her own round in the city. Oysters are heralded at night with the well-known melodious cry of “Caller On”.

The fishwife’s dress consists of a cotton jacket, of a vivid red and yellow mixed pattern, tied round the waist by her apron strings, and tucked round in front; two striped petticoats – one kilted up in front, the other hung in the usual way – of the same bright colours as the jacket; blue stockings; and high-quartered shoes.

She wears a spotted handkerchief round her neck, and, in the maturer matron, an old-fashioned white cap on her head.

But by the time Macara was photographing the fisherwomen of the Firth of Forth, the industry had changed from one where locally caught fish were cleaned and sold by local women, to an industry where an itinerant workforce went where the work was. The catalyst for this change was the huge growth in Britain’s fishing fleets – and in the catches they brought ashore – which came with the advent of steam trawlers.

It was said that the labours of every fishing boat which went to sea in search of either herring or white fish supported the employment of up to a hundred people. So, if that is anywhere close to the truth, the million or so tons of mixed fish landed in Britain in each of the opening years of the twentieth century – when there were about two thousand steam trawlers and at least fours times that number of sailing smacks – must have supported a workforce close to one million people.

But then fish stocks started to diminish, and many of the fishing ports lost all but the smallest of their fishing boats, as bigger vessels were concentrated in fewer larger ports. Today the days of plentiful North Sea herring are little more than a distant memory. For many of the smaller ports, the great days never returned, and their picturesque harbours largely became home to pleasure craft rather than working boats.

Peterhead bucked the trend for a time – it has been the largest fishing port in Europe since the 1970s – but the days in the 80s when the port had over five hundred trawlers working out of it, staying at sea for a week each trip, are now also gone. With fish stocks diminishing further, quotas reducing, and regulations on sustainable fishing increasing, the lot of the deep sea trawlerman does not get any easier.

Inshore fishing still takes place around much of Scotland’s shores, but what goes on today is a far cry from the days when several Scottish ports boasted that they were so busy that at times it was possible to walk from one side of the harbour to the other simply by stepping from one boat to another.

Memories of Scotland’s once-great fishing industry are preserved in places such as the superb Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther in Fife, the Aberdeen Maritime Museum, the Fraserburgh Heritage Centre, Peterhead’s Maritime Heritage Centre and Unst Boat Haven in Shetland – as well as in the countless images taken by generations of photographers. A visit to the Anstruther museum is especially recommended.

Even my own photographs, taken over the last fifty years, tell part of the story – the solitary trawler making its way into Scrabster harbour on a grey summer morning in 1972, that picture itself now more than forty years old, offers a striking contrast to Alexander Johnson’s image of hundreds of herring boats in Wick’s Poultenay Harbour a century earlier.