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McIan's Highlanders At Home
Herring Fishery

Herring Fishery

THIS branch of our national commerce, the source of great wealth, gives employment to many thousands, and affords a cheap and excellent food to millions.

The name of this prolific and useful fish is derived from the German Heer, an army, a term descriptive of the prodigious numbers in which they appear; in Gaelic it is called Sgadan.

The shoal which proceeds from Iceland, occupies an extent of surface equal to that of Great Britain and Ireland. It reaches the shores of these kingdoms about the middle of June, and dividing, one division proceeds southwards by the east coast, as far as Great Yarmouth, while the other passes by the Hebrides and west coast of Scotland, to Ireland and Wales. They are in full roe until the end of June, and are in good condition until the beginning of winter, when they begin to deposit their spawn and disappear from the southern seas, retiring, it is supposed, to their native haunts in the polar ocean.

The Dutch have obtained the credit of being the first to engage in the herring fishing, and they have for centuries enjoyed the best part of it; but there is good reason to believe that the inhabitants of Britain had devoted their attention to it at an earlier period. From Anderson’s "History of Commerce," it appears that traders from the Netherlands resorted to Scotland in 836, for the purchase of salted fish; and in the "Annals of Batavia," it is recorded that the Scots were accustomed to sell their herrings there in the ninth century, a traffic which led to a commercial alliance, which long subsisted, between the two countries. The Dutch, who date their regular fishing from 1163, nevertheless, appear to have acquired a sort of monopoly of the herring fishery, while it became much neglected by the Scots. To revive this trade, King James III., considering it "expedient for the common good of the realm, and great increase of riches," enacted, in 1471, that certain lords, spiritual and temporal, and burghs, should make or procure "ships, busses, and other pink boats, with nets, etc., for fishing." This was confirmed by James IV., when the burghs were ordered to provide ships and boats of not less than twenty tons, with nets and all other necessaries, according to the substance of each burgh. Subsequently the attempt was made to establish towns in the Highlands for the promotion of fishing, which after many years’ perseverance by the " Undertakers," or barons and gentlemen, empowered for the purpose, in the island of Lewes, was ultimately frustrated by the opposition of the Highlanders.

It has been remarked by the author of "Caledonia," that no encouragement has induced the Celtic race, in Ireland, Wales, or Scotland, to enter with spirit into the fisheries, for which their coasts are so favourable; the herring is, however, so desultory in its habits, that the Highlanders may be unjustly blamed, for sometimes a loch, or tract of coast, will be entirely deserted for years ; neither does it appear that in other portions of the empire have even bounties and privileges produced greater enterprise. The herring fishery has been regulated by many Acts of the Legislature; but the first bounty on the exportation of herrings was granted by the Scottish parliament, in 1705.

The Highland Society of Scotland, with characteristic patriotism, charged itself with the duty of framing a bill for the revival of this important branch of employment, which was passed in 1808, and by the encouragement given by subsequent regulations, and the services of the Board for Fisheries, etc., it has since been prosecuted with spirit.

The art of curing herrings is supposed to have been discovered by William Beukelings, a Dutchman, who died in 1397; but there is reason to believe that he was only an improver on the art, for from 1306 to 1360, the herring fair and fishery of Yarmouth formed a great branch of its trade; and, in 1313, a ship of Lynn, a neighbouring town, was captured, which had been fishing for herrings on the Norwegian coast.

The herrings of the west coast are not so plentiful, but are much superior to those of the east ; and, as the season commences, the Highlanders pass round in great numbers, when the town of Wick, in Caithness, the most noted place of resort, presents a highly animated appearance. When multitudes of boats from both north and south are collected, the scene is singular and pleasing. In the northern latitudes, a dim twilight continues during the mid-summer nights, and the boats are often within hail of each other.

The stillness is broken by the occasional mirth of the crews, or the plaintive lorrams, or boat songs of the West Highlanders, whose thoughts are of their distant home and the relatives and friends they have there left.

When the boats arrive with their cargoes, which are reckoned by crans, or barrelfuls, the fish to be cured have the entrails taken out by a particular nip, leaving the melt and roe ; but they are not opened, as several of the most esteemed Encyclopedias describe; they are then put into a strong brine, where they are allowed to remain from twelve to sixteen hours, and when taken out are well drained, and packed closely on their backs, in a circular form, the cooper finishing the process by putting in the heads of the barrels very tightly. This is called the White pickle. Red herrings must be kept in the salt water twenty-four hours, they are then strung by the head on wooden spits, and placed, to the number of many thousands, in chimneys, where brushwood, or turf, is kindled on the floor, and managed so as to give a great deal of smoke without flame, from which is derived their peculiar flavour and colour. They are generally dry in about twenty-four hours, when they are put into barrels for keeping. These barrels will hold from 500 to 800 fish.

The sketch was taken on the side of Loch nan Uagh, in Arisaig, and the male figure is that of a man not more experienced as a fisher than notorious as a smuggler; and it is said that in barrels, such as represented, he has at times contrived to convey without detection, a keg of good poit du’, or whiskey, concealed among the fish. A curious circumstance had occurred at the time the artist made his drawing. The fishermen, having one night caught a young whale, the old one making its appearance, attacked the boats furiously, and continued in the loch for some days, so that without harpoons or other weapons they could not venture on an attack. The group represents an idle peasantry, in their usual costume, having at the time no avocation to withdraw them from ‘a friendly crack’ about the country news.

It is matter of just complaint that the Dutch should be allowed to fish so near the coasts, and drive a lucrative trade on our very shores; it indicates a laxity in the enforcement of the international laws, which regulate the mutual rights of different countries.

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