The Fishery Board and the Development of the Industry

Traditional herring packing in the Netherlands

In 1878 three commissioners were given the task of reporting on the state of the Scottish herring fishery. In their lively and insightful report,they explain that in the 18th Century: “The herring fisheries of Scotland owed their development to jealousy of the Dutch.” 1 By the time the Board was established in 1809 there were good reasons to put this motivation into practise. Napoleon’s Continental System was in place, and the Kingdom of Holland was a client state of his empire. The government chose to provide financial incentives to encourage the growth of the industry.

The Dutch trade in herring on the Continent relied on their skill in preserving them. The process of curing the fish involved gutting them and then packing them into barrels with salt. After leaving them for about ten to fifteen days - a process called ‘pining’. The barrels would then be topped up with fish taken from the same batch, brine would be added,and they would then be closed. Provided that they were treated with care, barrels of herring preserved in this way would last the winter months, ensuring a continuous supply. Because they fished far from home, the Dutch developed fairly large fishing vessels, called herring busses. They would catch the herring at sea and pack them in barrels. When they returned to port they would repack them for distribution and sale. Apparently in 1667 the Dutch had 2000 herring busses fishing in the North Sea off the Scottish coast 2 . The 1809 law which established the Fishery Board was framed round the idea that the herring would be caught by ‘adventurers’ using herring busses, but the industry developed very differently.

Herring rise to the surface at night to feed, so that is the easiest time to catch them. The fishing grounds used by the Scots were close to the coast, so they were able to sail out in relatively simple undecked craft to catch fish overnight. They would look carefully for signs of fish - typically by watching for gulls and then set their drift nets which were weighted down at the bottom, and attached to floats at the top. After waiting for several hours they would use the rocking motion of the boat to help them haul in their nets, shaking them to cause the fish to fall into the hull. On their return, the fish would be processed and packed immediately. The result was a better product. The processing consisted of removing the gills, heart and bloodline, either by hand or using a knife, sorting the fish by type and size, and packing them. This work was carried out by teams of women who worked in threes – two to gut and one to pack- and supervised by a cooper, whose main job was to manufacture barrels.

From its outset, the role of the Fishery Board was to maintain standards and to intervene in disputes between fishermen. The bill, 3 which was the basis for the establishment of the Board was drafted in an era of mercantilism in a country which was still at war. It provided for bounties to be paid to fishermen to encourage them to catch fish for export. It was also intended that by encouraging fishery the nation would have more men familiar with the sea who could be called upon in time of war. As one condition for the payment of the bounty, fishery officers were obliged to inspect the curing of the fish and only correctly cured fish could be sold within Europe. Implicit in this approach was the intention that fish which did not meet the standard could be shipped to the West Indies to feed the slaves. As in the case of cod ‘the West Indies presented growing market for the rejects, for anything that was cheap’ 4 . By feeding the slaves, rather than have them growing their own crops, slave-owners could keep them working longer. This trade only flourished until the abolition of slavery ‘since the blacks, in connection with emancipation, acquired the privilege of choosing their own food.’ 5

When fishing boats were being unloaded, the standard measure was the cran, which would typically contain about 1200 fish. A barrel of pickle-salted herring weighed about 320 pounds (145 Kg), of which 262 pounds were fish. Fish could also be delivered in half- and quarter-sized barrels. The quarter-sized barrels were called firkins. According to the 1809 Bill, the barrels of fish which passed inspection were branded by the fishery officer 6 . This was the beginning of the institution of the Crown Brand, which was to play a pivotal role in the development of the industry. According to family tradition, when my grandfather went to Edinburgh University from the local Board School at the age of 18 in 1892 he took with him a sack of oatmeal and a firkin of herring.

The Fishery Board was also given another responsibility – the conservation of the fishing stock. There was a concern that too fine a mesh on the nets would prevent the young fry from escaping, so the Bill specified that nets should not have a mesh of less than one inch from knot to knot. If fishermen were found to be using nets which infringed this regulation, they would be confiscated and destroyed, and a fine of £40 would be imposed 7 . Since the nets were an important investment for the fishermen, and tended to shrink with repeated use, this was to prove a difficult rule to enforce, and in the early days the Board found it necessary to seek the support of the navy 8 and to purchase a cutter of their own 9 .

The Board was active in encouraging fishcurers to adopt best practise in order to develop a product which would be competitive on the European market. They introduced rules governing the size and construction of barrels 10 and in 1816, following the advice of dealers of British herring in Hamburg, they introduced the practise of sorting the herring according to their size and state of development, denoting the younger fish ‘matties’ 11 , and the mature fish with milt and roe ‘fulls’. They also introduced appropriate branding irons 12 to mark the barrels.

The Edinburgh-based Fishery Board had a responsibility to account as accurately as possible for the payment of the bounty, and this entailed the gathering of statistics about the trade. These were published on an annual basis. As the industry developed, more detailed statistics were published, but was only in 1851 that they started to publish information about export to the Continent. As a part of the present study a database has been established to store the most relevant statistics. This has made it possible to produce charts which show the development of the industry and of the trade with the continent. The charts can be viewed from the Statistics section. In order to accompany the text specific extracts have also been made. They are grouped together on the Extracts page. Figure 1 shows the development of the industry from 1811 to 1850, while Figure 7.1 shows the relative importance of the fishing ports exporting to the Continent and Figure 7.2 shows the corresponding statistics for the destinations on the Continent in 1852.


1. Buckland F., Walpole S., Young A. Report on the herring fisheries of Scotland 1878

2. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 2nd Report 1883 p. xii

3. 1808 A bill [as amended by the committee] for the further encouragement and better regulation of the British white herring fishery

4. Kurlansky M., Cod (London, 1997) p.81

5. The Times October 13, 1843

6. A Bill for the further Encouragement and Better Regulation of the British White Herring Fishery, 1808 p.17

7. A Bill for the further Encouragement and Better Regulation of the British White Herring Fishery, 1808 p.5

8. Report by the Commissioners for the Herring Fishery 1812 p. 1

9. Report by the Commissioners for the Herring Fishery 1815 p. 2

10. Report by the Commissioners for the Herring Fishery 1815 p. 2

11. An anglicisation of the Dutch-German word Matjes.

12. Report by the Commissioners for the Herring Fishery 1816 p. 2