Fearn Balintore and Hilton Community Collage

Happy group at the Herring fishing.

Chapter 5 - Herring Fishing

Herring boats

There is no doubt that men and girls enjoyed going away to the herring fishing. The work was hard and in a poor season unprofitable, but seeing a bit of the world and mixing with people from other parts of Britain was very stimulating. It was an education in itself to those young men and girls who set off year after year for distant places.

Their annual departure appears in church records - in 1894 Chapelhill Church had a smaller-than-usual attendance 'owing to the young women being away at the fishing in Shetland' and in 1909 Communion was held earlier than usual because it was time for everyone to go to the herring fishing. It was quite an occasion when they left, and friends and relatives downed tools to see them away and the school children took the day off, as the school log shows, to join in the farewells.

Herring fishing affected the Seaboard villages in three ways - the men who went fishing around the coasts from Shetland to East Anglia; the women and girls going away to work at gutting and packing; and the great days when there was a herring curing yard in
Balintore providing  a bustle of activity quite unknown today.  The herring season began in May in Shetland, then moved nearer home between June and August and carried on down the coast as far as Lowestoft and Yarmouth in the autumn. Where the herring went
the men followed. For many years local men have gone after them, sometimes sailing as far as Barra in the Outer Hebrides or even to Ireland in half-decked boats with bunks in the open.

These small boats were locally made but gave way to the clinker-built 'Skaffie' which was common in the Moray Firth till about 1880.13 About that date the 'Zulu' was developed13 and there were a number of these fine boats in the villages, including one named the 'Nonsuch'. These larger boats, from thirty to fifty feet long, were usually bought second-hand from Morayshire. Sometimes the men bought them themselves but more often they were financed by land-owners and farmers who either advanced the money or guaranteed it at the bank, or by Ross's Shop in Balintore who usually provisioned the boats. Repayments of such loans was a first priority at the end of the season.

In the mid-19th century the Portmahomack curer engaged boats in the autumn for the following season with a bounty of five to eight guineas, plus an advance of £10 in May to help them get ready for sea.  [8c]   As the Portmahomack curer had the Balintore yard for a time this may well have happened here but, if so, no one remembers it. Nets were originally made of hemp by the men themselves but later on they bought white cotton nets from the Morayshire coast. To preserve them they were tamed (barked) by dipping them into a large drum of dissolved bark, lifting them out with a large hook to drip into another drunk so that nothing was wasted, and drying them over fences. These were known as sink nets as they had weights, often just stones, attached and heavy ropes because the boats were anchored and swung during fishing. Herring stay well down and unweighted nets simply float over the top of them. There might be thirty to forty nets to a boat, divided among the crew, stretching for up to a mile.  When hauled, the fish were disentangled from the nets with a good shake.

Sails were made at home by the men, or by sailmakers like John Mackenzie in Hilton, or after 1900 by the sail maker in Avoch. Sails were tamed like the nets, although an odd one might be left white which made it easy for the crew's families to spot their menfolk coming home while still far out at sea. Floats for herring fishing were made of sheepskin. Skins were bought in fairly large quantities from Johnstone the butcher in Balintore, from Tain or Inverness. They had to be steeped in cold water containing lime or soda, then were laid on a table and the woolrubbed off with cork, a wearisome chore often done by the children.  They were dried and Archangel tar rubbed on the inside before being bunged with a grooved flat circle of wood, then bound securely with
twine and tarred. The floats were too greasy to colour the first season but thereafter the men might take a fancy to have them red or blue or anything else.

The crew consisted of six or seven men and a cookboy who was known in Gaelic as 'the boy with the scoop'. His pay came from catching with a scoop or skimmer any herring that fell from the net during hauling, although occasionally he might be allowed the catch from one net, the last one! The skipper was chosen for his skill and so experienced did the fishermen become that they could smell the presence of herring and also knew to look for them where their oil turned the sea a milky green.

