Fearn Balintore and Hilton Community Collage

Chapter 4 - White Fishing II

The main job in the fisherman's day was the preparation of his line for sea. It had priority over all else and every member of the family participated in some way or other. While he was still at sea his wife might begin opening shells for bait or baiting a spare line and children were expected to open so many mussels before school each day. But it was usually on the man's return from sea about the middle of the morning that the day's work really began.

After he had breakfast, he untied the strings of the platach in which he had coiled up the line as he hauled it in at sea. Now the task of redding it began. He sat on a chair and eased it through his hands and at every tipping he cleaned the hook of used bait, small
fish and starfish (crasgag) and twisted it into the tipping. He let the line fall in loops on to another platach on his right hand side ready for his wife to bait. She sat on a low stool on the right of the redded line with basins of shelled bait at her feet and a plate on her lap. She usually wore a canvas or leather apron kept for the purpose. She fed the baited line into the line creel on her right hand side in regular layers, laying the hooks from left to right and then right to left over a bunch of bent grass laid in the creel. She also spread some bent against the lip of the creel behind the layers of baited hooks, and a layer of chopped grass was spread over every layer of hooks to prevent them snagging.  When lug were used sand was spread over them but this made the creel very heavy to carry. When the Daily Express became common reading it served a double purpose as it was torn into strips and laid between the layers of hooks.

Baiting a line took roughly two hours and proved a very cold job in wintry weather in draughty kitchens and it was even more difficult when, as sometimes happened, it was done in failing light with the aid of a paraffin lamp or, with an earlier generation, a single candle.  In warm weather redding and baiting were done outside to the relief of all concerned.

Often when the children were sitting after school shelling limpets or mussels they whiled away the time and boredom singing all sorts of songs, from Gaelic and English ballads to the latest Redemption hymns learned by mother at the herring fishing. 'Shall we gather at the River' would ring out loud and clear or maybe the romantic 'Far an ro me raoir' in more melodious tones. Sometimes they indulged in guessing games for a change, mother participating too, of course.  When all was finished after baiting the kitchen or shed was tidied up and the creel set ready on the croick (creel stand) made of four poles with cross pieces at shoulder height, sloping slightly forwards so that it was easily lifted when setting off to the fishing next morning.

Just before bed-time the fishermen always went out to have a look at the weather. They were excellent weather prophets and would usually know what next day had in store for them. Before going to bed everything was set ready for the morning - big leather sea-boots and stockings stood near the dying fire and oil skins and mogans (mittens) were ready to hand. The men always took a keg of water to sea and enough food for twenty-four hours, usually thick oatcakes and hunks of cheese carried in a pockan mor (canvas bag with drawstring). If there was anything left in the pockan mor when they came home, any children who were about begged for it. It didn't matter how salty or wet the food was - what counted was that it had been out in a boat!

Depending on the tide, the crew rose any time from midnight to dawn, and dressed in warm drawers, jerseys, trousers, short oilskin trousers to the knee and leather, later rubber, thigh boots. Their ordinary bonnets stayed on unless the weather really justified donning a sou'wester. The first man up knocked up his crew and after a cup of tea they hurried away, anxious to be ahead of any other crew, especially if making for a good fishing ground. He put his oilskins and floats on top of his platach on the creel, lifted it off the croick and set off carrying it to the boat. He had another look at the weather and never failed to consult the barometer at the weather sheddie after it was put there when the harbour was built.

In spite of a great dislike of seeing women on the way to sea the fishermen nevertheless relied on them to help launch the boats.  Before Balintore harbour and Hilton jetty were built in the 1890's, boats were beached every day wherever was convenient and they had to be pushed off each morning, mainly by the women, who got their backs under the side of the boat and heaved, to the encouragement of shouts from their menfolk. This was often dangerous as death by drowning of women doing this in the darkness was not unknown.  They even had to carry the men aboard pick-a-back to prevent them getting wet at the start of a day's fishing and because their leather boots could not stand the wet and became crinkled if soaked. People still remember seeing this done and in fact it still went on in Shandwick Bay well after the building of the harbour. In fact, everything possible was done for the benefit of the bread-winner, even to the women warming his stockings inside her blouse or jersey if there was no fire.


Women carrying their menfolk ashore.

