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Lewsiana
The Sea


"BLUBBER and oil! they smell terribly!” remarked a sensitive Briton to a local heiress in Hammerfest. “Ah! yes; but the smells is very good for the monies,” was the practical reply. So in the Lews—the fish occasionally smell terribly, but are “very good for the monies.” Without them, we much question whether this large population would not subside into the peat bog, on the edge of which they sit and bob for the gadidae. At the same time the bulk of the fishermen are only amateurs, seeing they cannot go to sea in their open boats during a great portion of the year. The severity of the weather thus prevents the skill that constant employment would secure. Perhaps the short days of the long winter, by putting a stop almost entirely to all outdoor labour, greatly tend to foster lazy habits, while the climate seems to exercise a drowsy influence alike on natives and strangers. Those ports to which nature has been least attentive in giving facilities seem to have stirred up the inhabitants to overcome the difficulties of their position, unless we must allow their greater energy to arise more from the difference of race. Thus Ness, the most successful and enterprising district, is peopled by a fine, tall, powerful race of Norwegian origin, while most of the others are inhabited by Celts with a very slight intermixture of northern blood, not sufficient to startle the dreamy Gael into resolute continuous action.

The average season’s fishing per boat, about the Butt, is 3,000 ling—many boats reaching 4,000 to 5,000. To these may be added large quantities of cod, and the commoner fishes known to English commerce as “offal.” From the Butt down to the West Coast as far as Carloway, the boats in use are such as may be drawn nightly upon the beach, with six men each as a crew.

At Carlo way, Uige, and Bernera, where there are secure harbours, the boats are larger, carry a crew of eight men, and are capable of riding through a stiff gale. Such boats full of ballast are too heavy to row, while, being undecked, they have not the advantage of giving the men confidence: indeed, although capital sea boats, they are either too large or too small. The cod and ling fishery commences in November, and continues until July, when the bulk of the fishermen proceed to the east of Scotland herring fishery for two months. Through a foolish rivalry on the part of the curers, the herring fishery in the Minch commences practically in April, although the fish are not fit for curing at that early season, and the only result is the glutting of the markets with a most inferior article that will not keep, and so destroying the character of Lews herring among consumers. It continues more or less until the boats leave for the Wick fishing. Of late the unprecedentedly large takes at Barra withdrew a great many boats from Stornoway, but the last two seasons have been comparative failures there.

Herring may generally be taken in small quantities in the various sea lochs of the Hebrides during the winter: they are then employed as bait for the white fishing. In Stornoway Bay they are used for the hake and haddock fishing, in which an immense quantity of mussels, carted from the west, are also used.

These are important branches of industry in Stornoway. Hakes are cured extensively for the southern markets. Haddocks are numerous, excellent, and of large size, frequently 8 lb. to 10 lb. weight. Latterly they have been salted for export, as they cannot compete with those from the East of Scotland as smoked Findons, from the time required in transit. In the west the haddocks are in request as bait for cod and ling, as are also the conger eels. The skins of the latter being so tough, they are exceedingly difficult to withdraw from the hooks without the robber impaling itself. The most constant supply of bait for the deep-sea white fishery, however, is derived from the halibut and plaice, as they are always to be had if any fish are going. Turbots are not numerous as a rule, although halibuts go by this name among the fishermen, which is apt to confuse a stranger and give him false impressions. The turbot is known as the “quern-shaped flounder,” from its circular shape. Skates of many species are numerous and of large size; five feet across the wings is not uncommon, and fifty to a hundred of ordinary dimensions frequently come ashore in one boat. Goal-fish are numerous in some parts, and are cured in the same manner as hake. A market is found for them among the poorer classes in Ireland.

