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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

Working Conditions

60. Working on a Herring Boat, 1848

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1Fishing, and particularly herring fishing, was an important economic activity in Scotland, contributing to the food supply of the country. In the early nineteenth century two essential factors stimulated the activity: the British government started subsidizing the herring industry and the coming of the railways enabled fishermen to deliver their catches more rapidly. In this account of 1848 Charles St John describes the living conditions of herring fishermen.

2Charles St John, Tour in Sutherlandshire with Extracts from the Field-Books of a Sportsman and Naturalist, vol. 1, London: Murray, 1849, p. 248-251.

On the 12th of July the Nairn herring-boats are all launched to reap their uncertain harvest of herrings. Of late years the supply does not seem to be nearly so regular or so much to be depended on as formerly; and frequently the men are but badly repaid for all their expense and risk. The cost of a herring-boat here, complete with its rigging, nets, & c., is not much less than ninety pounds; and the wear and tear of the nets is very great, owing to bad weather and other causes: the hull alone of the boat costs about twenty-seven pounds. There are five men in each boat; and Nairn alone sends out about sixty boats, so that from that small place not less than three hundred able-bodied men are for six or seven weeks employed in the pursuit of this small but valuable fish. The herrings are generally bought up beforehand by the fish-curers at Helmsdale, on the Sutherland coast, and at other parts, who contract to take the whole proceeds of the season’s fishing at a fixed price; so that notwithstanding the immense number caught, the supply of fresh herrings through the country is but scanty. The fish are, with as little delay as possible, packed in casks with brine, and in this state are exported to all parts of the kingdom. The barrels are made principally of birch. Fir will not answer the purpose, as it gives a taste of turpentine to the whole contents of the barrel. I have been out in a herring-boat during the fishing; and a very beautiful sight it is to see the nets hauled in with thousands of herrings, looking in the moonlight like so many pieces of the brightest silver flashing in the calm water. When not employed with the nets, the men generally fish with hooks for cod, halibut, & c.; all fish caught in this manner being the perquisite of the man who catches them; and frequently they make a good profit by this, as the cod collect in vast numbers about the herring fishing-grounds, and are caught as quickly as the hooks can be dropped into the water. Sometimes the cod, their great indistinctly seen forms looking like the pale ghosts of fish, come close to the surface round the boats, and seize the bait as soon as it touches the water. Hauling these heavy gentry up from the depth of several fathoms is very severe work for the hands.

The herrings seem the most persecuted of all the races of living creatures. From the moment when the great shoals of them appear in the north and north-west they are pursued by thousands and tens of thousands of birds and countless numbers of fishes; and wherever the herring shoals are, there are these devourers. From the aristocratic salmon to the ignoble and ferocious dogfish, all follow up and prey upon the shoals; whilst their feathered foes mark out their track by the constant screaming and plunging into the water which they keep up during their pursuit. The Solan geese from midair dash with unerring aim on the bright and silvery fish; whilst the cormorants and other diving sea-fowl pursue the dense crowd with indefatigable eagerness. In addition to all this, sea-gulls of every kind, like the skirmishers of an army, keep up a constant pursuit of all stragglers or wounded fish which come near enough to the surface to be caught by these birds, who have neither the power of the Solan goose, to pounce hawk-like on their prey (even when at some depth from the surface), nor the diving power of the cormorant or guillemot, who can pursue them deep down into the water. Altogether, a shoal of herring with its numerous accompaniments is a most amusing and interesting sight, independent of the consideration of the great importance of this fish to mankind, the number of people to whom it serves as food, and the number who are employed in its pursuit.

Besides the natives of the fishing villages, a considerable number of Highlanders from the western part of the country come down to earn a few pounds during the herring season; it is almost the only cash these poor fellows get hold of in the course of the year. Most of the boats belong to two or three proprietors each, who having in the course of many years laid by a few pounds, expend them in the purchase of a herring-boat. These men hire the services of four or five hands for the season, the duration of which is about six weeks, and give them a certain sum, according to agreement, generally about four to six pounds per man. Unluckily, many of the families of the herring-fishers derive but little benefit from the wages earned, as too frequently the men spend all the money, or nearly all, in drinking and rioting as soon as the fishing is over, and instead of providing for their wives and children, are too apt to lounge about the whisky-shops as long as a farthing remains, never attending to the haddock or other fishing till driven again to exertion by sheer necessity. This, however, does not apply to the whole race of herring-fishers. Those men who come to the fishing on the east coasts from the Highlands generally take their money carefully home, depending on it for buying clothes, paying rent, procuring seed-potatoes, and for any purpose where ready money is required.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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