The men sailed to their fishing grounds, only rowing if there was no wind, when they protected their hands by wearing mogans. They knew the best places to go - sometimes directly in front of the villages, sometimes to Davie's Rock - 'a famous place for haddies' -
to Tarbat Ness and even to Helmsdale. Until compasses were introduced they used landmarks. One landmark used Clach Caraidh (Shandwick Stone) and the Old Shandwick farmhouse kitchen - the farmhouse wouldn't do, it had to be the kitchen! All these spots were named in Gaelic which was spoken up to fifty or sixty years ago.  They carried no watches but told the time by the sun striking on certain hills - 3.0 o'clock hill, 6.0 o'clock hill and so on. If there was no sun, they just had to guess. Far out at sea, or in fog, skilled men knew where land was by looking at the waves. Every seventh wave is a directional one and land lies at right-angles to this wave.  At the chosen spot a float was flung out with a sinker stone and then the line was thrown out from the creel very carefully so that no hooks got entangled. A float went out at every eight hundred hooks lest the line break. The next man's line was then joined and sheeted (cast) till there were four or five altogether. They cast landmarks on the first float and then took cross-bearings. After trawlers came in about 188213 the fishermen in yawls liked to come along after them as the trawls stirred up the seabed and improved the feeding so that there were plenty fish about. The lines were left down for twenty to thirty minutes and to pass the time they had a smoke, ate their 'piece' or fished with a hand-line for some more haddies.


Shandwick fishwife.

Haddock were caught on hard ground in winter and on a sandy bottom in summer. Sometimes a large cod was caught on the haddie line when a 'cleep' (gaff) was used to lift it in case it broke the line during hauling. Sometimes, though rarely, halibut was caught on a shingly bottom among the haddies. A particularly good area for flounders was off Port an Righ, inside the rocks. Cod were sometimes caught on a ripper, a lead or stone weight with four large hooks hanging around it and used, as the name implies, by ripping it upwards.

When hauling the line began after the interval, the men used oars as sail would have been too fast. While one man hauled his own line another removed the fish and placed them in the creel. The line was coiled on to the appropriate platach and, when fully hauled, was detached from the following one. It was gathered up in the platach and tied firmly with its lashings to carry ashore. Even in the short time that the lines were down dog-fish caused considerable damage by eating the fish on them.

Besides rough weather at sea there was another hazard - the 'kerapan'. No one knows just what it was, but to many of the men it was a very frightening sea-monster. It was very probably a basking shark and certainly it attacked the boats and often the men fled for
the nearest land, coming along later for their abandoned lines. They ultimately discovered that throwing a pailful of bilge water into the sea would frighten off the kerapan immediately.

Going out was easier than coming home as they had the prevailing westerly wind behind them. On their return they might have to beat their way back into the wind so they went in close to the little 'ports' or natural inlets along the coast to turn to tack home, a way of beating the wind.

It might happen on the homeward journey that a crew would spot a schooner or coal-boat making for Balintore. They would immediately close with it and persuade the captain to take one of them on as pilot. It was an unwritten law that then the rest of the crew would get taken on at the unloading, a good way of ensuring labour and not causing hard feelings about choosing labour on shore.

There was no apprenticeship for fishermen. When survival depended on quick thinking and efficiency young lads learnt fast and became skilful seamen, and because of this many remarkable escapes took place after Balintore harbour was built as it is difficult to enter in rough weather. If the weather turned very nasty while at sea boats were forced to take refuge in Cromarty or Portmahomack. It was always for skill alone that the skipper was chosen.

When the boats came in on the shore, the catch was brought ashore where it was divided evenly into heaps. Each member of the crew gave a token such as a knife or a pebble to an independent person who put the token on each heap and that heap became that man's share. Very often the youngest child there got the job of putting out the tokens while the men looked the other way. The only exception to this was the Jerusalem haddock, reckoned to be a holy fish, and whoever got one on his line was entitled to keep it. It is a large and striking looking fish, not really a haddock27 and in fact it does not taste as good as ordinary haddock.

There was a time when factors and farmers considered the shore was theirs and they claimed the best haddock out of every creel - an unpleasant custom which was finally stopped when fish-merchants took a hand and insisted that they should pay for what they took like everyone else.

