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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 23


THE HAAF-FISHING

THE Feideland haaf (i.e., deep-sea fishing-ground), is thirty or forty miles from land. Each six-oared boat carries from 4000 to 6000 fathoms of line, provided with one thousand or twelve hundred hooks, which are baited by such small fish as can be obtained, as piltocks, haddocks, herring, <fcc. The water in which the lines are set varies in depth, from 50 to 100 fathoms. They are sunk, and kept in their proper places along the bottom, by means of cappie stones, arranged at certain intervals, while their, position is marked on the surface by three buoys. The setting of the line occupies, in moderate weather, three or four hours. This accomplished, the men rest for about two hours, and then begin to haul them. This important process occupies the whole crew. One man pulls in the line; another takes the fish off the hook, and places them in the afterroom of the boat; a third guts them, and lays the heads and livers in the middle-room, the offal being thrown overboard; while the other three keep the boat still by means of the oars. Ling is the fish chiefly caught; but along with these some tusk and a few cod. From six to ten ling weigh a hundred weight. From twelve to fifteen hundred weights of fish are reckoned a fair haul; from twenty to twenty-five an excellent one. From thirty-five to forty hundred weights or weighs, as the men term .them, are seldom taken, and when they are, the heads and even the small fish are thrown overboard to make room for them. Should the weather become severe, considerable danger is involved in carrying such a large cargo to land. The largest quantity of fish known to have been brought on shore from the haaf at one time, was seventy-two weighs, or three tons twelve hundred weight, taken by a North Yell boat in the summer of 1870. Between two hundred and three hundred weighs of wet fish is reckoned a good catch, for a six-oared boat during the haaf-fishmg season, which, as already mentioned, extends from about the middle of May to the middle of August. The North Yell boat just mentioned, caught in 1870 five hundred weighs, or twenty-five tons. Ling is sold to the curers at about 7s. 6d. per hundred weight, or £7, 10s. per ton. Thus, a boat catching two hundred and sixty hundred weight in a season, would earn £97, or £16 to each of its six men, certainly no great reward for the toils, exposure, and danger they endure.

In addition to the marketable fish just mentioned, skate, halibut, and even the stone biter (Anarchicus lupus), are often caught. They are retained by the fishermen for their own domestic use. The hooks also frequently bring up from the bottom of the sea pieces of sponge, coral, and various other interesting specimens of natural history. For a long period, the only food the men carried, for their sustenance at the haaf, was some oat cake and blaand. Now, however, they frequently carry large open kettles, in which they light peat fires. These conduce greatly to their comfort, enabling the men not only to warm themselves, from time to time, but to make coffee, and cook some pork or fish. The pangs of hunger are often warded off by chewing tobacco. It is difficult to understand how men, undergoing such arduous labour and severe exposure, could subsist on mere blaand and oatmeal.

The means of propelling the boats have also improved since the olden times. Until within the last thirty or forty years, they never carried canvas, unless they could easily lie their course. Whenever the wind was contrary the oars were used. Now, however, when the wind is unfavourable, the men set their large square sails and tack up against it, only using one or two oars to assist the steersman and make the boat lie nearer the wind. The oars alone are never had recourse to, unless in calm weather, or when the contrary wind is so strong as to render it dangerous to carry sail. The class of boats used at the haaf has, within the last few years, gradually been getting larger. Instead of the old yawl of eighteen or nineteen and a half feet, many of the craft at the present day measure twenty-two feet of keel, with their dimensions in height and breadth proportionately increased.

Accidents are very common at the deep-sea fishing : many a boat has perished. This fatal occurrence generally takes place in one of three ways—either the craft is upset in a squall, or it is filled by a heavy sea; or, a gale of contrary wind setting in, the men become exhausted in their efforts to reach the land. It is most painful to witness the distress of the fishermen's wives and families when a gale has overtaken the boats at sea. Several times boats have been picked up, and the exhausted crews rescued, by ships, far from the , land. In 1832, herring boats from Shetland were driven to Norway, where the men were hospitably entertained by the natives all winter, and sent home in spring. That same season, seventeen fishing boats from Shetland perished in a storm. About £3000 was raised, chiefly in Shetland and London, for the relief of the widows and orphans. On all similar occasions the generous British public has been ready to help the sufferers. It is only just to mention that the fearful disaster of 1832 would have been worse still, but for the philanthropic exertions of three or four Dutch busses, which succeeded in rescuing seven or eight boats’ crews just about to perish from exhaustion.

Much waste takes place at these fishing-stations. The offal and large vertebral bones of the fish, which would make such excellent manure, are almost invariably thrown away, the former at sea, and the latter after they are landed. The sounds, from which that valuable substance, isinglass, could be easily prepared, either share the same fate, or are salted for winter food to the natives.

All along the promontory of Feideland, a fine view is obtained of the beetling cliffs of Yell opposite, and of the great wide ocean all round. Nearly two miles beyond its point, those great gaunt rocks called the Bamna Stacks, with their summits of green grass, suddenly rise out of the sea, as if to terrify the mariner. Fierce conflicting currents run round these rocks, and between them and the land. Both experience and skill are therefore required by the fishermen in "taking” the little harbour of Feideland, particularly when the weather is coarse.


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