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Book of Scottish Story
A Night at the Herring Fishing

By Hugh Miller

In the latter end of August 1819, I went out to the fishing then prosecuted on Guilliam in a Cromarty boat. The evening was remarkably pleasant. A low breeze from the west scarcely ruffled the surface of the frith, which was varied in every direction by unequal stripes and patches of a dead calmness. The bay of Cromarty, burnished by the rays of the declining sun until it glowed "like a sheet of molten fire, lay behind, winding in all its beauty beneath purple hills and jutting headlands; while before stretched the wide extent of the Moray Frith, speckled with fleets of boats which had lately left their several ports, and were now all sailing in one direction. The point to which they were bound was the bank of Guilliam, which, seen from betwixt the Sutors, seemed to verge on the faint blue line of the horizon; and the fleets which had already arrived on it had, to the naked eye, the appearance of a little rough-edged cloud resting on the water. As we advanced, this cloud of boats grew larger and darker ; and soon after sunset, when the bank was scarcely a mile distant, it assumed the appearance of a thick leafless wood covering a low brown island.

The tide, before we left the shore, had risen high on the beach, and was now beginning to recede. Aware of this, we lowered sail several hundred yards to the south of the fishing ground ; and after determining the point from whence the course of the current would drift us direct over the bank, we took down the mast, cleared the hinder part of the boat, and began to cast out the nets. Before the Inlaw appeared in the line of the Gaelic Chapel (the landmark by which the southernmost extremity of Guilliam is ascertained), the whole drift was thrown overboard and made fast to the swing. Night came on. The sky assumed a dead and leaden hue. A low dull mist roughened the outline of the distant hills, and in some places blotted them out from the landscape. The faint breeze that had hitherto scarcely been felt now roughened the water, which was of a dark blue colour, approaching to black. The sounds which predominated were in unison with the scene. The almost measured dash of the waves against the sides of the boat and the faint rustle of the breeze were incessant ; while the low dull moan of the surf breaking on the distant beach, and the short sudden cry of an aquatic fowl of the diving species, occasionally mingled with the sweet though rather monotonous notes of a Gaelic song.

"It’s ane o' the Gairloch fishermen," said our skipper; "puir folk, they’re aye singin’ an' thinkin’ o’ the Hielands.”

Our boat, as the tides were not powerful, drifted slowly over the bank. The buoys stretched out from the bows in an unbroken line. There was no sign of fish, and the boatmen, after spreading the sail over the beams, laid themselves down on it. The scene was at the time so new to me, and, though of a somewhat melancholy cast, so pleasing, that I stayed up. A singular appearance attracted my notice. "How," said I to one of the boatmen, who a moment before had made me an offer of his greatcoat, "how do you account for that calm silvery spot on the water, which moves at such a rate in the line of our drift?” He started up. A moment after he called on the others to rise, and then replied, "That moving speck of calm water covers a shoal of herrings. If it advances a hundred yards farther in that direction, we shall have some employment for you." This piece of information made me regard the little patch. which, from the light it caught, and the blackness of the surrounding water, seemed a bright opening in a dark sky, with considerable interest. It moved onward with increased velocity. It came in contact with the line of the drift, and three of the buoys immediately sank. A few minutes were suffered to elapse, and we then commenced hauling. The two strongest of the crew, as is usual, were stationed at the cork, the two others at the ground baulk. My assistance, which I readily tendered, was pronounced unnecessary, so I hung over the gunwale watching the nets as they approached the side of the boat. The three first, from the phosphoric light of the water, appeared as if bursting into flames of a pale green colour. The fourth was still brighter, and glittered through the waves while it was yet several fathoms away, reminding me of an intensely bright sheet of the aurora borealis. As it approached the side, the pale green of the phosphoric matter appeared as if mingled with large flakes of snow. It contained a body of fish.

"A white horse! a white horse!" exclaimed one of the men at the cork baulk; "lend us a hand." I immediately sprang aft, laid hold on the rope, and commenced hauling. In somewhat less than half an hour we had all the nets on board, and rather more than twelve barrels of herrings.

The night had now become so dark, that we could scarcely discern the boats which lay within gunshot of our own; and we had no means of ascertaining the position of the bank except by sounding. The lead was cast, and soon after the nets shot a second time. The skipper’s bottle was next produced, and a dram of whisky sent round in a tin measure containing nearly a gill. We then folded down the sail, which had been rolled up to make way for the herrings, and were soon fast asleep.