There is little record of how fish was sold in the early days but a certain amount probably went away by sea, as with no railway and poor roads sales overland were very limited. Even so, fisher folk from here were carrying a plentiful supply of haddock, cod, skate, flounders and cuddies in baskets to Kilmuir Easter in 1793.6" In 1763 twenty haddies sold for 1d, but by 1793 during a scarcity the price rose to one for 1d.6d About 1830 the fishers of Shandwick and Fearn (the villages) sailed to Dingwall, moored Peter's Bridge and there sold home-made fish oil direct from the boats, and carried their smoked haddock and salt cod into the town to sell at the Feil Maree (fair.)  [11]

The opening of the railway line north of Invergordon in June 1864 caused the tempo of life to quicken on the Seaboard and the fishwife really came into her own as she could get much further afield with her burden of fish. On certain days cadgers (carters) went 'into the country' with a load of fish, often going quite far afield with a spring cart. With the railway they became very busy also carrying passengers, luggage and goods to and from Fearn Station.

The fishermen were utterly dependent on cadgers and fishwives to buy their catch and the price rose or fell as demand indicated. Cadger and fishwife would haggle over what price to pay per hundredweight while the fishermen waited, and it sometimes happened that if a boat was late in coming ashore there would be no sale for the catch as fishwives and cadgers had gone to catch the morning train. Naturally maximum profit came to the man married to a fishwife.

When fish-merchants (curers) began to operate after the First World War, the fortunes of the fishermen started to mend. The first of these was Mackay the Curer, who lived in the Old Police Station at Hilton. He began buying surplus fish when there was a glut and sold it elsewhere, thus keeping the price up so the fishermen were no longer at the mercy of fishwife and cadger and were more secure.  Mackay the Curer, who was also a butcher, is said to have had women smoking for him and part-time fishwives selling the speldings.

After the herring yard closed as such, a man named Mitchell bought fish for a short while and smoked it there; and John and Willie Strachan, salmon managers, Main Street, Balintore, began to sell white fish also. They also dried cod up on the bank behind Balintore.  Gradually others became interested and in addition to acting as fish-merchants they advanced money for new boats. Such was Mr. J. Paterson, Hilton, who had five or six boats engaged, undertaking to sell their fish, after which the catch from other boats might be accepted. A small charge was imposed for weighing. They used a
Model T. Ford to carry the fish from the harbour to their yard at Hilton where twenty to thirty Gaelic-speaking cadgers and fishwives would be ready waiting for it to be auctioned. When scarce it went to the highest bidder, and when plentiful the price of the first box was the price for the day so that the late boat did not suffer as formerly.  The buyers had to take a proportion of small as well as large haddocks and what was left over was taken by cart, later lorry, to Fearn Station and loaded on the train for Glasgow. If they were especially large, however, they might be sent to Billingsgate, the London fish market. There was always a ready market for small haddies at 6d. a basin in Inver as they were very short of boats there.  Hugh Mackay, a cadger from Hilton, had one boat supplying him and he, as well as the Patersons, delivered the fish to the fishwives'
homes so that they no longer had to carry it all the way from the harbour.

The fisherman's only break from this routine was when all fishing stopped for almost a week during the twice-yearly Sacraments (Communion) Boats were beached on Wednesday night and did not go out again till after the Thanksgiving service which ended at 10 p.m. on the Monday, and usually that afternoon was spent baiting ready to go out on Tuesday morning.  After selling the fish the fishermen were free to go home to
breakfast and to start all over again the round of redding and baiting. Meanwhile the fishwife began the task of preparing the fish for sale.

Each fishwife owned a bothan (smoking shed), usually near her house, made of wood although later on a few were covered with corrugated iron. The floor was earthen, later causeyed with stones and later still cemented. In the centre was a hollow where the fire was laid and as there was no chimney the smoke filled the bothan, escaping through any chink it could find. A small sliding door at the top allowed the fishwife to see how the smoking progressed. 

The split haddocks were hung on speights (spits) - these were round wooden rods, 1 inch in diameter, sometimes sand-papered smooth. The sharp point was pushed through the 'ears' of successive fish and they were hung in rows from side to side resting on runners  at each side of the bothan so that the smoke swirled about them.  There were two to three levels of runners so that from time to time the lower speights could be changed over with those above, just like cakes in an oven. About six speights hung on each runner. In this way the fish was smoked evenly and when a lovely golden yellow, they were taken and packed ready for sale. Moray Firth speldings had a very wide reputation, some even being sent fortnightly from Hilton to New York as a special order for Sir Charles Ross of Balnagown.