The position of these Hebridean fisheries is as unsatisfactory as can well be imagined, and evidences the utter want of enterprise and self reliance of the bulk of the inhabitants. Nearly all the boats in the cod and ling, haddock, lobster, and herring fisheries have hitherto belonged exclusively to the curers, although lately the men seem to have bestirred themselves to secure the possession of a few. For the use of the boat the men pay one share, each of the crew having one also. They are also bound to deliver to the curer who owns it all cod and ling captured, at a stated price, varying from 8d. to 1s. for each ling, and 4d. to 6d. for each cod. Any other fish caught, after sufficient have been laid aside for bait, are divided amongst the crew for the use of their families, one cod per man being allowed them for the same purpose. Formerly the price included everything, and the fish was delivered whole; but the men so often brought the fish without the livers, that the curers agreed to give them the livers and reduce the price. Gradually, however, the men sought both the extra price and the livers, and they came to be theirs by use and wont, the men agreeing to gut and behead the fish before delivering them to the curer’s agent. The agent has thus only to remove the backbone and throw them into the pickling-tub. The heads the men divide among themselves, while the garbage is removed by the women to the land as manure. Cods are seldom handed to the curers unless when taken in quantity, the price given being so much less than for ling. The curer supplying thus the boat and the gear, the men are supposed to supply their own long-lines, costing each from 30s. to £2. But in general these have also to be supplied on credit. Besides, many months have to be got over, during which there is little or no fishing, when the men have to be supplied on credit with meal for themselves and families. For all such credit accounts they are not only charged exorbitantly, but interest is added as well, while the value of the season’s take is not supposed to be due until the end of the fishing.

In the meantime, as the value of the several shares is never very great, the chance is that the drawings of the men,—acting as they naturally do with the recklessness of speculators, superadded to the recklessness of those who can have no idea of how they stand,—will be over, rather than under, what they ought to receive. Now the system of the curers is to endeavour to keep them in debt, so that they may be obliged to fish for them the following year, and yet not to allow them so much credit as to be irretrievably involved. The effect of this is exceedingly curious to an onlooker in one of the wholesale stores kept by the several curers. There, the best salesman is that man who can sell the least, and not the most, to the men; who, when a fisherman demands a few yards of cloth, can send him away believing that one yard will suffice, or persuades him that his old oilskins will keep out the storm for another season. Notwithstanding all this, the curers have got the most of the men irretrievably in debt, and it is not unusual for a crew of eight men to have a standing debt of £100, or more, in the curer’s books. As the curers have no mutual confidence, but pursue a cut-throat policy of mutual antagonism, the men find themselves so much in request that they make no effort to extricate themselves from their financial difficulties, and when more credit is refused by one curer, threaten to bind themselves to another for the next season. Or let one crew be broken up, and each member considers himself free, despite his debts, to fish for any other who may engage him.

In this way the credit system, springing at first from the poverty of the population, and aggravated by the mistaken policy of the curers, has rendered the financial condition of the Hebridean fisheries most unsatisfactory alike to fishermen and curers, and prejudicial to the moral and social advancement of the people. The debts owing by the fishermen are purely fictitious, probably not 40 per cent, being bond fide value received, and not 20 per cent, ever likely to be realised. The men, knowing they are greatly overcharged, retaliate by saying, “But we don’t intend to pay;” and in place of glorying in the commercial success of those who have undoubtedly built up an important industry among them, they hope for nothing better than their failure, that all standing debts may be thus written off. Many who have saved a little money, put it in the bank, in place of paying off the debts running on at a high interest; and it is not uncommon for a crew, on receiving the balance remaining after a successful years fishing, to march off with it to the bank. This done, they immediately return and open a fresh account, utterly neglectful of the fact that for every shilling they may receive in interest from the bank, they are charged ten for the credit given. The most direct evidence of the want of enterprise or self-reliance is the rarity of any fisherman or crew—out of Ness— owning their boats. Rather than risk a few pounds in such an enterprise they would keep savings shut up for years, and allow the curer to receive the high rate of interest for money invested that one share for the boat generally brings. This, again, may arise from the fact that the Lews boat-builders are the curers themselves, and they put such a high price upon the boats supplied that the men are unwilling to purchase at the rate charged. There can be no question that, if the boats were owned by the men or their skippers, they would last far longer, as well as prove an additional impetus to work. At present time is of no value—a good day for fishing is allowed to pass by because it is in the middle or end of the week, and to-morrow may be stormy. Or they have no bait for the long lines, or none for the small lines with which to procure it. In one port the only bait they had was limpets; but these had been completely stripped off the rocks by the constant necessities of old and young, and it was a hard day’s work for a crew to procure sufficient to bait a set of lines. At a few miles distant mussels could be readily procured by the payment of 3d. per barrel as blackmail to the proprietor, and yet they could not muster sufficient enterprise to run up in their boats for a supply that would have saved them many a day’s rambling over the rocks when they might have been at sea. Every other man has an explanation of and a panacea for this evil spirit of laziness. Some blame the potatoes, which have been the curse of Ireland—some blame the want of security of tenure of their lots, which they have no interest in improving. If fishermen are to have lots, let them have security of tenure, so that they may spend their odd time and extra money in improving them, to their own advantage and that of the proprietor. For our own part, we are not satisfied that a thorough fisherman need have a lot at all —indeed, we believe that if the fisheries of the Hebrides were energetically prosecuted the men would be far better off without land to draw away their attention from an industry far more lucrative, when properly undertaken, than any petty cultivation. This does not apply, however, to the present state of this industry, when the men cannot possibly support their families without lots. [The lots, too, ought distinctly to be leased to the cotters that they may be encouraged to improve them. We are told that at one time the cotters were offered leases with only fifty-four rules attached, the transgression of one cancelling the right of the lessee. One old man, at Ness, laughed heartily at the document; sagely remarking that he could not keep ten commandments for a mansion in the sky, much less fifty-four for a black house in the Lews. We much fear, however, that a lease in any case would be practically valueless.]

