In the Caithness Archives we have a fascinating series of Wick harbourmaster’s logbooks dating from the 1860s, recording what the weather was like each day and what was happening down at the harbour. (I’ve just started posting some from August 1871 on the archives’ Facebook page, an entry a day.)
Although the fishing season was drawing to an end in August, it’s still interesting to read about the time when so many herring were landed the herring gutters couldn’t process them all, and the rest had to sit overnight on the quay in the pouring rain; or when whales were seen on all sides of the bay, as opposed to the oil rigs and wind turbines which make up the view today.
This has sent me researching into just how the fishing industry operated in Scotland at this time; and since these were the guys and gals whose jumpers we celebrate on this site, and because it’s a glimpse into a lost world, I thought I’d share it with you this week.
The whole thing starts with the “fishcurers”. I used to think these were the people who actually preserved the herring, but in fact they were the merchants who really ran the industry (the ones in the photos with bowler hats and jackets and their fists on their hips looking prosperous). These curers would bid at a public auction for a curing station in the harbour to operate from, usually a yard in the open air. When the season started, this is where they’d arrange rows of empty barrels and salt, and the gutting troughs, called farlans.
Each fishcurer would then contract a number of skippers of boats to fish for them for the season, guaranteeing to pay them a fixed fee for a certain quantity of herring. A curer might engage a skipper to provide him with, say, 200 crans of fish (a cran being a measure of about 1,000 herring) at so much a cran. The skippers would then find their own crews, usually family members, or unemployed men who descended on the harbours every season looking for work.
The curers would also contract teams of women to gut and pack the landed fish (the famous “fisher lassies”). Just like the skippers of the fishing boats, a curer would make a contract with a woman, and she would then be responsible for recruiting another two women to make up her team, each team consisting of two gutters and a packer.
I don’t know how it worked in other places, but in Wick the whole town ran on credit. Once the initial contracts were made, little money changed hands until the final reckoning at the end of the season, and shops supplied the gutters and the boat crews with everything on account. The skippers were given a “cran token” for every cran they supplied to their curer: when it was all over, the tokens were added up and the curers paid the skippers in cash.
The boats would go out in the evening and cast their nets; next day they’d haul them in and return to port with the catch, which they’d deliver to the stations of their contracted curers. Boys would be sent running to summon the women from their lodgings if they weren’t already waiting at the quay. The fish would be tipped into the farlans, where they were gutted by the women and dropped into baskets arranged by size. The packer would pack the gutted herring into barrels layered with salt, and then the barrels would sit for a week to let the salt dehydrate the fish. They were then opened and any shrinkage would be topped up with fresh fish and brine, and finally resealed ready to be shipped off for export by the curers.
After c.1880 the system of contracts for fishermen was replaced by auctions, and each boat as it came in would send up a basket to the auction house as a sample. The curers would bid for it, and the catch was then landed at the curing station of the highest bidder.
The Wick herring season lasted from June to August/September, and then the crews would be paid off, and the Highlanders and Islanders would go home, or move on to other parts of the country, other harbours, to catch the shoals in other grounds. It must have been an extraordinary life, following the herring; and the town, which more or less doubled in population during the summer months, must have been a wild, exhilarating, volatile place—not to mention seagull heaven.
Sometimes I walk along the deserted quays, and think of the old photographs, and try to visualise the harbour so crammed with boats (up to 400 at one time) that you could walk from one side to the other without getting your feet wet—unless a boat was a bit leaky—but it’s impossible now. The fishermen and their nets are gone, as are the women, knitting in the sun and waiting for the fleet to come in, and laughing as they talk. Only the seagulls remain. (Ah, well; as they say, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.)
Next week: normal service is resumed, as I will (hopefully) have finished the gansey for the Reaper, and will be trying to recreate life in Victorian Wick by getting roaring drunk on whisky which I’ve obtained on credit…