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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part II.—Inhabitants of Gairloch

Chapter IX.—Fisheries

THE majority of the men of Gairloch are fishermen. The two sea-lochs of the parish, viz., the Gairloch and Loch Ewe, teem with the fitiny tribe, which are largely taken by the people, and are either exported or afford an important and healthful article of diet. The most considerable fishery of Gairloch is the cod, say the, and ling fishery, which will be described further on. Besides the large number of cod, say the, and ling taken during the regular annual fisherj7, under the auspices of the firms who have their depots at Badachro, a moderate quantity of these fish is taken in Gairloch and Loch Ewe by other inhabitants. Good takes of haddock are frequently obtained, but there is no organized haddock fishery. Whiting, flounders, and sea-bream are also taken in Gairloch waters. Haddock, whiting, flounders, &c, are captured by means of long lines as well as hand lines. The haddock are particularly good. I have known whiting taken up to two and a half pounds weight. Hand-line fishing is treated of in Part IV., chap. xiv.

Herrings are taken in Gairloch and Loch Ewe; in some years considerable numbers are cured at and exported^ from Badachro. Ordinary herring-nets are employed.

Many of the able-bodied men of Gairloch take part in the herring fisheries of the Long Island and of the east coast, of Scotland. Some have boats of their own; these are the joint property of several fishermen, who divide the annual profits among them. Others hire themselves out to assist east coast fishermen. The Long Island fishing usually occupies the fishermen from 12th May to 20th June, and the east coast fishing keeps them from home between the end of June and the beginning of September. The produce of the fishings is uncertain, and varies greatly from year to year. I understand that the Gairloch men who go to the east coast herring fishings bring home on an average £18 to £20 each; the amount is affected not only by the success or non-success of the fishery, but by losses of nets and even of boats.

Lobsters and crabs are exported from Gairloch ; but this fishery is not so successful as formerly, owing to the decline in the number of lobsters. It is prosecuted at several of the villages on the coasts of Gairloch and Loch Ewe, and the produce is sent in boxes to the English markets.

Oysters were formerly tolerably abundant on the scalps about the heads of Gairloch and Loch Ewe, and up to 1875 were exported. At that time a London firm leased some oyster-beds, which have however ceased to be remunerative.

The cod fishery of Gairloch may almost be said to be historical. We can at least find some account of it as far back as a century and a half ago.

The historian of the Mackenzies records, that the tenants of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, ninth laird of Gairloch (who ruled Gairloch from his coming of age in 1721 to his death in 1766), " were bound to deliver to him at current prices all the cod and ling caught by them, and in some cases were bound to keep one or more boats, with a sufficient number of men as sub-tenants, for the prosecution of the cod and ling fishings. He kept his own curer, cured the fish, and sold it at 12s. 6d. per cwt., delivered in June at Gairloch with credit until the following Martinmas, to a Mr Dunbar, merchant, with whom he made a contract, binding himself for several years to deliver at the price named all the cod caught in Gairloch."

In Pennant's "Tour" (Appendix B) we have some interesting particulars about the Gairloch cod fishery. He states the average annual capture as varying from five to twenty-seven thousand ; the price as 2jd a piece, and the minimum size as eighteen inches. The fish in his day (1772) were sent to Bilboa, but he says the Spaniards rejected the ling.

The Rev. Daniel M'Intosh, in the Old Statistical Account, 1792 (Appendix C), says, "Gairloch has been for many years famous for the cod fishing. Sir Hector McKenzie of Gairloch, the present proprietor, sends to market annually, upon an average, betwixt thirty and forty thousand cod, exclusive of the number with which the country people serve themselves."

Sir George S. Mackenzie, in his "Survey," published in 1810, has the following interesting account of the Gairloch cod fishery as it was carried on in the time of Sir Hector McKenzie :—

"This fishery has, from time immemorial, been the most constant and regularly productive of any on the coasts of Scotland. This is probably owing to there being in this quarter the most considerable extent of clean sandy ground, in the neighbourhood of the numerous banks in the Minch, where the fish find the best bottom and shelter for spawning, and abundance of food, consisting of small crabs, sand eels, star fish, mussels, cockles, &c, which are always found in their stomachs.

"The fish are in full roe, and best condition, in January, when the fishing usually begins; and they regularly become poorer till fully spawned, which happens about the end of April, when the fishing ends. The size of the fish is small, but they are rich. They weigh on an average five pounds each, when cleaned for salting. They have usually been sent pickled, and also dried, to Ireland, Liverpool, and London, and were formerly sent dried to Spain. The natives of the neighbouring shores are in general exclusively occupied in this fishing; but from the difficulty of procuring bait, only about twenty boats, each having about four hundred hooks, are employed. The average annual produce of this fishing, for fifteen years, has exceeded twenty thousand cod; but were the fishermen to take but half the trouble some others do to procure bait, they might certainly double the produce.

