Fearn Balintore and Hilton Community Collage

Chapter 3 - White Fishing I

Herring fishing began in May and continued until late autumn and for the rest of the year the men went white-fishing near home. But when herring fishing began to decline at the start of the First World War white fishing became the main means of livelihood, with  salmon fishing a close second.

Almost all equipment was locally made so naturally boat-building was very important. About a hundred years ago Hugh Tarral was a boat-builder in Hilton while in Balintore at the turn of the century there was a boat-building business belonging to George Mackay, who was followed by his son William who carried on to 1925 or so.  Manyof the Balintore and Shandwick boats were clinker built In his yard behind Main Street and when they were ready for sea he enlisted the help of ten or twelve men to carry them to the shore. The last yawl he built was during the Russo-Japanese War. It was named Togo in honour of Admiral Togo who commanded the Japanese fleet when they destroyed thirty two Russian vessels in the battle of Tsushima Straits. It was very evident where the sympathies or our sons of the sea lay in 1905.

George Mackay built a few yawls for Hilton but the fishermen there apparently patronised a boat-builder in Inver who had a high reputation for the craft.

A yawl was fifteen to seventeen feet long and the shell is reckoned to have cost £17-£18 in 1910. It had oak ribs and larch planking;  larch or spruce was used for the mast, all of which came from local sawmills. One fisherman, aspiring to become a boat-builder, tried his hand at a boat but, sad to say, made such a poor job of it that when launched it refused to sail properly and went round in circles and is still referred to as the One-sided Boat. The boat-builders also made oars of fir, but many of the fishermen could make their own.

A yawl carried one brown sail. Usually the fishermen bought the necessary 44 yards of canvas from Gourock or Greenock, and latterly from Ross's shop in Balintore, and made the sail themselves. The crew sewed them with palm and needle, sitting outside on good days.  Eighty to ninety years ago there was a sailmaker in Hilton, John Mackenzie, who made sails for a wide area. When he died they were sometimes bought from George Noble in Avoch, who had come there from Burghead about 1900 to start a sailmaking business. One of his sailmakers still lives in Avoch and remembers making sails for Balintore which were sent there by train.

In Tarbat in 1793 the proprietors of the land supplied a new boat every seven years to be kept up by the crew, in return for a fifth of the catch.6b In 1770 the owners of Easter and Wester Rarichie (Balnagown Estate and Hugh Rose) had the sole right to keep 'fish
boats' at Port an Righ, providing housing and firing for the crews, [7]  and in 1770 Cadholl Estate owned a valuable white fishing on the Moray Firth.4 This shows that about two hundred years ago the landowners had a close interest in fishing, but in living memory the fishermen were completely independent and jointly owned the yawl
and shared the catch equally.

However, when fishermen came home after service in the First World War and resumed white fishing, they decided to go in for motor boats. The first of these, 'Christina Baillie', was bought by the Strachan brothers, (fish merchants) for white fishing. Later the men
bought motor boats, really converted sailing boats, from various places along the coast. Such boats were usually beyond their means, so many good friends - merchants, farmers and others - put up the money in some form or other, and now the boat had to have its share of the catch in order to buy fuel, maintain it and payoff the debt.

At that time the internal combustion engine was a bit of a mystery to the fishermen and they had many troubles usually due to engines being too small for the boat. They knew little or nothing about them but were made aware that there was a magneto somewhere in its innards and faults were always blamed on the 'mag'. Angie the Garage, Fearn, was their mainstay when anything went wrong and his little car could be seen at any hour down on the harbour attending to the mag. He must have been sorely tried many a time when trifles called him out and being a bit of a wit, on one occasion he told a fisherman who made anxious enquiry about the fault, 'There's a twist in the petrol!' These boats started on petrol and ran on paraffin, but for economy's sake the crews often used sail in conjunction with the engine.