Ten years have elapsed since I laid myself down on this couch, and I was not then so accustomed to a rough bed as I am now, when I can look back on my wanderings as a journeyman mason over a considerable part of both the Lowlands and Highlands of Scotland. About midnight I awoke quite chill, and all over sore with the hard beams and sharp rivets of the boat. Well, thought I, this is the tax I pay for my curiosity. I rose and crept softly over the sail to the bows, where I stood, and where, in the singular beauty of the scene, which was of a character as different from that I had lately witnessed as is possible to conceive, I soon lost all sense of every feeling that was not pleasure. The breeze had died into a perfect calm. The heavens were glowing with stars, and the sea, from the smoothness of the surface, appeared a second sky, as bright and starry as the other, but with this difference, that all its stars appeared comets. There seemed no line of division at the horizon, which rendered the allusion more striking. The distant hills appeared a chain of dark thundery clouds sleeping in the heavens. In short, the scene was one of the strangest I ever witnessed; and the thoughts and imaginations which it suggested were of a character as singular. I looked at the boat as it appeared in the dim light of midnight, a dark irregularly-shaped mass ; I gazed on the sky of stars above, and the sky of comets below, and imagined myself in the centre of space, far removed from the earth and every other world—the solitary inhabitant of a planetary fragment. This allusion, too romantic to be lasting, was dissipated by an incident which convinced me that I had not yet left the world. A crew of south shore fishermen, either by accident or design, had shot their nets right across those of another boat, and, in disentangling them, a quarrel ensued. Our boat lay more than half a mile from the scene of contention, but I could hear, without being particularly attentive, that on the one side there were terrible threats of violence, immediate and bloody; and on the other, threats of the still more terrible pains and penalties of the law. In a few minutes, however, the entangled nets were freed, and the roar of altercation gradually sank into a silence as dead as that which had preceded it.

An hour before sunrise, I was somewhat disheartened to find the view on every side bounded by a dense low bank of fog, which hung over the water, while the central firmament remained blue and cloudless. The neighbouring boats appeared through the mist huge misshapen things, manned by giants. We commenced hauling, and found in one of the nets a small rock-cod and a half-starved whiting, which proved the whole of our draught. I was informed by the fishermen, that even when the shoal is thickest on the Guilliam, so close does it keep by the bank, that not a solitary herring is to be caught a gunshot from the edge on either side.

We rowed up to the other boats, few or whom had been more successful in their last haul than ourselves, and none equally so in their first. The mist prevented us from ascertaining, by known landmarks, the position of the bank, which we at length discovered in a manner that displayed much of the peculiar art of the fisherman. The depth of the water, and the nature of the bottom, showed us that it lay to the south. A faint tremulous heave of the sea, which was still calm, was the only remaining vestige of the gale which had blown from the west in the early part; of the night, and this heave, together with the current, which at this stage of the flood runs in a south-western direction, served as our compass. We next premised how far our boat had drifted down the frith with the ebb-tide, and how far she had been carried back again by the flood. We then turned her bows in the line of the current, and in rather less than half an hour were, as the lead informed us, on the eastern extremity of Guilliarn, where we shot our nets for the third time.

Soon after sunrise the mist began to dissipate, and the surface of the water to appear for miles around roughened as if by a smart breeze, though there was not the slightest breath of wind at the time.

"How do you account for that appearance? ” said I to one of the fishermen.

"Ah, lad, that is by no means so favourable a token as the one you asked me to explain last night. I had as lief see the ‘Bhodry-more’ "Why, what does it betoken? and what is the ‘Bhodry-more’!” " It betokens that the shoal have spawned, and will shortly leave the frith ; for when the fish are sick and weighty they never rise to the surface in that way. But have you never heard of the ‘Bhodry-more’?" I replied in the negative. " Well, but you sha1l.” " Nay," said another of the crew, "leave that for our return; do you not see the herrings playing by thousands round our nets, and not one of the buoys sinking in the water? There is not a single fish swimming so low as the upper baulks of our drift. Shall we not shorten the buoy-ropes, and take off the sinkers?” This did not meet the approbation of the others, one of whom took up a stone, and flung it in the middle of the shoal. The fish immediately disappeared from the surface for several fathoms round. "Ah, there they go I " he exclaimed ; "if they go but low enough; four years ago I startled thirty barrels of light fish into my drift just by throwing a stone among them."