"Messrs J. Nicol & Young are the fishcurers. They are obliged to receive the fish taken while they continue to be good. The fishermen are a class of people inhabiting the shores on the bay of Gairloch, paying from £1 sterling to ^2, 2s. of rent for land. They receive for each codfish, measuring eighteen inches from the shoulder fins to the tail, 3^d.; and for every ling, measuring thirty inches as above, 5d. Sir Hector Mackenzie, the proprietor, gives- the fishermen a bounty of twenty guineas, which is divided among the crews of the best-fished boats, pointed out by a jury of the fishermen themselves. He gives wood for boats and houses, and receives no other remuneration than £d. per fish. But more than this, Sir Hector takes upon himself to make good to the fishers the payment due to them from the fishcurers, and takes the risk of not recovering it upon himself. By this he has lost many hundreds of pounds. What an example this is. Here we see a proprietor, not only encouraging industry by every ordinary means, but absolutely risking, and losing, large sums of money, in the most laudable and noble exertions to maintain and support a trade most valuable for the country and the people engaged in it. Such conduct is beyond all praise."

The cod fishing was carried on until quite recently (about 1877) by means of long lines with baited hooks, the bait being mostly mussels. Since 1877 nets have to a great extent displaced the baited lines. The lines were entirely made by the people themselves, of horse-hair and hemp, until the early part of the present century. The hooks were also home-made, for Gairloch used to be self-contained. The hooks were made out of knitting needles, cut into proper lengths and then bent to the right shape, to effect which one end was fixed in a door key. The point was then sharpened on a stone, and the barb was raised by means of a knife. Ruaridh Ceard, the blacksmith at Second Coast (he was a tinker), used to make fishhooks from backs of pocket-knives and odd bits of steel. At that time everybody in Gairloch grew a small plot of hemp. The women spun the flax with the distaff, and herring-nets and fishing-lines were made from it. Fish hooks and lines, as well as herring-nets, were precious articles in those days.

It was about the year 1823 that a large ship put into Ullapool and was there destroyed by fire. Among her cargo, which was partially saved, were casks of hooks, and these were the first manufactured hooks known in this district.

The Gairloch cod fishery is now carried on by two firms, who have curing-houses or stations at Badachro, one on the Dry Island and the other on Eilean (or Isle) Horisdale. The fishery seems to be more productive now than even in the days of Sir Hector Mackenzie. It yields an average of about forty thousand cod per annum. The year 1884 was extraordinarily good. The number of cod cured and sent away fresh was about eighty thousand, besides about forty-four thousand saythe. These figures were about double the average. A few ling are also taken, but they are the same price as cod, and are counted among them. In 1884 about a third part of the fish were dried; the remainder were sent fresh to Glasgow and the English markets by steamer. The price paid to the fishermen in 1884 was 11d. for each cod and 4d. for each saythe. The number of boats employed was forty. Each boat had as a rule four men, so that there were in all one hundred and sixty fishermen employed besides about thirty workmen and ten women who worked at the stations. The cod were larger than in Pennant's day.

The season of 1885 was not so productive, and the prices were lower, viz., 7d. for each cod and 3d. for each saythe; a few boats had 8d. for each cod. Some lines with baited hooks are still used instead of nets. Mr John Mackenzie, the manager of the Dry Island station, who has furnished much of this information about the fishery, is of opinion that the lines are far better than nets, and he says this was proved in 1885. Of course the use of the lines necessitates a certain loss of time in collecting bait.

The only remaining fishery of Gairloch is the salmon fishery, noticed by Pennant. This belongs to Sir Kenneth Mackenzie, Bart., under an old charter from the crown, and is leased by Mr A. P. Hogarth of Aberdeen, who sends a manager each spring to the principal station at Poolewe. The fishing is conducted principally by means of bag-nets, and all the fish are brought to Poolewe. In the early part of the season the salmon are boiled and packed in vinegar in kegs, each keg containing about thirty-two pounds weight of fish. In summer, when the salmon are most plentiful, Mr Hogarth employs fast sailing smacks or cutters, which come twice a week from Aberdeen to Poolewe and take away the fish packed in ice. From Aberdeen they are sent to the London market as fresh salmon. A few bull trout and sea trout are also taken. The station at Pooletfe is usually termed the " Boiler-house," and its obliging manager, Mr Alexander Mutch, is always proud of displaying his beautiful salmon to callers. For obvious reasons the number of fish taken each year is kept secret. Mr Hogarth told me that the year 1883 was the best season he had ever known except one, and that not only in Gairloch but nn other parts of Scotland, where he rents fishings. On the whole, however, the stock of salmon is believed to be gradually diminishing.


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