Herring Fishing in Scotland
by Dr J.R. Coull
Herring are one of the most important fish in the seas around Scotland. Over the centuries the herring fisheries have been exploited by a series of countries on the northwest seaboard of Europe. In the later 19th and early 20th century the Scottish herring fishery expanded and exceeded its European rivals to become the biggest fishery in the world. However, in earlier centuries in Scotland more attention was given to common inshore species. These included haddock and saithe; and also salmon, which were caught at the river mouths as they entered them to spawn.
In Europe, herring fisheries were of limited importance until the technique of curing the oily species with salt in barrels was mastered. From this time they became an important food item for much of Northern Europe. In medieval times the herring fisheries of the Sound (between modern Sweden and Denmark) became a main source of wealth to the Hanseatic League (a group of North German towns). From the 15th to the 17th centuries the open-sea fisheries of the North Sea were dominated by the Dutch. They caught herring in the open sea by drift net, and gutted them before curing in barrels with salt. The Dutch method was to fit out large decked boats or 'busses' with nets, barrels and salt and to cure the herring aboard. They operated mainly near the Scottish coasts, especially off the Shetland Isles.
In Scotland the main early effort was in medieval times when herring were fished inshore in the waters of the Firths of Forth and Clyde. These inshore fisheries were an important source of local food supply, but their scale of production was relatively modest. From the 15th century various efforts were made to develop a fishery more like that of the Dutch. These attempts were only of limited success, as it did not prove possible to match the Dutch technique or organisation. As well as being the acknowledged experts in catching and curing, the Dutch also developed an important system in quality control and they became dominant suppliers for the main market on the North European Plain.
During their summer feeding and spawning migration the main stock of herring came from their wintering grounds near the Norwegian coast, to the coast of Scotland. The wide migratory sweep that took them close by the Shetland and Orkney Islands before they continued along the East Coast of Scotland. This meant that in principle the Scots were better placed than the Dutch to exploit the herring in the northern North Sea. It made it possible for them to catch the fish with smaller and cheaper boats than the Dutch used, although the drift net was still the main method of catching. It was also possible to bring the herring back to shore for curing, which was a big advantage over the inevitable limitations to curing aboard. Although some in Scotland could see the opportunities for a Scottish shore-based fishery, the Dutch had the proven track record. The politicians especially saw the Dutch method as the only one likely to bring success.
There was some growth of the inshore fisheries on the Clyde. However, the main stimulus for expansion in Scotland came in the second half of the 18th century. This was when the government decided to give tonnage bounties for the fitting out of herring busses. As well as encouraging the herring fishery, the government hoped to produce a supply of trained seamen for the navy. A fleet of over 300 herring busses were eventually fitted out to catch herring. However, they worked mainly on the west coast and were not very efficient, with the cost of the bounties often greater that the value of the herring cured.
In 1785 the government introduced barrel bounties. This gave further encouragement to the fishery. It helped to increase actual production as opposed to the fitting out of boats. The barrel bounties were also available for open boats working along the coast. Here the curers who took the herring from the fishermen adopted the practice of making engagements (contracts) with the fishermen before the season started. These guaranteed the fishermen a price for their herring. In a fishery that always had an element of uncertainty this proved very effective, and development at the port of Wick was quite spectacular.
The increasing success of the fisheries led to an important step being taken in 1809 with the setting up of the Fishery Board. Following this, fishery offices were set up at a series of points along the coast and officers were appointed to inspect the cure. The fishery officers made sure that the herring were gutted before being packed in barrels (the work of gutting was done by teams of three women - two to gut and one to pack the herring with salt in the barrels). They inspected the barrels and put the distinctive crown brand on the lids of those barrels which were of good quality. This system of crown branding proved important in selling the herring. The officers also compiled statistics of production. The fishery was taken up at various other ports on the east coast and the output of the open boat fishery was soon far greater than that of the busses. Peterhead and Fraserburgh on the northeast shoulder were to become major rivals to Wick by the 1860s. The main home bases of the fleet, however, were the East Neuk of Fife and the coast of Banffshire. With a marked summer peak in activity, boats from different parts of the coast congregated at the main ports during the season. These became great hives of activity, and accommodation for seasonal migrants was always strained. At this time, the principles of free trade and economic 'laissez-faire' becoming the increasingly accepted orthodoxy. This led to the government decision to phase out all bounties at the end of the 1820s. There were protests regarding the ending of the bounties, but despite these the fishery continued to expand.
While an important breakthrough had been made in the fishery in Scotland, the Scots at first had limited outlets in the main European markets. Most of the cured herring at this time went either to Ireland or the West Indian plantations, where quality was less important. The Fishery Board was concerned to promote improvements in curing practice, and this was achieved through time. Herring catches were sorted, with full herring separated from the spent (i.e. herring which had spawned) and the fish were also graded into sizes. These were packed separately into barrels, which were then accordingly branded. There were marketing difficulties in the 1830s after the freeing of the slaves on the plantations. This was followed by the terrible Potato Famines of the 1840s, which caused the Irish market to decline. However the improvement achieved in the quality of the cure began to pay off. In the second half of the 19th century the Scottish cure came to dominate the market in Europe and was regularly well ahead of rivals like the Norwegians and the Dutch. The European market was expanding with improved access via the big rivers. The development of railway carriage in the second half of the 19th century supplemented this further.
