The Treasury Report on the Brand in 1857

Women gutting herring in the 1920s
Women gutting herring in the 1920s, Johnston Collection

The investigation into the future of the Fishery Board and of the Brand instigated by the Treasury in 1856 published its findings in February 1857 1 . It explained in detail the arguments for and against the continuation of the Brand and then weighed up the arguments against each other. One of the three investigators was unable to agree with the other two. He submitted a report of his own, favouring abolition. The recommendations of the majority report were accepted by the Treasury and passed into law 2 . This report recommended a compromise, making branding a payable option, with a charge of 4d per barrel.

The thorough and detailed investigation did not neglect the German market. One of the arguments given in favour of retaining the brand was that ‘they have to deal, too, they say, with a people for whom the stamp of a Government officer carries a peculiar weight… and whom it would take long to persuade to place the same trust in private marks. 3 ’ They also described how the market had developed by the active participation of German merchants ‘of high commercial position’ who came to Scotland and used their financial strength to stabilize it by holding back their stocks when a glut threatened, and by making advances to curers, thus invigorating the trade. They gave, as an example, an arrangement made in Wick whereby between seventy and ninety thousand barrels were bought and part paid for before the fishing started. The merchants were clearly enterprising, for at this time Wick was still a very isolated community. The railway was not opened until 1874 4 , and until then access by sea was the only practical possibility. Even when the railways were established, the journey to Wick was a significant undertaking. A page from the timetable of July 1885 is instructive 5 . A passenger leaving London at 5 pm on the night mail would reach Perth by 7:50 am on the following day. Continuing northwards, the train would arrive in Inverness at 11:50 am. Twenty minutes later, the connecting train would leave Inverness. It would finally arrive at Wick at 6:10 pm.

In the Annual Report of 1858 the Board chose to re-publish a circular which had been distributed to the trade by the German merchants, who naturally took great interest in the future of the Brand. Their reaction was as follows: ‘We have therefore, with experience before us, no hesitation to declare that buying Herrings in Scotland , on our part, without the Brand, would be would be quite out of the question; that Curers would therefore be obliged to consign all their Herrings to the Continental Market; that no house would make any advance before the Herrings had arrived and been properly examined, and even then to a more limited extent; and that many of us would also entirely withdraw from a trade thus exposed to endless troubles and vexations.

Of the Import of Stettin, one third is re-exported to Poland, Bohemia and Austria; of Danzig two thirds and of Königsberg one half to Russia and Poland, all of which are crown and full brand Herrings.

The official Brand being thus the only guarantee for both sellers and buyers, not a single Barrel of unbranded Herrings would be taken in these markets …’ 6

The circular ends: ‘with the exception of a limited quantity of the July catch, in order to have early new Herrings in the market, during the regular fishing season we will not buy any Herrings in Scotland without the official crown and full Brand’. The letter was signed for or on behalf of twenty trading companies in Stettin, ten in Danzig, ten in Königsberg, one in Harburg and one in Magdeburg. There can be no doubt that the influence of the German merchants played a major role in preventing the abolition of the Brand. It might be imagined that this was the end of the dispute, but it was not to be the case, and the matter was to surface again in 1881.

The decision with respect to the Brand did not stop James Methuen from writing to the newspapers, mainly on the topic of fishing, stirring up controversy, and occasionally eliciting a response 7 . In 1861 he even wrote a letter about railway accidents 8 . In 1862, James Junior’s wife bore him a son. Unsurprisingly, they chose to call him James. James Senior suffered from a heart complaint, and in 1862, after additionally contracting pneumonia 9 , he died. In the John o’ Groat Journal, it was proposed that a monument should be erected in Wick to commemorate him. They wrote: ‘How often has it been that poor men from remote districts in the Highlands who have come to this place with their feet through their shoes and not worth more than the stick they carried in their hands, would, nevertheless, get a boat and drift nets with them from Mr. Methuen worth £120 or £150 which was the beginning of their illustrious career.’ 10 This would seem to be borne out by the Inventory which was drawn up after his death. In Wick alone, forty-five people together owed him just over £1102 11 . It became necessary to draw up an additional inventory 12 . His overall estate was valued at between fifty-six and sixty-three thousand pounds.

It would be wrong to minimize the importance of James Methuen to the trade, but it should also be borne in mind that the industry relied on the toil of fishermen, coopers, carters and ‘fisher lassies’. The work of the latter involved waiting for the boats to return in the morning and then gutting and packing the fish – at high speed, in the open air in all weathers – and working till finish. There were also many small- and medium- scale fishcurers, such as my paternal great-grandfather, who was a crofter and fishcurer , living in cramped conditions as a tenant in a two-roomed cottage owned – like the whole village of Latheronwheel – by an English ex-army major and brewing magnate 13 . The Herring Brand would have enabled small curers in isolated villages to offer their product on the marketplace as effectively as the big fishcurers in towns such as Wick. With the passage of time, the industry gradually changed. By 1870, the relative importance of Wick had declined (Figure 8.1), just as, on the Continent, other destinations grew in importance compared with Stettin (Figure 8.2). The overall production did not grow significantly (See Figure 2),but there were major fluctuations in the catch (such as the drop in 1859 14 ) for which there were, at the time, no explanations.


1. 1857 Copy of reports addressed to the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury in 1856, or the present year, on the subject of the Fishery Board of Scotland (Treasury Report 1857) pp.2-5

2. Report by the Commissioners for the British Fisheries 1858 pp2-5

3. Treasury Report 1857 p.8

4. Valance H.A. The Highland Railway (Newton Abbot,1969) p.37

5. Valance Highland Railway p.77

6. Report by the Commissioners for the British Fisheries 1858 p.3

7. See, for example John o’ Groat Journal 21 March 1861.

8. John o’ Groat Journal 12th of September 1861

9. Scotland's People Death certificate 1862 Methuen James 692/010154, North Leith

10. John o’ Groat Journal 4th of September 1862

11. Scotland's People Methuen, James SC 70/1/124 Edinburgh Sheriff Court Inventories

12. Scotland's People Methuen, James SC70/1/139 Edinburgh Sheriff Court Inventories

13. Leeds Mercury 28th of November 1895 Will of Major Michel Stocks

14. Report by the Commissioners for the British Fishery 1859 p.1