The 1st Statistical Account

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Sir John Sinclair, Baronet of Ulbster in Caithness (Image taken from Raeburn painting) with background of west coast outline

Sir John Sinclair, Baronet of Ulbster in Caithness standing in front of map of Ross and Cromarty

By the Rev. Mr. James Smith

Fishery – About the end of the last century, there was only one fishing boat here, the crew of which resides in the country. The village of Seatown, which contains at present 93* families, has been mostly, if not entirely, built since that period, and the fisherman there are now equal to any in the north of Scotland, for hardiness, skill, and industry, though their distance from the main ocean subjects them to many inconveniences.

N.B. *This number, besides the Fishermen, includes also the families of widows, publicans, boat-builders, and other artificers who reside among them.

From the beginning of October to the middle of March, they commonly fish for herrings in those upper parts of the Firth. Towards the end of March and in April, they go down along the coasts of Moray and Caithness, for cod, skate, and haddocks. In May and June, some of them are engaged by the Northumberland Fishing company to catch lobsters for the London market, on the shores of Easter Ross, about Tarbat-point. The others, during those months, work at the haddock fishing, to supply the towns of Inverness and Fortrose, and the Western part of the Black Isle. About the middle of July, all the able fishermen here go off to Caithness, and Lochbroom, for six or eight weeks, when the herring fishery at those stations is commonly most favourable, and in good years they have been known to bring home from thence, 8L or 10L Sterling each man of nett gain.

They generally return in September, to prepare for the season at home, which, owing to the small depth, and clearness of this firth, begins only about the autumnal equinox, or a fortnight thereafter. The same causes oblige the fishermen, for the most part, to delay their work here till evening or night, as the herring are caught in much greater numbers, than during the day. In good seasons, it is not uncommon for each boat to bring in the quantity of from 18 to 25 barrels in one night. When the shoal comes up in the end of June or beginning of July, the herring prove generally best, and most plentiful.

In winter 1786-7, besides those used at home, five or six thousand barrels were cured here for exportation, and several sloops also were dispatched with full cargoes of unpacked herrings for Dunbar, and other towns on the east coast. Since that period, the success in general has been poor at this station, little more than what served to supply the neighbouring country, except in spring 1792, when about 1100 barrels were exported. Last winter, the herrings were uncommonly scarce. And the present season, 1793-4, though is promised well in autumn, has turned out but indifferently. There are not now (in February) 200 barrels packed.

The herring found here are seldom so large as those caught in Caithness, and Lochbroom, which makes it necessary for the men to provide a different set of nets of a smaller mesh and depth, than what they are use at the former stations. Nor have any buildings as yet been erected at Avoch, for curing them in the red manner. The quantity of herring sufficient to pack a barrel when cured, is sold here fresh, at from 3s to 5s 6d according to quality and the demand. And the middle-sized, when fat, are reckoned much nicer, and more delicate eating, than larger ones, though they do not fetch so good a price at the London and other markets, being not accounted so fit for exportation to hot climates. But, if our best hands, at all the different stations in the north and west of Scotland, were provided with large and commodious busses, so that they could go out and continue fishing in deep water, and cure their herrings on board, in the same expeditious and careful manner that the Dutch do, this business might soon become much more advantageous to Great Britain than at present, and our fish become as saleable abroad as theirs! And the weaker and more indifferent hands would at same time, find the better employment in continuing to catch for ordinary consumption at home, from the smaller shoals, which now and then come near to our shores, in the manner that all the hands do at present*

*The Messrs Falls of Dunbar, were, for many years, the principal adventurers in the herring fishery here, and from them the Avoch men met with very good encouragement. Since the unfortunate failure of that old and respectable house, the Northumberland or Beadnel Fishing Company have taken up part of this business, in which an established company, with a good capital, have a far better chance of success than small adventurers, who cannot afford to lay in a proper stock of salt and barrels, much less to keep them unused in favourable seasons. At this station, indeed, the herring fishing, on the present plan, has been found, for some years past, to be but a precarious concern. One successful winter tempted many of the neighbouring shopkeepers to embark in it, and those who did so with borrowed money, have mostly become bankrupts since. To secure the important national benefits of this trade, every reasonable encouragement should be given to both the fishermen and curers.