Success in the fishery meant that the fishermen, backed by the curers, invested in bigger boats and more nets. The size of the active fleet also increased. While this helped the fishery expand it was still largely confined to a summer season of about two months from mid-July. This was when the herring were off the coast in quantity. By around 1880 there were at least 7000 boats in Scotland with some interest in the herring fishing. The more go-ahead fishermen and curers were soon looking for opportunities to extend the length of the season. This could most readily be done by sailing to the west coast in the early summer. Here, herring were available in the months of May and June. From the 1840s an expanded section of the east coast fleet participated in this fishery and by the 1870s the fleet involved could exceed 1000 boats. In the 1860s some boats began going south to East Anglia for the big autumn fishery there. Initially there was little involvement of Scottish curers in this fishery, but by the 1880s this could involve over 200 boats. At the end of the century large numbers of Scottish curers began making the seasonal trip to the ports of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. At the turn of the century, the participating Scottish fleet swelled and outnumbered the big native fleet.
Although Shetland had been the main location of the Dutch fishery, for decades these islands were of little importance to the shore-based Scottish fishery. For most of the 19th century the life and economy of the islands was based on the open boat fishery for ling and cod for curing. However, Scottish curers started coming in number to Shetland in the 1880s. They came for the early summer where Shetland provided an alternative to the West Coast. Shetland also had the advantage of a fishery that continued into September. This resulted in a real revolution in Shetland with the local fishermen turning almost completely to the herring. However, the great numbers of visiting boats dwarfed the local fleet. At the peak in the early 20th century the active fleet at Shetland exceeded 1800 boats.
The growth of the fishery led to other developments. As well as the increase in fleet size, boats became bigger and there were improvements in boats and gear. Harbours were also improved. The Fishery Board attempted to promote the adoption of decked vessels as being safer, but the fishermen took much convincing, as the open boats were cheaper. From the 1860s decked boats did come more into use, and at this time most boats had crews of five or six men, were over 40 feet in length and cost around £200 and used trains of up to 40 nets. This compared with the usual size of around 30 feet, a crew of four men, and a cost of around £35 and from 10 to 20 nets at the start of the fishery. Masts and sails also became bigger and it took more effort to raise the masts and to tack. It was the general practice to employ dipping lugsails and for the boats to have no bowsprits: in congested harbours this allowed more boats to be accommodated. By the late 19th century the largest boats were over 60 feet in length, had crews of eight men and cost over £500. Another important development from around 1870 was that boats ventured further out to sea. Where the fishery had been concentrated within 10 to 15 miles of the coast it now extended to up to 50 miles or more.
Throughout the development of the fishery, the value of the nets was regularly above that of the boats. Early nets were hand-made from linen or hemp but from the 1820s factory-made nets came in, which tended to be bigger. The changeover to cotton nets from the 1860s resulted in nets that were lighter and finished better. This allowed the boats to carry more nets and their net trains increased to 70 or 80. This meant that when a boat was lying with its nets 'shot' they extended about two miles from the boat.
In 1884 and 1885 there was a market crisis in the herring industry. The curers were no longer happy with the system of engagements as it did not allow flexibility during the season. They wanted to move to the system where herring was sold by auction. This would allow them to react to developing market conditions during the season. Although the fishermen preferred the security of pre-fixed prices there was a transition to selling by auction from 1887 onwards.
The culmination of the herring fishery was between 1900 and World War I. The steam drifter became the main means of catching herring during this time. The installation of power aboard fishing boats was delayed because of the extra expense, with a steam drifter costing three or four times that of the biggest sail-boats. The actual process of fishing changed little. The main advantage of steam drifters was their ability to power-haul the main rope to which the nets were attached while in the sea. The drifters were also able to make a quicker and more reliable return to port. By the outbreak of World War I the Scottish drifter fleet approached 1000 boats. In the early years of the 20th century the Scottish herring cure could reach over 2 million barrels - several times the maximum ever achieved by the Dutch.
After World War I there was anti-climax and distress in the industry. During the inter-war period the international herring trade was seriously disrupted due to problems in the two main consuming countries of Germany and Russia. Germany had major problems of balance of payments and high inflation. In the new USSR the October Revolution in 1917 was succeeded by Civil War. Combined with these problems, several countries were challenging the great lead that Britain had in the herring trade. The challengers included Norway, Iceland and Germany herself. The result was 20 painful years of contraction and readjustment in Scotland.
After World War II the ageing Scottish fleet was completely renewed with government help. Fishermen turned more and more to seine netting for white fish. The herring fishing continued to decline as the former main cured market on the continent contracted rapidly in the face of rising living standards. From the 1960s, the labour-saving methods of trawling and purse-netting replaced drift-netting in herring catching. This allowed powerhauling to replace manual hauling of drift nets; and the 'klondykers' from the USSR and Eastern Europe became the main outlet. Ironically, the three dozen boats using modern methods now have fully as much catching power as the much larger fleets of earlier times; and although they still catch herring, which are limited by quota, their main fishery is now that for mackerel. With the great conservation difficulties facing the white fish (demersal) fleet, the pelagic (oily fish such as mackerel and herring) sector is now the most popular and secure sector of the fleet.