When the herring were off Shetland the men moved north and lived on the boats. They returned to the villages in mid-summer when the herring were nearby and then they were able to come home every weekend. They went out every Monday morning and returned on Saturday evening and it was a common sight to see a forest of masts at the Balintore and Hilton berths, even though many of the Hilton boats went in to Portmahomack which was a better harbour.

At the weekends they took the opportunity to dry their nets, carrying them on their backs from the boats to any open grassy spaces, or in return for a 'fry' a farmer might allow them to be spread in a field. If they could not be dried for any reason they were occasionally salted to preserve them.

Herring boats were anchored, not beached, at the weekends but during the Sacraments (Communion) they were sometimes hauled up for tarring. Rollers were used to get them up the beach and the lower half was tarred and when dry the boat was rolled down again. The women were enlisted to give an extra shove but as soon as the boat got to the water the stern began to float so the job was not as difficult as it sounds.

When setting off to sea the men had a supply of oatmeal, ships' biscuits from Fletchers in Balintore, whisky in a stone jar with a little tap at the base or in kegs, and any other supplies from Ross's. A story is told of a cook-boy being sent to order provisions. He knew that the crew were very fond of whisky so he thought that several kegs of it and one loaf of bread would be just about right. The skipper was very displeased when he saw what the boy had got.  'What on earth are we going to do with all that bread?' he demanded!

When fishing nearby the men liked if possible to land their catch at Balintore but if this was.not practical they went to the nearest herring yard where the curer had previously engaged to pay so much per cran, divided equally among the crew.  When the season ended in the autumn the men returned home. It is said that the boats were hauled up on the bank with the help of a threshing machine and taken down again the same way the next year; but it was more usual for them all to go together to Foulis or PoIlo so that all the men were available to help with the beaching. For the rest of the year they stayed at home and concentrated on white fishing.

Several ex-fisher girls speak of the fun they used to have at the herring fishing and they say how friendly and kind all the other girls were. They were usually about seventeen to eighteen years old when they first went to the gutting and packing. Curers visited the various villages engaging the girls with an 'arles' of 30/- to go to Lerwick, Bressay, Ronaldsvoe, Fraserburgh, Buckie, Peterhead and Aberdeen, as well as other ports, and then south to Lowestoft and Yarmouth.

When the time came to leave home the girls filled their big varnished boxes and went by cart to Fearn Station. Going north they took the train to Wick and went by steamer to Shetland, but going south it was train all the way. It was only very occasionally that they
sailed all the way north from Invergordon. Their fare was paid and they got a free supply of coal. Accommodation was in wooden huts, six to nine girls to a hut, with living quarters downstairs and bunk beds upstairs. Very occasionally they had lodgings in town. Working clothes, including gum boots, oilskins and aprons, were kept in a glory hole. They provided their own cooking utensils and crockery and took it in turns to do the cooking. They were allowed about 10/- a week for lodgings in the various ports about 1910, except for some reason at Fraserburgh.

They were engaged as a 'crew' of three, two gutters and one packer, but each member of the crew could do gutting or packing if necessary. Their cardigans had elbow-length sleeves so that they would not hamper their work. The gutters wound strips of cloth round their fingers to save them from cuts from the sharp 'guttach' with which they slit the fish. After gutting, they threw the different sizes of fish, big, matty or small, into different baskets from which the packer filled the barrels. She worked with a tub of salt alongside her, laying layers of herring and salt alternately till the barrel was full, The barrels were inspected and closed and re-opened a fortnight later once the herring had settled down so that more fish and brine might be added. the bung was put in, the lid secured and the barrels stamped. It was the coopers' job not only to make the barrels but to fetch salt for the packers and to see to the opening and closing of the barrels.

Working from 6.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. a crew could fill about forty barrels a day depending on the size of the herring. Sometimes things were quiet and sometimes there would be a big rush when the boats came in. They were paid 8d. a barrel or £1 for thirty shared out
among the crew, but later on they worked for a day's pay. All the figures given relate to about 1900.