The fishing boats here are of a small size, their keel being only 26 or 27 feet in length, the mouth from 30 to 32 feet long, and 10 feet wide. The depth is so proportioned to these dimensions, as that they may sail well, and may carry, besides the crew and their fishing tackle, 3 or 4 tons safely. Six of these boats, wrought by seven men each, for the white fishing, two or three smaller ones or yawls, occupied by old men and boys, belong to the place. During the herring season, they fit out a good many more, as four men, with a boy to steer, serve this purpose, and they then hire some additional hands from the country. When the season here proves successful, the fishing boats of Nairn, Delnies, Campbeltown, and Petty, join them, and some likewise from Easter Ross, Cromarty, Rosemarky, Fortrose, and Kessock, so that, even in this upper part of the Firth, 60 or 80 herring boats, containing above 300 men, may be seen at times, plying together on the same stream. But such crowds are thought to be rather prejudicial to the business, in clear shallow water like this, as the herrings often suddenly disappear from them, and it is strongly suspected, that a multitude of boats and nets tends to frighten them away.

The quantity of canvas carried by the Avoch men, and some others in this neighbourhood, is very much disproportioned to the small size and burden of their boats. The length of the mast is generally above 30 feet. On this they hoist an immense oblong sail, containing 80 square yards, or 700 square feet of cloth. And they carry a foresail besides, on a pole at the boat stem, of the same oblong form, but only a tenth part of the size of the other. Their skill and alertness in setting and reefing those sails according to the wind and weather, and the course they mean to pursue, are wonderful. Several gentlemen of the navy have expressed their surprize at this, and declared, that they have seldom seen common fishermen carry so great a proportion of sail, or manage it more dextrously on any other part of the British coasts. Yet there have only been four Avoch men drowned by their boats oversetting, since the fishery first began here. But, as they continue gradually to enlarge those sails, without increasing the boats in proportion, it is to be feared that such accidents may become more frequent among them. For there is undoubtedly, a ne plus ultra in this as in all other human attempts.

In justice to the active enterprising spirit of those honest men, we may add, that three of the Seatown crews having engaged in spring 1791, to fish for several months on the coast of Northumberland, coasted it in their little open boats the whole way from Avoch to Beadnel, without either chart or compass, and returned home in like manner, with no other accident, except splitting one of their sails. A long voyage this for so small craft to undertake, if we consider the different windings of the coast, which they must necessarily follow! What a pity, that such men have not been regularly taught navigation, nor got larger vessels to manage, for there is not a single sloop belonging to the place.

The former inconvenience may now be obviated by the academy lately established at Fortrose, which affords them an easy and near opportunity of getting their children better instructed than heretofore. And if, along with this advantage, Providence be pleased to favour them with three or four good fishing years in succession, it is more than probable that some of the more careful and spirited young men may be persuaded to unite and improve their gains, in fitting out two or three small busses, or proper freighting sloops for this craft, of 50 to 60 tons each, which could occasionally be navigated by fewer hands than any of their present boats. Such sloops might be employed to good advantage every herring season on the bounty, and during the other months they would find abundant encouragement in carrying out cargoes of grain, when it can be spared, and bringing home coals, salt, lime, and other necessaries, to supply the increasing demands of this part of the country.

To promote and encourage such a scheme, would unquestionably be the interest of both gentlemen and traders on both sides of this Firth; as good seamen, having their home, or residence of their families here, could (ceteris paribus) afford to serve the neighbourhood on easier terms than strangers, besides that, a great part of the money, which these districts must necessarily pay for such freights, would thus remain and circulate at home. There is likewise another important consideration, that cargoes would be exposed to less hazard of loss or damage, under the care of seamen so well acquainted with most of the different harbours, rocks and sand banks, in this long and tedious Firth. No less remarkable are the inhabitants of this thriving village in general, for their industry and diligence. They manufacture, of the best materials they can procure, not only their own fishing apparatus, but also a great quantity of herring and salmon nets yearly, for the use of other stations in the North and West Highlands. From Monday morning to Saturday afternoon, the men seldom loiter at home 24 hours at a time, when the weather is at all favourable for going to sea. And the women, and children, besides the care of their houses, and, the common operations of gathering and affixing bait, and of vending the fish over all the neighbouring country, do a great deal of those manufactures. Some of their families also cultivate from a rood to half an acre of potatoes yearly for their own supply; and others, whose children are more advanced, raise and dress, for the herring nets, good quantity of hemp. Even the aged and infirm employ themselves as busily as they can at making baiting hooks, and mending nets, so that, except for a few days about Christmas, or on the occasion of a fisher’s wedding, there are none but little children idle in the whole Seatown. And this their industry turns out to good account; for they bring up and provide for their families decently in their sphere. They pay honestly all the debts they contract in the country, and, considering the number of widows, and fatherless, and of infirm and aged persons among them, very, few of this village, except in cases of great emergency, are found to solicit the assistance of either public or private charity.

