Shore St,Leith
Shore St,Leith at some time between 1853 and 1904 - George Washington Wilson Collection, University of Aberdeen

In November 1880 a memorial to the Treasury against the Brand was sent by ten fishcurers on the East Coast of Scotland who claimed to have a total business of £338,000 p.a. One of the most prominent of the memorialists was James McCombie of Peterhead. It was decided to set up Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the arguments for and against the Brand. A preliminary hearing was held with Mr Primrose. By this time,he had been in office for a total of 43 years. He was 67 years old. He recommended that the committee should call foreign herring merchants to act as witnesses, rather than the consuls, as he felt that they would be more able to explain the trade.

Mr Primrose could no longer rely on a member of the Methuen family to provide him with support. John Methuen had drowned on the way to Hamburg in 1866 1 , and, after suffering from a serious liver complaint for about two years, James Junior died in February 1873 2 . At the time of his death his oldest son 3 was only ten years old, and, doubtlessly anticipating his death, James Junior had made arrangements for the family business to be sold. These arrangements were quickly effected after his death. While continuing to trade as James Methuen & Co, by 1881 the company was now being run by a Mr James Blackie who was opposed to the retention of the Brand. When James Junior’s son grew up, he studied at Baliol and then became a Writer to the Signet – an Edinburgh solicitor 4 . However, this was not the end of the Methuen family’s involvement with the herring trade, because in 1869 James Senior’s daughter Jane was married to Dugald Graham 5 , who became Primrose’s successor as Secretary to the Fishery Board. Their son, James Methuen Graham (1882-1962) became a distinguished surgeon in Edinburgh. Another of James Senior's daughters, Matilda, travelled to Australia on the City of Adelaide's maiden voyage where she married her cousin, Peter Waite, who was a successful businessman, pastoralist and philanthropist.

Fortunately for Mr Primrose and the Board the merchants from Germany were able, once again, to confirm the fundamental importance of the Brand. William Reid, who acted as a spokesman for Stettin, was particularly influential. He defended the importance of the Brand and also brought a paper from Mr Heidenreich of Schmitt und Albrecht in Stettin 6 which documented the fact that in recent years there had been a marked increase in the import of Scottish herring compared with Norwegian herring. Reid ascribed this to the fact that it was possible to send the Scottish herring further into the interior due to the superior quality of the barrels and the packing. He described how, although buyers from Berlin and Posen would come to inspect the herring themselves as it only took them a couple of hours, most of the trading was done without inspection, on the strength of the Brand 7 . The Select Committee recommended that the Brand should be retained. This was the last time that the existence of the Board would be challenged in this way.

In 1884 an International Fisheries Exhibition was held in London, and a competition was held for essays on the herring fishery. While by then the decision had been taken to retain the brand, one of the essays expresses clearly the ideological objection to government involvement ‘Why are not our potatoes and cabbages, and boots, and chairs and tables branded?’ The essay goes on to say that we have ‘a remarkable instance of a system undoubtedly wrong in principle working well in practice’ and argues that ‘no fresh system should be started on these principles’ since ‘the less we have of Government Interference, the better it will be for us.’ 8

In January 1882 Mr. Primrose announced his intention to resign from his post, and in the same year an Act of Parliament was published in which it was decided to reconstitute the board as the Fishery Board for Scotland. 9 This took place on the 16th of October. Given Mr. Primrose’s established Liberal credentials, and the fact that the changes took place under a Liberal government, it seems likely that he had a hand in the changes. During the second half of the 19th Century Liberalism was in the ascendancy in Scotland and "Liberal values represented Scottish values" 10 . The Act cleared up lines of responsibility, giving the Board more power and responsibility, and making it answerable to the Home Secretary. It also changed the funding of the Board, making it the responsibility of Parliament. In addition to taking on the responsibilities of its predecessor, the new Board was also made responsible for salmon fisheries. in 1883 he found the time to have his portrait painted. Mr. Primrose lived on till 1898 11 and he is mentioned occasionally in the newspapers. In 1885 he was to be present at a banquet for his nephew, the 5th Earl of Rosebery 12 , who was later to become Prime Minister. In 1886, when Gladstone visited Edinburgh and attended a church service, he sat in Mr. Primrose’s pew 13 .

As can be seen, on two separate occasions, Mr Primrose was able to call on the support of German merchants to help the Fishery Board to survive, even though some considered it to be an anachronism in an era in which ‘individual effort rather than government intervention was the key to greater prosperity and inter-class cooperation.’ 14 In practise, the abolition of the Fishery Board would certainly have had a disruptive effect on the trade and would only have benefited the larger fishcurers. The level-headed self-interest of the German merchants helped common-sense to prevail.


1. Dundee Courier and Argus 8th of June 1866

2. Scotland's People Methuen James Statutory Deaths 692/010064

3. Scotland's People Methuen James Statutory Births 692/010175

4. Marriage of James: The Standard London 13/4/1891 p. 1 , Death: Scotland's People 1933 Statutory Deaths: 685/010245

5. Scotland's People 1869 Graham Dugald- Methuen Jane, Statutory Marriages 692/010114

6. Select Committee on Herring Brand(Scotland) 1881 Questions 3630-3640

7. Select Committee on Herring Brand Questions 3651-3655

8. Green H.J. The Herring Fisheries (London,1884) pp.10-12

9. A bill to establish a Fishery Board for Scotland (London,1882)

10. Devine T.M. The Scottish Nation (London,2012) p. 285

11. Scotland's People Primrose Bouverie F Hon Statutory Deaths 685/010320

12. Dundee Evening Telegraph 12th October 1885

13. Aberdeen Evening Express 21st June 1886

14. Parry J. The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain (1993,New Haven) p.168