Ropes were obtained from the south, often from Leith, but later they too were supplied by the shops. Floats were made from sheep bladders got at the butcher's. They were scraped clean, dried, then blown up and tarned with Archangel tar and closed with a wooden cork. They were light and good but had a distinct disadvantage at times when gulls swooped on them and burst them with their beaks.  Cork floats were not popular as they were not so easily seen and became waterlogged so petrol or varnish tins were then made into floats. Glass buoys came in later with the seine net boats.


Couple busy at the baiting, Balintore.

Lines were made up from separate strings which were bought in hanks at the local shops - Wm. Ross in Shandwick, Ross's in Balintore and Denoon's in Hilton. These strings were 60-70 fathoms long and were bought by weight as they came in different thicknesses.

They cost from 2/6d. to 3/-, making the total cost of a line of eight strings somewhere between £1 and £1.4/-. With the introduction of motor boats a line might be increased to ten or even twelve strings, given suitable weather conditions.

In setting up a line the first thing was to stretch the string to get out the tangles, and then bark it to preserve and darken it so that it would not show up in the water. Bark, which looked like lumps of brown coal, was also bought in the local shops. It was put into a tub
of hot water and stirred till it melted, then the string was immersed in the brown liquid for a short time. After having 'dripped dry' eight strings were spliced and the business of attaching the hooks began.

The fishermen made measuring rods, cut to an exact size to give them the spacing for the hooks. Hilton men usually had seventy-two hooks to a string but in the other villages they often had rather more.  Using the measuring rod (about an arm span), they attached a 'sneed' every so often along the line. This was a piece of line hanging down from the main line and here the 'cheepick' or 'tipping', which held the hook, was fixed. The tipping was made of horse-hair, sometimes got from a farm for 10/- to £1 when a colt was being broken in, sometimes for a few drams in the pub, and often by the fishwives on their rounds who would barter some fish for a 'taily'.

The horse-hair was washed with soda, teazed out and used as required. Several strands were taken and joined at the top and half the number was fixed to a wheel (coillesh) which might be nothing more than a large boot-polish tin filled with lead and a bent nail in it.  The other end was held high and the wheel spun. Every now and then the hair had to be felt to test the tension as this had to be just right before doubling it and allowing it to jump into a twist - and hey the brown liquid for a short time. After having 'dripped dry' eight strings were spliced and the business of attaching the hooks began. The fishermen made measuring rods, cut to an exact size to give them the spacing for the hooks. Hilton men usually had seventy-two hooks to a string but in the other villages they often had rather more.  Using the measuring rod (about an arm span), they attached a 'sneed' every so often along the line. This was a piece of line hanging down from the main line and here the 'cheepick' or 'tipping', which held the hook, was fixed. The tipping was made of horse-hair, sometimes got from a farm for 10/- to £1 when a colt was being broken in, sometimes for a few drams in the pub, and often by the fishwives on their rounds who would barter some fish for a 'taily'.  The horse-hair was washed with soda, teazed out and used as required. Several strands were taken and joined at the top and half the number was fixed to a wheel (coillesh) which might be nothing more than a large boot-polish tin filled with lead and a bent nail in it.  The other end was held high and the wheel spun. Every now and then the hair had to felt to test the tension as this had to be just right before doubling it and allowing it to jump into a twist - and hey  presto, the tipping! A hundred tippings was a good evening's work.


Line baiting, son helping.

A sharp instrument called a brog was used to push the tipping into the sneed and then the hook was attached with strong linen thread bought for 1d. to l 1/2d. per hank or reel. When the sneeds and tippings were ready the fishermen worked the line across his knees, splicing them on to it and coiling the completed part of the line on to
the ground. A packet of a hundred hooks cost 6d. about 1900. Lines were not built at any special time of the year, but just when convenience demanded and the wherewithal was available. Each man usually had at least two or three lines.

When setting a line aside to dry off for a time the fishermen redded (cleaned) it in the ordinary way, hooking each hook into the tipping and then he hung it on a horizontal rod until all the hooks were closely together. The line itself hung down in straight loops nearly to the floor of the shed. It looked very tidy in this way and there was no danger of snags when he reversed the hanging process in readiness for the next baiting. The best pieces of an old line were usually rolled into balls and kept for all sorts of purposes.