Before the 'speldings,' as they were called, reached this happy stage a great deal of expert work went into their preparation. After getting them home, the haddocks were gutted and decapitated with a very sharp knife and flung into a shallow tub of fresh water. Sometimes on her knees beside the tub and sometimes seated on a low stool, the fishwife, with young helpers if she was lucky, scrubbed the fish clean, removing all the blood from around the backbone with a double-ended scrubber and put them into a tub of fresh water. Finally they they were returned to the first tub, now emptied and rinsed, where they were salted for about thirty minutes. Some fishwives added a little brown sugar to this pickle - usually provided by their customers - to improve the flavour and colour, but not everyone thought this necessary and did quite well without. Salt was bought at the local shops very cheaply for a penny a pound or even sixpence for a bolster full. The fish guts, thrown on the shore, vanished in the twinkling of an eye down the throats of hungry scavengers waiting patiently on the rocks near by or on the roofs and chimneys of the houses around. They needed no gong to call them to dinner.
At the end of thirty minutes the fish were allowed to drip for a short time on the speights hung between two chairs or on the croick, and they were then put in the smoking shed. The fire had been prepared and lit shortly before and the smoking process got underway. Hardwood blocks, bought from a man at the door for around 3/- a bag, formed the fireplace and some dry tourkens (fir cones) were laid in the hollow thus formed to start the fire. When it really got going, on went a good supply of wet tourkens and dry sawdust from the sawmills. The tourkens were soaked purposely to produce the
needed smoke.

The fishwife watched the fire carefully to keep it smoking properly and changed the speights around so that the fish did not become semi-cooked and fall off. Another hazard in one case was children who also kept an eye on proceedings and when they knew the speldings were almost ready they nipped in and took one or two to eat in the privacy of the herring yard.  Later on the speight of the older generation was replaced by the tinter, a flat piece of wood about two inches wide and two inches thick and about four feet long, with hooks along both sides sometimes made from turned-up nails. The tinter was better than the speight because it made a smaller hole in the 'ears' of the fish. About six fish hung on each side of the tinter.

Tourkens for smoking were gathered in various fir woods within convenient distance. Hilton fishwives got theirs in the Little Woodie at Cadboll (cut down during the First World War) and in the Beltan, near Cadboll mount, as well as at Calrossie and Balnagown. Balintore and Shandwick fishwives went there also and to Castlecraig, Altnadavan and Pitcalzean. Fir cones had top priority for flavouring the fish but sawdust was used by itself if tourkens were scarce, and they could even be smoked in the praze fireplace described further on. One person, a very Epicurean for speldings, would not touch a fish unless it had that choice tourken flavour and the merest soupcon
of salt.

Gathering tourkens was a matter of knowing where to go and getting there first, especially after a gale. The women gathered them in bags and then hired a cart, and later Patersons' lorry, to take them home to be stored in their sheds. An adequate supply had to be collected for winter use as 'You can't get tourkens from under the snow,' as one wise woman observed wrily.

A fishwife did not, of course, go 'to the country' every day. Her weekly schedule might be something like this: Monday, smoking fish and doing the household washing; Tuesday and Wednesday, out to the country; Thursday, smoking and household duties; Friday, out to the country.

The night before she was going out with the fish, she lined her creel with fresh paper and filled it up with layers of sweet-smelling speldings, perhaps a hundredweight or so, and covered them with a white cloth, fastening it under the rim. Her hand-baskets might
contain fresh haddocks caught that morning or prepared the day before. When the haddocks were picked up fresh from the boats that morning she usually cleaned them for her customers at their houses, while a welcome cup of tea was being prepared for her.  Some fishwives took out only fresh fish, some took mainly speldings and others took a variety of fish in which case they were carried separately so as not to spoil each other. In addition to speldings they prepared smokies which were exactly the same so far as smoking was concerned, but they were not beheaded or split. Kippered herrings were smoked like speldings but the head was split and left on. Cod was usually cut up ready for orders and the roe was sold separately.  Salmon fresh or smoked, was only taken for orders. For smoking it was split right down the back, salted and a stick pushed through front and back to hold it open and be sure it was well smoked. Flat fish was sold whole, or else filletted and skinned. Whiting was sold fresh, and sea-cat fresh, dried or salted. Crabs and lobsters were only taken for orders. Sometimes fishwives took out fish smoked for them by neighbours who could not go themselves because of having small children. About fifty years ago a fishwife would be very pleased if she could report a profit of half a crown at the end of the day's journey  round the country.