The whole frith at this time, so far as the eye could reach, appeared crowded with herrings ; and its surface was so broken by them as to remind one of the pool of a waterfall. They leaped by millions a few inches into the air, and sank with a hollow plumping noise, somewhat resembling the dull rippling sound of a sudden breeze ; while to the eye there was a continual twinkling, which, while it mocked every effort that attempted to examine in detail, showed to the less curious glance like a blue robe sprinkled with silver. But it is not by such comparisons that so singular a scene is to be described so as to be felt. It was one of those which, through the living myriads of creation, testify of the infinite Creator.

About noon we hauled for the third and last time, and found nearly eight barrels of fish. I observed when hauling that the natural heat of the herring is scarcely less than that of quadrupeds or birds; that when alive its sides are shaded by a beautiful crimson colour which it loses when dead; and that when newly brought out of the water, it utters a sharp faint cry somewhat resembling that of a mouse. We had now twenty barrels on board. The easterly har, a sea-breeze so called by fishermen, which in the Moray Frith, during the summer months, and first month of autumn, commonly comes on after ten o’clock A.M., and fails at four o’clock P.M., had now set in. We hoisted our mast and sail, and were soon scudding right before it.

The story of the ‘Bhodry-more’, which I demanded of the skipper as soon as we had trimmed our sail, proved interesting in no common degree, and was, linked with a great many others. The ‘Bhodry-more’ is an active, mischievous fish of the whale species, which has been known to attack and even founder boats. About eight years ago, a very large one passed the town of Cromarty through the middle of the bay, and was seen by many of the townsfolks leaping out of the water in the manner of a salmon, fully to the height of a boat’s mast. It appeared about thirty feet in length. This animal may almost be regarded as the mermaid of modern times : for the fishermen deem it to have fully as much of the demon as of the fish. There have been instances of its pursuing a boat under sail for many miles, and even of its leaping over it from side to side. It appears, however, that its habits and appetites are unlike those of the shark ; and that the annoyance which it gives the fisherman is out of no desire of making him its prey, but from its predilection for amusement. It seldom rneddles with a boat when at anchor, but pursues one under sail, as a kitten would a rolling ball of yarn. The large physalus whale is comparatively a dull, sluggish animal; occasionally, however, it evinces a partiality for the amusements of the ‘Bhodry-more’. Our skipper said, that when on the Caithness coast, a few years before, an enormous fish of the species kept direct in the wake of his boat for more than a mile, frequently rising so near the stern as to be within reach of the boat-hook. He described the expression of its large goggle eyes as at once frightful and amusing ; and so graphic was his narrative that I could almost paint the animal stretching out for more than sixty feet behind the boat, with his black marble-looking skin and cliff-like fins. He at length grew tired of its gambols, and with a sharp fragment of rock struck it between the eyes. It sank with a sudden plunge, and did not rise for ten minutes after, when it appeared a full mile a-stern. This narrative was but the first of I know not how many, of a similar cast, which presented to my imagination the ‘Bhodry-more’ whale and hun-fish in every possible point of view. The latter, a voracious formidable animal of the shark species, frequently makes great havoc among the tackle with which cod and haddock are caught. Like the shark, it throws itself on its back when in the act of seizing its prey. The fishermen frequently see it lying motionless, its white belly glittering through the water, a few fathoms from the boat’s side, employed in stripping off every fish from their hooks as the line is drawn over it. This formidable animal is from six to ten feet in length, and formed like the common shark.

One of the boatmen’s stories, though somewhat in the Munchausen style, I shall take the liberty of relating. Two Cromarty men, many years ago, were employed on a fine calm day in angling for coal-fish and rock-cod, with rods and hand-lines. Their little skiff rode to a large oblong stone, which served for an anchor, nearly opposite a rocky spire termed the chapel, three miles south of Shandwick. Suddenly the stone was raised from the bottom with a jerk, and the boat began to move.

"What can this mean!" exclaimed the elder of the men, pulling in his rod, " we have surely broken loose; but who could have thought that there ran such a current here! " The other, a young daring fellow, John Clark by name, remarked in reply, that the apparent course of the skiff was directly contrary to that of the current. The motion, which was at first gentle, increased to a frightful velocity; the rope a-head was straitened until the very stern cracked; and the sea rose upon either bows into a furrow that nearly overtopped the gunwale.

"Old man,” said the young fellow, " didst thou ever see the like o’ that !"

"Guid save us, boy," said the other; " cut, cut the swing.” " Na, na, bide a wee first, I manna skaith the rape: didst thou ever see the like o’ that ! ”

In a few minutes, according to the story, they were dragged in this manner nearly two miles, when the motion ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and the skiff rode to the swing as before.

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