Not all the fisherman's spare time was used to set up new lines.  There were other things to do and the 'upstair' was often, in summer, his workshop in the evenings. During winter evenings he sat in the kitchen-cum-living-room and worked there beside the fire, fashioning line creels for himself, fishwife's creels for his wife or a neighbour, and any other equipment he might need.

To get materials for creels Hilton men walked several miles to the Talich for larch and willow branches. Shandwick and Balintore men got larch from Adams' Dam, blackthorn from Cullisse and willow from above Rarichie. Split cane was bought from the shops at 2/- to 3/- for so many pounds. He peeled the larch and split the willow and soaked them in hot water. Willow could be used split fresh, or steamed if old, and larch and blackthorn were sometimes put in a ditch to prevent them breaking if they were old.

When sufficiently pliable, he made the rim by bending three or four larch branches to the correct shape and tied them tightly in various places with pieces of old line. Briar rose could be used for the rim - after soaking it was bent round iron pegs till it was the right
shape. Larch, willow, blackthorn, briar and sometimes cane could all be used for the spars lengthwise, which were then woven with cane which was easier to handle than willow, although willow was used when cane was scarce, as in wartime. The creel was started on the man's knee and finished on the floor, with the man bending over it from his chair. A line creel is about 30 inches long and tapers towards one end so that the line will sheet (shoot) easily.

The fishwife's creel was a different shape and size. The bottom was flattened, the sides symmetrical and rounded ends made to sit upright.  It was fairly light in weight with a rope attached which went round the carrier's chest and could be tightened or loosened as desired. It was about 30 inches wide, 15 inches deep and 16 inches across. Some of them had extra ribs strengthening the outside of the base, and both they and the line creels had hand-holds. During creel-making little pieces of cane were swooped upon by the children for all sorts of games, and many a furtive puff was smoked from a cane 'cigarette' at a father's unsuspecting back!

The line basket was not locally made. They were herring baskets divided out at the end of the season among the crew. It was cylindrical, 20 inches in diameter and 2 feet deep, woven with thicker, usually unsplit cane. It was used to hold a line after it was cleaned and ready to be set aside, and any tippings which had lost their hooks were put over the side to be mended. Nor were the fishwives' hand baskets locally made, but were usually acquired at the shops where they had been sent as some form of container. Creels and baskets were very durable and little mending was needed but where required pieces of split cane were used for repairing them.

A 'platach' (rush mat), also called a rashack, was used for placing the line on during baiting, hauling etc. It was made with reeds gathered from the Talich and various farms about the end of August, when they began to wither, and then woven with the balls of old line kept handy for such a purpose. The reeds were cleaned after being dried and seasoned, and cut to about 2-3 feet. They were laid on the floor in bundles of a dozen or so and the fisherman tied the first bundle with a double string in three to four places leaving long ends.  Then he took the second bundle and by twisting the double strings round it, one going over and the other under the bundles, he attached it to the first one. He continued to do this until all the bundles were secured in three to four places from top to bottom. He now took more string and wove the bundles in the spaces left so that when his mat was finished he had long lines of weaving thread at regular intervals across the mat, the length of which was to his own taste, but usually about three feet. The long ends which he left at both the beginning and the end - the lashings - were used for tying the platach round his line after hauling at sea.

Gathering bait was women's work although men with no womenfolk had to do it too. Nigg Bay was for long a good source for bait, and in 1841 it and the firths are described thus, 'In Nigg Bay are to be found in abundance in their respective season, cockles and mussels and flounders and sand-eels - and it is here, likewise, where the fishers of Nigg, Fearn and Cromarty and many of those of Banffshire find the bait wherewith they catch cod, haddock and whiting. The neighbouring firths abound with fish - salmon, turbot, cod, haddock, mackerel, whiting, cuddies, crowners, soles, flounders, skate, dog-fish and herring in their season.  [8a]


Gutting haddock, on hands and knees, Shandwick.

