Before the Catastrophe and After

In 1914 the Harbour Treasurer in Fraserburgh published an historical account of the town, which includes a list of the herring exporters who were active in 1912 1 . It gives some indication of the extent to which apparently foreign companies or individuals were involved:

Mr. James A. Thomson
Messrs. A. Smith & Schultze
Messrs. William Leslie & Co Ltd
Mr. S.B. Birkhabn of Libau
Messrs. H. Dinesmann, Son & Co
Mr. William G. Simpson
Messrs. Günther & Co
Messrs. Günther & Rohde
Messrs. L. Stern & Sons
Mr. Martin Luther

On further investigation it has been possible to find out about some of these individuals. Max Julius Leopold Schultze was the son of a German herring trader who had settled in Peterhead in 1885 2 . In 1909 at the age of 28 he married Helen Spence, daughter of a crofter 3 in Lerwick. Between the wars he went on to be active in the Labour Party and was elected Provost of Peterhead, a post which he held until 1940. In May 1941 he changed his name to Max Saunders 4 . Hermann Carl Günther, owner of Günther & Co came to Scotland in 1872 and retired to Aberdeen shortly after the start of the First World War. He too was married to a Scot. Emil Karl Günther, part-owner of Günther & Rohde, was an exception, in that he had a German wife 5 . At the time of the 1911 Census, George Rohde was recorded as a visitor at the home of James Harper 6 , who was a fishcurer and Provost of Wick. He was presumably there on business as his wife and son were living with his mother-in-law in Peterhead. At the same time, Willy Martin Luther, his Scottish wife and their son, who had been born in the USA, were living in Peterhead 7 . It is also interesting to note that Jewish herring traders from Russia did business in Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Aberdeen at this time 8 .

The Annual Report of the Fishery Board for 1913 is of particular interest in view of the disruptive effect of the outbreak of war in the following year. As the statistics have shown, the catch was not particularly plentiful, but the increase in value was such that 1913 was ‘the highest point in value yet attained by the Scottish fishery.’ 9 The industry was going through a process of rapid change, with steam and motor vessels replacing sailing vessels (Figure 12). Scottish fishing boats now followed the herring southwards on their annual migration, and the women shore workers went too. In 1913 the women of Helmsdale brought more money home than the value of the fish landed in the district for the whole year 10 . The assessment of the market in the report was distinctly upbeat: ‘new markets are continually being opened up by the construction of railways, especially in Russia, and there appears to be no limit to the demand for well cured herrings.’ 11 In retrospect, it seems ironic that the development of railways in Russia, which was seen as such a threat by the Germans , was viewed as a potential source of prosperity to the herring trade. 12, 13

On the 23rd of July 1914, Baron Giesl submitted Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to the Serbian Government 14 . On the same day, in Edinburgh, David Jones wrote to the Scottish Office, requesting a fresh passport for the General Inspector of Sea Fisheries: ‘His name is John Skinner and he is 64 years of age.’ 15 Six days later Herr Pirsch a trader from Königsberg wrote in German to Günther and Rohde in Wick saying ‘nobody wants to take any risks due to the difficult political situation, since they tell me that [railway] waggons are still not being made available at the Russian border, as a result of which, the stock is piling up here.’ 16

Earlier in the month he had written: ‘nobody has had the confidence to send a single ton to Russia, and people are also scared that your herring may have suffered from the heat.’ 17 After the outbreak of war the John o’ Groat Journal reflected local concerns: ‘the fish trade will be badly affected by a conflict in which the chief participants are large herring consumers.’ 18

After more than a century of peace, for the first time, the Scottish fishing industry was called on to fulfil the purpose mentioned in the 1809 bill by providing a ‘body of men inured to the sea and eager to take part in the first line of defence.’ 19 Many of the steam-powered fishing vessels were employed as minesweepers in the North Sea and most notably in the Dardanelles, while others helped maintain the blockade in the Straits of Otranto 20 . After the outbreak of war, special arrangements were made to transfer the remaining herring stocks from 1914 to Russia via Archangel, and although there were logistical difficulties after they arrived there, they were eventually sold by 1915. As the war continued, in view of the shortage of food and the persistent British distaste for cured fish, more herring were sold fresh, and more were kippered (Figure 18) or turned into bloaters. 21

The war had a totally disruptive effect on the herring trade from which it never recovered (see Figure 6). The initial increase in production in 1919 was stimulated by a government guarantee. The trade undoubtedly suffered from Germany’s post-war economic woes, but the biggest single factor in its decline was the drop in exports to the USSR compared with the buoyant trade which had existed with the Russian Empire. Figure 16 illustrates the situation, comparing the trade with Stettin with the trade with St. Petersburg, while Figure 17 shows the effective demise of Königsberg as an entrepôt.

German historians often refer to the First World War as the ‘Urkatastrophe des 20ten Jahrhunderts’ - the original catastrophe of the 20th Century 22 . The decline of the herring industry between the wars was also a consequence of this catastrophe – the breakdown of a successful and well-established transnational trading system which helped sustain the people of remote communities in Scotland and the urban poor on the Continent. While other British industries may have suffered from foreign competition in the years before the War, the herring trade was benefiting from Continental industrialisation and there were no obvious signs of antagonism. Clearly, Paul Kennedy’s model of relative decline coupled with antagonism is not consistent with the experience of the herring trade.

The inner harbour in Wick, which used to be crowded with fishing boats, has now been converted into a marina, and the town is no longer thronged with people. The industry which sustained fishermen, chandlers, boat builders, rope makers, coopers, carters, fishery inspectors, fishcurers, gutters, packers, hoteliers and merchants has ceased to exist. But for the trade with the Continent, the town, and others like it, and the industry which sustained it would hardly have existed at all.


1. Cranna J. Fraserburgh, Past and Present Aberdeen, 1914 p.310

2. Webster J. Another Grain of Truth Glasgow,1989 p.66

3. Scotland's People Schultze Max- Spence Helen (Statutory Marriages 005/01 0064)

4. The Edinburgh Gazette, May 23,1941

5. Scotland's People Gunther Gertrud Henriette (Statutory Births 196/00 0069)

6. Scotland's People Rohde George (Census 1911 043/00 007/00 030)

7. Scotland's People Luther Willy M (Census 1911 196/00 008 00 019)

8. Abrams, N. Caledonian Jews p.25

9. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 32nd Report, 1913 p. iii

10. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 32nd Report, 1913 p. xxxvii

11. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 32nd Report, 1913 p. xi

12. Clark C. The Sleepwalkers London,2013 p.421

13. D. Stevenson War by Timetable?

14. Clark Sleepwalkers p.457

15. National Archive of Scotland AF62-345

16. Letter dated 29th July 1914 recently discovered and passed to the Wick Heritage Centre- my translation.

17. Dated 19th July 1914

18. John o’ Groat Journal 7th August 1914

19. Jones D.T. Scottish Fisheries during the War in Jones D.T., Duncan J.F., Conacher H.M., Scott W.R. (ed.) Rural Scotland during the War Oxford,1926 p.28

20. Jones D.T. Scottish Fisheries during the War p. 67

21. Jones D.T. Scottish Fisheries during the War p. 50

22. The use of the word is actually derived from the writings of an American, George F. Kennan who described the war as ‘the great seminal catastrophe of this century’ in his book The Decline of Bismarck's European Order. Franco-Russian Relations, 1875-1890 Princeton 1979 p.3