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Filey 2.18: 12 – 18 August

F21808aIn 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.)

F21808-WHT-logbook-1871-Aug-17Although 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.

F21808bThe 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.


This week’s outing: Hill o’ Many Stanes, Mid-Clyth

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.


Hill o’ Many Stanes

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…

22 comments to Filey 2.18: 12 – 18 August

  • Cathy

    Hi Gordon,
    This a very interesting post, especially the detail of how the industry worked.
    One of my personal bugbears is the way history is too frequently presented to the lay public as a series of general final statements – effectively myths – which are not necessarily untrue in themselves but which serve to obscure a whole host of questions and can lead to a severe dogmatic conception of the past, often by persons who should know better. (There was a particular example I was beating my head against this week, but it isn’t relevant to this topic.)
    That is why I find this window into how the fishing industry operated in Wick in the late 1800’s so interesting. But being me, I’m immediately wondering if your archives throw any light on some questions I’ve had in the back of my head for some time.
    Myth: the fishing fleet followed the shoals of herring and the fisher lassies followed the fleet. As far as I know, this is a true myth. The herring shoals had an annual migration involving the North Sea and the last solitary herring no doubt wends its lonely way alone the ancestral paths… But the impression given is that all the fishing boats from all the ports in the U.K. massed together and visited all the ports en masse. I was wondering if your harbourmaster’s log throws any light on this question? Were the boats coming into Wick between June and September mostly local or were the Lowestoft etc. boats there as well? What did the Wick fleet do out of season? Had they made enough profit or did they depart elsewhere?
    Another thing I’ve often wondered about is this:
    Myth: fishermen were dirt poor. (Presumably true, after their wives knitted for peanuts to make a bit extra). Fact: boats are expensive. So how did fishermen (or the skippers) afford their craft? Were the skippers British kulaks? If the crews were largely recruited from the skippers’ relatives were these their poor cousins or were the skippers employees of boat owners or in hock? Sorry, I don’t expect you to answer all this!
    On the auction arrangement, as far as I know, something similar still happens. I was fortunate a few years ago to sail from Hartlepool to Edinburgh on the Excelsior (a 1920’s fishing smack based in Lowestoft), visiting a number of ports inbetween. What fishing was left, the boats (mostly open) were entering harbour overnight, gutting and boxing the catch onboard, then selling the boxes by auction in the quayside fish markets about 6 o’clock in the morning to fish merchants.
    Meanwhile, my gansey, which sped up to the gussets, has barely grown in the last month. Having mastered four needles, having difficulty going back to only two!


    P.S. Apologies for the length of this.

    • Gordon

      Hi Cathy,
      These are all good points, and I’ve wondered about some of them myself. I’m thinking of writing this up and adding it to the website, as I didn’t want to make the post too long.

      The first thing to say is that the herring fishing as we think of it covered a whole century, from c.1810  to c.1914 (before then it wasn’t regulated so much, and after World War 1 it fell into decline with overfishing, etc.). It went through many changes in those hundred years, which makes it hard to generalise.
      For instance, in the early days there was a shortage of labour, and I understand that the curers would send boats to the north and west of Sutherland, or the Western Isles, looking for hands. Fairly soon it all got organised, and migrant workers knew to congregate at Wick at the beginning of July, many of them walking tens, even hundreds of miles.

      In the Wick log books for 1871-2, many Wick fishermen left for the Lewis fishing grounds in May, and returned in June. The Lewis fishermen in turn arrived in Wick in July, and stayed until 31 August, when they went home. There’s no record of the Wick boats going elsewhere, and in October the boats were hauled onto the curing yards for the winter, where they stayed until the following July and the start of the new season.
      Of course, line fishing for white fish (haddock, cod, etc.) continued through the winter.
      It seems just about everyone who profited from the fishing found things tough for the rest of the year: shopkeepers, coopers, gutters and fishermen. According to Iain Sutherland in his book The Fishing Industry of Caithness the authorities used public works to give employment, such as repairing roads, harbour works, etc. This is probably the reason why the fishermen and gutters started following the shoals of herring round the east coast, down to Yorkshire and East Anglia, hence the numerous photos of the fisher lassies in Whitby, etc. The coming of the railways probably helped the women and others move around more too.
      Self-employed fishermen who owned their own boats first appeared in the mid-19th century in Caithness (some curers owned boats and hired fishermen at a fixed fee to man them). Often they saved up the money they made fishing, or else several people took shares in a boat, many of them bought second-hand. After running expenses were deducted, 1/3 went to the shareholders in the boat, 1/3 to the shareholders in the nets, and the remaining 1/3 was divided among the crew.
      A propos of nothing, I’ve read that Wick was developed as a harbour deliberately to find employment for people driven out of their crofts in the Highland Clearances, and as a response to the many hardships and cruelties that followed Bonnie Prince Charlie’s abortive rebellion of 1745. Which is interesting, if true!


  • Nigel

    Fascinating. Both.

  • Sue

    Slightly off topic and I’m not sure whether it’s origins are based in truth or myth but the older Scottish Universities still have ‘Mealie Mondays’ – a long weekend in the middle of the term which was the opportunity for students to go home and come back with a fresh bag of meal (pinmeal oats for traditional porridge) and if the family could afford it a barrel of salt herring.