Lug worms were gathered from June to August from Nigg Bay (Traigh Nic) and a very early start had to be made to get there on time, perhaps leaving home between 1.00 a.m. and 4.00 a.m.depending on the tide. Thus mothers sometimes had to make arrangements with a neighbour or relative to look after the children and get them to school. Two hours each way for the journey and two hours gathering took so much time that sheer necessity drove most of the fishermen latterly to learn to ride a bicycle, complete with oil-lamp for use in the dark, and henceforward this time-consuming darg
became less demanding on body and mind. But many a time the bicycle came home on the man's shoulder as the chain coming off a bike was as baffling a problem as the mag. in a boat.



Lug casts were found scattered over the sand and the worms were turned out with a kype and put into a pail. A kype is an ordinary navvy's spade, flattened and curved, with a flat wooden handle about 5 feet long. The bait-gatherers had to watch out for a little fish, not more than four or five inches long, whose horny stings could temporarily paralyse bare feet. There was no charge for collecting lug. On arrival home they were put Into clean sea-water till they were required for catching plaice and flounders. Baiting with them poisoned the fingers and made them very painful so it was a common sight to see the women with their fingers bandaged during the lug season.

Limpets were used all year round. They were good winter bait and were also often used with or without mussels for catching cod from April to mid May. The rocky shore near home provided a good supply until demand became too great and then journeys were necessary to Geanies, Tarrel, Rockfield and Port an Righ. They are got on an ebb tide and can be lifted off the rocks with a spratan (knife with a well-padded handle). They were shelled at home, using one shell to remove the rest, a chore usually done by children, and put into a basin of clean water to await baiting-time. They improve with keeping for a week or so as the hard rim softens so that the fresh fish take the bait more readily.

Mussels were used all year round, and were obtained from Tain, Inver, Arboll and Fort George, as well as Nigg Bay. Tain charged for its mussels but sometimes people tried to evade payment and Tain Town Council as far back as 1712 were complaining about fishers from Shandwick and elsewhere, 'such as has taken away the mussels.'   [9]

They were fairly expensive - in 1835 the price of a boat-load from the Tain scalp was 30/- to 40/-. [10]   At Inver and Arboll, where they were free, the women gathered them on the shore into bags and hired a carter to bring them home.  Getting mussels from Fort George where they are thought to have been free, meant a boat journey. They sailed there, waited over the mussel scalp till the tide fell, then gathered the mussels into bags and when the tide rose sailed home with them. Each man put his share into his own private scalp on the shore with a little dyke round it.  Thin stones were laid temporarily over them - another job for the children - for two days until they latched on to the rocks, but they were removed after that or else the mussels went bad. Here the fishermen had a good supply of bait readily available. They were prised open with a sharp pointed knife, the flesh removed and the hook put through the white 'wart' to hold it, then twisted through the black 'wart' at the other end. Mussel bait, unlike lug, was very pleasant and soothing on the hands. The shells were thrown out on the shore if that was most convenient or else thrown into shell middens behind the house.

Sandeels (sanels) were found just under the surface of the sand near home when the tide was out. They were gathered with a scooping movement of the sanel hook and lifted into a kind of pouch hung round the gatherer's waist or into a pail. The sanel hook has a five-inch wooden handle and a six-inch curved blade with eight teeth which catch the sandeels so that they can be lifted out of the sand.  Sprats and young herring, known as garvies, were used as a standby when other bait was scarce and in winter when dark nights made limpet-gathering almost impossible. They were brought from Avoch and later on in this century, Patersons (salmon fishers and former fish-merchants) would send to Wick for them. They were boned, slit in half lengthwise and sliced anglewise, salted with coarse salt, roused (stirred up) in a tub and kept in a half-barrel till required, when one piece was put on each hook.

Very small fish which had been taken on the line was sometimes used as bait, but cockles, buckies and porstans (partan, small green crab) were only used if nothing else was available. Herring gut was very occasionally used this century. Patersons sent to Wick for it also for use by motor boats. It was the best possible bait but did not keep
well and smelt terrible.

Continued in Chapter 4
Terms & Conditions     © Ross and Cromarty Heritage