A History of the Herring - with a Focus on the Future

August 2022 sees the launch of a new website from the West of Scotland Herring Hunt (WOSHH) team.  The website is the first dedicated to Scottish herring and is a place to share knowledge. It has turned our thoughts to the importance of the ‘silver darlings’ in the culture, economy and ecology of Gairloch and the surrounding area. 

For hundreds of years, herring was the most important fish caught by fishermen in the waters around Gairloch.  The remoteness of the area hindered the development of commercial fisheries somewhat.  But, for centuries, herring accompanied potatoes as part of the staple, subsistence diet of the local population. Towards the end of the 18th century, fishing became more important as a way of bringing in income.  Some local families had their own boats and combined fish with crofting.  Gairloch men also worked on herring fishing boats from the east coast.  Boats from Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Wick travelled west to fish in the Minch in the early part of the summer. 

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Boats in Gairloch bay

By the 1790s, there had been considerable development of the fishing industry in Gairloch parish and the neighbouring parish of Lochbroom.  The village of Ullapool had been founded in 1786 by the British Fisheries Society and, by 1790, 72 houses had been constructed there for fishery workers.   Even before that time, private fishing ventures were springing up along the coast of Wester Ross.  Curing stations for the herring were established in the 1770s on Tanera Mòr and on Isle Martin by merchants from Stornoway, Liverpool and London.   On Loch Torridon, two local landowners had erected a very substantial curing-house with a wharf and storehouses.  Hundreds of boats were fishing for herring with crews from all over Scotland and Ireland, with their economic impact described as important at national level.   

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Crofter fisherman return from a fishing trip to unload herring at Leacnasaide on Loch Gairloch

The main herring season in Wester Ross lasted from October to March and the fish were measured in crans, with one cran being 37.5 gallons in volume - roughly 1000 fish. Herring fishing took place at night and it was reported that the best fishermen could identify where there were herring to be found by hearing the sound of a shoal moving through the water. In late summer and in the autumn the fishermen looked for the herring when phosphorescence (losgadh in Gaelic) lit the sea.

A fishing village was established in 1815 at Port Henderson on Loch Gairloch by Sir Hector Mackenzie of Gairloch.  It was named after his wife, Miss Christian Henderson. There was no real harbour and fishing for herring took place relatively close to the shore with a small line.  By 1836, the parish minister reported that the Gairloch herring was being taken from further out in nets.  Small boats could be beached at Port Henderson, but larger boats moored at Badachro where there was a landing stage.  The fishing village had only twenty profitable years before it became unproductive.

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Barrels of herring were in demand

As herring is an oily fish, it has to be salt-cured in watertight barrels. Herring was cured both at shore stations and on board boats.  In 1911 it was recorded that there were three fish-curers in Badachro. Often the curers came from north-east Scotland.  They employed a full-time cooper making barrels throughout the year and laid in hundreds of bushels of salt before the fishing started.  The Dry Island curing station remained operational until just after the end of the First World War.  Women were also engaged in the herring trade.  They were employed to gut the herring before curing.  School log books report that, at busy times, older schoolgirls were kept away from school in order to help.  In this recording, Mary Maclean tells how, as a young woman, she helped out with gutting the herring in Aultbea.

Gairloch Gaelic Herring Glossary

fish - iasg

herring - sgadàn

herring fry - sìol mòr

shoal of herring- sgaoth sgadàn

Gairloch herring - sgadàn Loch Gheàrrloch

herring net - lìon sgadànaich

fishermen - iasgairean

fish-curers - luchd-grèidhidh

gutters - luchd-cutaidh

packers - luchd-saillidh

coopers - na cùbairean

fishbox - bocas-èisg

The herring catch varied greatly from one year to the next and a poor year could mean great poverty. In the 1950s and 1960s, tens of thousands of crans were still being landed by fishing boats each year at the harbour in Loch Gairloch.  Fishing technology had developed considerably in the late 1940s and 50s.  Small open boats were replaced by purpose-built boats and new methods of fishing were introduced. Gill nets were abandoned and ring nets and trawling were adopted. 

Ring-net boats fished from Gairloch and Badachro with local crews plying the waters of the Minch and beyond. Gairloch pier was a popular landing point and would have been a hive of activity with boats, people, lorries, fish boxes, gulls and herring everywhere. The night’s hard work was only over when all the catch had been scooped into baskets, winched onto the pier and emptied into boxes before departing on the 10-ton trucks for markets in the south.

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Model of Ring-Net MFV 'Janet Mary' (UL 107) made by Graeme Forbes.

Herring stocks were drastically depleted once boats, diverted from the North Sea, arrived on the west coast during the 1970s.  A ban on the herring fishery ensued, bringing to an end herring fishing in Wester Ross.  West coast herring stocks today still do not support commercial fishing. 

However, there is reason to be optimistic about a return of the herring to the west coast.  February to March is the time when shoals of spring-spawning herring return to the shallow coastal waters around Wester Ross to deposit their eggs on the seabed and, since 2018, large shoals of spawning herring have been observed along the coastline.

Since 2022, Gairloch Museum has been collaborating with the Wester Ross Fisheries Trust and the Edinburgh Napier University-led West of Scotland Herring Hunt (WOSHH) to raise awareness of the importance of herring spawning habitat. The project collaborates with Scottish west coast communities, organizations and individuals between the Clyde and Cape Wrath, including the Hebrides, to identify and conserve herring spawning habitat.  This can potentially give the ‘silver darlings’ populations on the west coast a chance to reproduce and thrive again.