The northern fisheries are sufficiently extensive as well as sufficiently various to keep able men at work the whole year through, in place of a few months only, thus increasing their skill and value even for the fisheries already afoot. Why should English boats be fishing on the Hebridean banks when not a boat is afloat from the Hebrides? With suitable boats and the new facilities for forwarding supplies to the great towns, the cry of “nothing to do” would soon be succeeded by “not sufficient men to do it,” as in the South to-day. But, for this, capital must be invested in more suitable vessels, and the men trained to work them, as they are unfit to do so now. This requires time.

The skippers of the Lews boats have not the absolute control thereof, but more the position of chairmen, excepting in the management of the boat at sea, when it is essential to obey the orders of one head. Their only extra perquisites consist of the boat’s share of “offal” added to their own, and a stone of wool at the end of the fishing. Each individual member of the crew agrees personally with the curer, and has as much say in the agreement as the nominal man in charge. And what a scene is this same signing of the agreement! In comes a crew, who sit round the room in all sorts of attitudes, from the stern, immovable, unreadable face of the hardy old fisherman, above the hard, immovable figure, to the merry-eyed, restless, half-smiling boy in his first or second season. But all have a keen, bargain-making look, as if they knew the full value of their labour, and valued the dolce far niente far too much to sell work under its full value.

Now comes the distant cannonading, the skirmishing, the advancing musketry, as the curer tells his tale and states his terms. They must know everything, you must enter minutely and confidentially into the state of the markets, the low war prices and the high prices of everything you have to expend. They question you keenly and minutely, discuss the probable terms of opposing curers, and, whatever they may intend to do, take care that you understand they are not going a-begging, but are independent merchants bringing their labour to the best market. Every one has objections which he states volubly, and every one of which, in different mouths, has to be answered separately time after time. They rarely agree the first time of asking, as it would look too easy a victory, and the fact that they may be head over ears in debt to the man before them abates not a jot their self-sufficiency. So they retire to reconsider the question, and have a palaver among themselves. Then they return and restate the various objections, which a mutual confabulation has shown to be most important.

These being answered, the agreement is written out, and then comes the tug of war. Who is to sign first? Not the skipper; it would look as if he had a private object in influencing the crew in favour of this particular curer. No; he won’t! Now, Thoramutch (Norman), says the curer, with a persuasive smile, like the historical spider to the fly. Thoramutch shakes his head and laughs. Ian ! come, now ; you’ll sign. But Black John vouchsafes not a sign of recognition, nor appears to have heard a sound. Murochy and Georish are alike appealed to in vain. An Englishman would have broken his heart, or two or three heads, by this time; but a Scotch curer lays down his pen with a laugh and a joke. “Why won’t they sign?” asks an observant stranger. Who knows? they have no reason; perhaps they wish some more talk just for amusement; perhaps they desire to worry the curer a bit. They don’t expect to get any further advantage, but they don’t like to be bound, and have not the moral courage to be first to bind themselves to what afterwards may not prove satisfactory.

At length a most heartrending appeal to some particular friend among the crew, as the curer pushes the pen towards him, induces him to touch the handle, with a look as if it were red-hot iron, and the curer then takes down his name; two or three more follow, and the matter seems settled. Is it? Ian Dhub sits with the same imperturbable face, as if deaf and dumb, and the most feeling appeals won't even elicit a wink. The pen is again laid down, and after an amount of active and passive resistance, sufficient almost to have stayed the advance of a German army, the list of names is complete, and the last hand, which has hitherto lain in the owner’s pocket for fear of being surreptitiously secured, has been induced to touch with the point of its finger the deadly weapon that binds him to fish in No. 10,000 for the season to come. The men rarely sign themselves, although often able to write; touching the pen is considered quite as binding.


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