Wages and price of provisions – The following comparative state, founded on good information, will shew the advance on some essential articles of this nature, within 60 years past, in this district, viz.

 Common amount In1734Common amount In1794
L s dL s d
 Wages of an able ploughman, or farm servant, per annum, sterling 1 13 4 4 4 0
 ~~~~~~~~~~a Female servant 0 13 3 1 10 0
 ~~~~~~~~~~a day labourer, per diem, finding 0 0 4 0 0 9
his own victuals
 ~~~~~~~~~~a journeyman mason, 0 0 11 0 1 10
 ~~~~~~~~~~a journeyman wright, 0 0 8 0 1 3
 ~~~~~~~~~~a taylor, 0 0 5 0 0 9
   Common amount In 1734 Common amount In1794
L s dL s d
 Oatmeal, per boll, 9cwt., 9 stone or 144lbs Amsterdam weight 2.3 0 8 10 0 16 0
 Barley, or bear, per boll, (Linlithgow measure) 0 9 0 0 18 0
 Potaoes per peck, (ditto 2 streaks) not then sold 0 0 6
 Beef and veal, per lib(Amsterdam weight) 0 0 1 21/2d to 3d
 Good Mutton, per 0 0 3/4 0 0 3
 Pork, per  0 0 12d to  21/2d
 Ducks, each 0 0 3 0 0 8
 Chickens, do.. 0 0 2 4d to 6d
 Eggs per dozen0 0 3/4 11/2 d to 2d
 haddocks, per do. 0 0 1 0 0 9
 Butter per stone (of 21lbs Amsterdam weight) 0 5 0 0 12 0
 Cheese, per do..  0 1 8 5s to 5s 6d
 ªSalt per peck,(Linlithgow meal measure 0 0 7 0 1 6
Or 14lbs Amsterdam weight)

Within the above period, the establishment of a garrison at Fort George and the flourishing state of Inverness, by greatly increased the demand, have tended to raise the price of most kinds of provisions here. Considering however the high rents now paid by the farmers, and the progressive advance on everything else, those present rates, on the whole, cannot be reasonably complained of, except by such persons as have had narrow limited incomes, with no opportunity of improving them. One necessary article, salt, for home consumption, has, indeed, been uncommonly scarce and high priced for some months, over all the north of Scotland; but for this, it is hoped, that the wisdom of Parliament will soon provide a remedy. And the late repeal of the duty on coals carried coastways, though the advance on freight of such a bulky article, prevents the benefit being so sensibly felt at present, must when the war is over, be acknowledged a great relief, to a district so poorly provided with other fuel as this.

Roads and Bridges:–Not only in this parish, but over the whole of Ardmeanach, the roads have, for many years past, been as well attended to, and kept in as good repair, as in any part of Scotland, where turnpikes are not established. At most places, where highways meet or intersect each other, direction-posts have been fixed and kept up. In a country, where many of the inhabitants cannot speak to a stranger in English, the importance of these is obvious. Part of one road here, ‘twixt the Seatown of Avoch and Fortrose, being liable to frequent incroachments of the sea, proves exceedingly troublesome and expensive. A substantial repair to that, and a few small bridges, are the principal things of this nature now wanted in the district. The county of Ross, last year, established a commutation of the statute labour within their bounds, with a view, no doubt, to improve those matters of police still farther, by hiring able hands with the money and keeping steady surveyors over them. The rates charged are 1s. 6d. yearly from each man, liable to the statute work; and 2s. 6d. more from the tenants, for the strength of each plough. These rates may be thought hard by some poor people, who have little ready money to command, and would rather give; their work in the moderate way it used to be exacted. But every judicious farmer or well employed mechanic, who considers the importance of a long summer day for carrying on his own work or improvements at home, will think it much more expedient to pay them. Whether this scheme, however, on the whole, shall more effectually promote the public good than the former, the county will be better enabled to judge, after some years experience.