The State of the Herring Fishery

In July 1877 the Conservative Home Secretary R.A. Cross commissioned a report on the state of the herring fishery in Scotland as it had been claimed that it was in an ‘unsatisfactory state’ 1 . The Commissioners travelled extensively. Starting in Edinburgh they made their way up the east coast, continued to Orkney and Shetland, and then travelled down the west coast – visiting the Western Isles on their way, to Glasgow. The most interesting aspect of the resulting report, which was mentioned briefly at the start of this chapter, is its methodology. It uses reason to address the reported problems and to look for practical solutions. While the commissioners obviously spent a great deal of time listening to various explanations concerning the decline of fishing in various places, they developed their own thinking and established a consistent understanding of the problems of the industry.

In the case of Wick, they ascribed its relative decline to the lack of a satisfactory harbour. They compared the results for Fraserburgh and Wick 2 These are illustrated in Figure 11. At the time of the report, the harbour in Wick was in a very sorry state. The development of fishing in Wick was originally promoted by the British Fisheries Society starting in 1803 3 . On the 19th of August 1848 a disastrous storm had resulted in the deaths of thirty-seven fishermen. Many of the fishermen died attempting to enter the harbour at low tide between 4 and 5 a.m. watched by their horrified friends and relatives from the shore 4 . The Fisheries Society consolidated their finances and attempted to address the problem, but administrative setbacks 5 , and storm damage delayed the works. On the 10th and 11th of February 1870 a fierce storm destroyed about 450 feet of the still-uncompleted breakwater which had been designed by the family firm of D. and T. Stevenson which had successfully built many lighthouses round the Scottish Coast. After the disaster, the debris from the wrecked breakwater also made it more difficult to use the harbour. Robert Louis Stevenson, who was later to become famous as an author, accompanied his father to Wick during the building work. He did not have a very good impression of the town: ‘Certainly Wick in itself possesses no beauty: bare, grey shores, grim grey houses, grim grey sea; not even the gleam of red tiles; not even the greenness of a tree.’

The main argument of the report is that the most enterprising fishermen moved to places like Peterhead and Fraserburgh, and that the apparent failure of the fishing elsewhere was simply a consequence of the reduction in the number of boats and fishermen. In their view, there was no need to enforce a close season to preserve fish stocks. They gave the example of Ailsa Craig, which is located near an important spawning bank. They estimated that the ten thousand gannets on Ailsa Craig would have consumed more than 21 million herring, while the fishermen only caught 12 million herring during the same period. Their overall conclusion was: ‘Nothing that man has yet done, and nothing that man is likely to do has diminished, or is likely to diminish, the stock of herrings in the sea.’ 6

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that this is not the case. The 20th Century saw the steady development of ever more powerful technology to enable fishermen to catch what was left of diminishing fish stocks 7 . The problem became so acute in the late 1970s that the herring fishery in the EU was closed for six years 8 . Despite this lack of foresight, the 1878 report does represent a step towards a more scientific approach to the issue of fishing stocks, and the conclusion did hold good for quite some time after the report was published. The report paved the way for the further development of trawling which was to prove instrumental in the success of the industry in the following years.

The evidence provided by Mr A.W. Beda gives some information about the geographical extent of the trade: ‘The herrings are sent to Germany and are eaten in all parts of Germany and even in Austria. They are conveyed to the Baltic ports and distributed throughout the interior. The herrings are also sent to Odessa.’ 9 Apparently the duty charged in Austria had been reduced in 1864 10 , encouraging trade. The statistics of the Fishery Board confirm that, for example, a total of 2808½ barrels of herring were exported to Odessa from Leith, Aberdeen and Peterhead in 1879 11 . In all the discussion about the trade, it is seldom that the consumer is mentioned. However, in the evidence given by John Wilson, a merchant from Leith, we are given some insight: ‘The west coast herrings also go through the whole of European Russia. Wherever there is a Russian noble, he has a barrel of herrings. The great market of the east coast herrings is Poland and up the Danube. They are eaten by the common people. The greatest eaters of them are the Jews.’ 12 In this context it is worth noting that at this time Odessa had a large and growing Jewish population. 13