The Seaboard fishwife, thought not so picturesque as her opposite number in Newhaven and elsewhere, was a familiar figure on our town streets and country roads. Into the beginning of this century she wore a mutch, a white bonnet tying below the chin with a frill framing the face. These needed careful ironing with goffering irons but the fishwife's mutch was always as immaculate as her white apron. Her skirts was of navy worsted with two horizontal rows of tucks just above the hem, and she wore a cotton blouse or a jersey and a cardigan. She did not seem to need a shawl or coat, although later on the mutch was replaced by a little woollen head shawl and later still by a headscarf. Her skirt was usually maxi-length but when she was ready to set out she hitched it up with string until it was higher and the bunched-up skirt and petticoat formed a pad which took the weight of the creel, and she could walk for miles carrying a heavy load of fish without much apparent effort. Seventy to eighty years ago her footwear was sometimes dark blue leather boots to the knee or strong boots or shoes, and black woollen stockings. She carried her purse or canvas pouch in the fold of her hitched-up apron, inside her blouse or tied round her waist with tape.


Fishwife on her busy round with hand baskets and creel.

Fishwives who went to nearby places like Cadboll and Nigg walked the whole way. The rest walked to Fearn Station and took the train there, so they must have been very glad to see transport of one kind or another gradually being put into service during the first
twenty-five years of this century. A horse-brake was put on the road by Kennedy Vass, Shandwick. This was a box-cart with a driving seat in front and fitted with two parallel seats running lengthwise where the women sat six aside with the creels in the middle. They availed themselves of this and the cadgers' carts until a bus service was started in 1918 by the late Mr. Dan Mackay. This bus left Portmahomack in the morning, picking up school children en route, and also the fishwives from the Seaboard. All and sundry travelled by it to Tain and it was only when the majority of the women got off at Fearn Station that the other younger and more restless passengers got sufficient leg and  elbow room to make the rest of the journey to Tain Academy in comfort.

The fishwives got a hand from the porters at the station to heave their creels into the van as they were not allowed to take them in the carriages. Each fishwife had her own area and got off at the appropriate station to walk round her district. They went as far as Invergordon, Alness, Dingwall, Strathpeffer, and even Beauly, and northwards to Tain and Bonar Bridge.

The return journey on the bus after 4.00 p.m. saw the same extreme over-crowding with fishwives piling in at the station, shoving creels and hand baskets in before them to the detriment of schoolboy and schoolgirl legs and arms. The old and the young most certainly did not see eye to eye on these occasions and 'What I have, I hold', was demonstrated if not by voice by action with regard to the few cubic centimetres of space occupied by the sitter. The gossip of the countryside circulated as each fishwife told of her day's experiences.  Time was money to these hardy women and the return journey
often saw the creel nearly as heavy as when they set out that morning.

The country people, who had meal but little money, often bartered meal for fish, and often there was a gift of meal, vegetables, a piece of venison, fruit such as apples, pears and plums, a few eggs, butter and crowdie. If the creel was fairly empty the fishwife filled it with tourkens on her return route. At least two of these intrepid fishwives still survive - Mrs. B. A. MacAngus, Shore Street, Hilton, and Mrs. Ross, Bank Street, Balintore.

White fish prices have often fluctuated but they were high just after the First World War and an era of prosperity followed. In 1925 the white fishing in the Moray Firth was the best way for many years [12] but recession set in quickly causing great hardship and many fishermen sought work on the land or went into the Merchant Navy. In the 1930's seine net boats were introduced, the first local one belonging to the Woods, 'First', and then 'Euphemia' belonging to William Sutherland. For a few years seine-netting by boats here and elsewhere in the Moray Firth was very profitable, then their depredation of the spawn emptied the Firth and white fishing died away on the Seaboard. The days when it was possible to sit on Cinneach Rock beyond Hilton and catch a hundredweight of good
cod on a handline do not seem likely to reappear.

Continued in Chapter 5
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