In the evenings they sat and knitted and courted. Very often as the fishing romance blossomed into engagement and young people brought home 'fairings' for their future homes, and weddings were frequent after the season. A few married women went to the fishing too, taking their children during the school holidays to, join their husbands in the various ports.

It is thought that the herring yard at Balintore, the 'Big Yard', was built about 1880 although there had been a fish curer, James Fraser, there in 1830.14 It had a short life but a few people in their eighties can remember it working with great activity and stamped barrels set out ready to go away.  The Big Yard was just west of the Commercial Hotel and was owned and built by a Mr. Finlay from Caithness who also had the Portmahomack yard for a time. The stones to build it are said to have come from the shore opposite Balintore Hotel but may equally well have come from Balintore quarry. The main gutting and packing building was long and very high with a loft where gear was stored.  The cooperage and salt store were in sheds and the whole works were  enclosed by a wall with an arched gateway. Two red-tiled cottages ran at right-angles to the road, facing the hotel, where the coopers lived. Later one was occupied by Tom the Bobby who kept law and order from Balintore to Nigg Ferry.

The boats landed their catch on the rocks below the yard and it was carried up to the yard in baskets. Unloading became much easier when the harbour was built in 1890-96 and a crane lifted the baskets from the boats to carts which took them to the yard. The fish were tipped into shutes leading to long tables where the women and girls worked. There were a number of carters who did this work in the season, also carrying coal, sea-ware and so on from time to time.

Barrels were made of imported staves brought by both ship and train, with home grown wood for the tops and bottoms. One man remembers watching the coopers at work. They set staves in the bottom hoop, made a little fire in the middle, put on another hoop
and 'slashed' the fire with water to produce steam to bend the staves.  The barrels of salt herring prepared in Balintore were sent away by sea and are thought to have gone mainly to Russia. Herring were also kippered at the yard but there is no record of how they were sold.

The yard is said to have closed about 1900 but why it closed is uncertain. Did the herring disappear from local waters or was the yard uneconomic? Large though it seemed to the villages the fact that it employed only thirty to forty local women means that it was small by other standards. It has also been suggested that the great prosperity
which it brought encouraged drunkenness which contributed to its decline.

As an industry herring fishing has always fluctuated. Herring have been well described as 'a whimsical as well as a migrating animal'.  [15]They were plentiful between 1702 and 1714 but failed by 1788.  [16]  Their reappearance in the l800s enabled fishermen to improve their homes and furniture but 'debt was incurred, high ideas raised' and their failure again by 1840 produced a lamentable degree of poverty.  [8a]

By the early 1880s they once more returned but over supplies caused a drop in price and with increasing competition from Scandinavian fisheries, there was soon hardship again. In 1883 four hundred fishers from Hilton, Balintore and Shandwick presented a petition to the Napier Commission, stating that they had little land for crops and depended on fishing but were limited in what they could achieve without a suitable harbour or piers. [Marinell Ash, p. 262 of book on Cromarty Firth.]   Nevertheless between 1884-88 seventy-one boats and two hundred men from the villages were engaged in fishing, landing a total value for those five years of £10,105. [17]

Once again this brought great prosperity and justified the building of the yard only to have it close in twenty years. But even after its closure the men went herring fishing elsewhere, some finding work on drifters from the Morayshire coast which called at the villages for 'hard men' and others continuing to use their own boats. Herring fishing was
only given up about the time of the First world War.

The herring yard stood idle for many years but children played about it and many a dance took place in its loft. But when it became derelict and dangerous it was demolished in the 1930s and the stones carted, it is said, to Golspie, to build the Post Office in Lairg, to build the United Free Church and Manse in Balintore, to make foundations for oil tanks in Invergordon, to Inverness - and what were left over were put on the shore. No wonder it was called the Big Yard!

There is still a little herring fishing for pleasure in summer but the only visible remains of large-scale herring fishing on the seaboard are a few rotting hulks still to be seen just below Foulis.*

*Long since disappeared [RCHS note]

Continued in Chapter 6
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