    The Universities up here take pride in what they see as a more egalitarian heritage than the English ones and Mealie Monday was seen as a way of enabling poorer students to go and study at university. Must have been pretty boring living off porridge and salt herring all term but at least they must have developed strong muscles carrying it back from home!

  • Freyalyn

    What an excellent post and comments.

  • =Tamar

    Fascinating post and comments. It shouldn’t take long to finish that gansey, as long as you do it before you start the on-credit spree.

  • Cathy

    Thanks for the info.
    The history of the herring fishery is obviously extremely complex. From 1810 onwards I suppose there was an increasing demand from the growing industrial cities, which likely led to greater commercialisation.
    Salt herring was an important trade item in the Middle Ages, especially in the Baltic. In 1361 the Denmark and the Hansa towns even went to war over it! But the Baltic fish stocks collapsed in the 15th century and I think it was after that that the North Sea fishery grew in importance.
    Sometime I’ll have to try to find out what was happening between 1600 and 1800. (And what the fishermen were wearing.)


    • Gordon

      Hi again, Cathy,

      Interesting about the Baltic fishing. I know Germany and Russia were the main export market for the Victorian/Edwardian Scottish herring fishing, until the First World War effectively ended the market. It still continued, though, and in World War 2 the Government started a campaign to encourage Brits to enjoy a tasty kipper for breakfast—the Queen even allowed her name to be used in an advertising campaign revealing how she liked hers!


  • Gracie

    Hi Gordon,

    I haven’t read the full post yet, but the gansey is just so stunning I needed to post. It may be one of your best. Everything about it works so well together – the color and the solid patter. Once again, I expect a package any day now. I promise to lose or gain weight to accommodate – no worries there. We have a slight hint of autumn in the night air these days, so its arrival would be timely. In fact, please expedite delivery as I feel an early cold snap coming.


    • Gordon

      Well, Gracie, all you have to do is join the crew of the Reaper and you’ll be in with a fighting chance! (Either that, or stage a cunning heist by disguising yourself as a mannequin in the museum, getting yourself dressed in it as part of an exhibition, and then running like hell…)

      Mind you, if the museum doesn’t want it, I’ll probably auction it on eBay, so watch this space…


  • Gordon

    Thanks all for the positive feedback. It’s an amazing glimpse into a vanished lifestyle, as remote as the Romans or the Ancient Britons. I must admit it’s caught my imagination, and I’m seriously thinking of writing a sequel to “The Cuckoo’s Nest” based up here in the 1890s (you could fit a body in one of those barrels if it was folded up, you know…).

    Meanwhile, there were some more snippets I couldn’t fit into this post that I’ll publish next week.

    By the way, modern retailers seem disappointingly reluctant to enter into the spirit of things and provide me with liquor on the basis I’ll be solvent in a few weeks…


  • Gracie

    You cannot auction your gansey on eBay – are you serious?

    • Gordon

      Well, other than falling foul of the Ganseys (Export) Tariff Regulations, subsection 76, paragraph 5, sure, why not? I have a couple knocking around I don’t need, and I toy with the idea now and then, just out of curiosity. As I’ve said, this one is promised to the Fishing Museum, but it’s a one-sided agreement (in that they don’t know about it yet!) and if they don’t want it, it will be, as they say, surplus to requirements…

      • Gracie


        You are funny, but I should read the full post, and will right now. On eBay you won’t get what you deserve without a reserve. Each of your ganseys represents hard work, talent, extreme skill, love, history, and blessed wool. Maybe “deserve” is the wrong word, since I’m an American now. “Polartec” jackets are $85? here. Ieuw, as my sisters would spell it (we’ve conferred)!


  • =Tamar

    You could auction one here, but the comments section would crash the server.

  • Gracie

    Superb Tamar!

  • Judit M./ Finland

    Hi from Finland,
    Many thanks to All of You for educating me not only in how to knit a gansey but in English, Scottish history and even in bakery. This blog of You Gordon is the very best I have ever read on the net. Thanks again.
    Ps: Do not dream that the Fishing Museum will not accept this superb gansey. I think that even you are so fond of it that you will have it yourself. So, just keep it 🙂 and give them some other, older piece from your huge collection .
    Best regards !

    • Gordon

      Hi Judit,

      Well, thank you, you’re very kind. Though I wouldn’t set too much store on my use of English—my approach to the language is rather like a children’s entertainer contorting balloons to make dogs and giraffes—a great deal of squeaking and ghastly noises as the original is twisted badly out of shape!


  • Judit M./ Finland

    OK Gordon, just imagine, English is Your mothertongue but it is the 5th language for me…

    • Gordon

      Hi again, Judit,

      Your English is excellent, but considering it’s number 5 on the list it’s remarkable! I have a smattering of Latin, basic Welsh, and I can say “Where is my wombat?” in German (“Wo ist mein Wombat?”), but that’s about it, unless you count swearing like Captain Haddock in the Tintin books, which, to be fair, you probably don’t…


  • Judit M./ Finland

    Gordon, Latha math !
    What`s about Gaelic? It has to be fun 🙂
    Slán leat!

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