In ports such as Wick which were dependent upon the herring trade, information about the continental markets was very important, and it was also in the interest of traders in these markets to provide such information. As a result, from the early 1860s the newspapers contained reports giving detailed information about demand, prices, and unsold stocks. Often, the newspapers would include several such reports, and, since the traders reported regularly, their names would become familiar to the readers. One such trader was William Reid – a Scotsman from Edinburgh who moved to Stettin in 1851. By 1853 he was already importing herring from Wick 13 . While most of Reid’s reports concerned themselves with market conditions, some are of more general interest. The town of Stettin is built on the river Oder at a point before the river widens to form the Stettin Lagoon, from which a narrow passage (supplemented by a canal in 1880) leads past Swinemünde to the Baltic. In a report written on the 29th of March 1862 he wrote ‘Our navigation suddenly opened on the 21st when both steamers and sailing vessels would come up to the town, and during this week we have had a supply of 4,150 barrels of Scottish herrings…Of this quantity,about 900 barrels per Leith steamers, and the remainder in four sailing vessels. This arrival has brought down prices considerably…’ 14 In 1858 Reid adopted Prussian nationality. He was to remain a Prussian subject until 1872 15 when he once again became a British subject, subsequently becoming British Vice-Consul on the 8th of August 1876 16 . The war between Prussia and Denmark in 1864 impacted on Mr. Reid’s trading. A boat carrying herring from Lybster for Reid in Stettin was impounded by Danish warships which were blockading the port 17 . It was later released after a payment of legal costs. The Franco-Prussian War had less impact, and Reid wrote to the John O’Groat Journal about the ineffectiveness of the French blockade 18 .

In 1865 a visitor to Stettin, who was a friend of William Reid described the herring market there 19 . The ships were hauled up the river to the pier of the merchant who had the largest number of barrels on board. Then the barrels were unloaded, inspected by coopers, and topped up with brine if necessary. Unloading the contents of a vessel and transferring them into a warehouse could take as little as forty-eight hours. The visitor describes how many of the buyers of the herring were Polish Jews from places like Warsaw and Breslau. He speaks disparagingly of their unkempt appearance, although this would clearly have helped them to remain unobtrusive, given that they came to Stettin on barges, carrying their working capital with them in cash. He relates that they were known for driving hard bargains and asserts that they were untrustworthy.


1. Buckland, Walpole, Young Report on the Herring Fisheries of Scotland p.ii

2. Buckland, Walpole, Young Report on the Herring Fisheries p.xiv

3. Dunlop J. The British Fisheries Society (Edinburgh 1978) p.157

4. John o'Groat Journal25th August 1848

5. The British Fisheries Society p.194

6. Buckland, Walpole, Young Report on the Herring Fisheries p.35

7. Reid C.A. Technological Change in the British Herring Industry,1900-1977 (PhD Thesis, University of Portsmouth, 1995)

8. Coull Sea Fisheries of Scotland p.292

9. Buckland, Walpole, Young Report on the Herring Fisheries Evidence,Edinburgh,p.7

10. Buckland, Walpole, Young Report on the Herring Fisheries Evidence,Wick,p67

11. Report by the Commissioners of the Fishery Board: Scotland 1879 Herring Fishery Accounts No V

12. Buckland, Walpole, Young Report on the Herring Fisheries Evidence,Edinburgh,p.7

13. Acherson N. Black Sea, 1995 p.140

14. John o' Groat Journal 12th August 1853, p.3

15. John o' Groat Journal 3rd April 1862

16. National Archives, Kew HO 334/260/100

17. National Archives FO 64/1015

18. John o' Groat Journal 16th of June 1864

19. John o' Groat Journal 15th of September 1870

20. John o' Groat Journal 30th of November 1865