Disruption and Reorganisation

Herring boats in Fraserburgh
Herring boats in Fraserburgh 1899 - George Washington Wilson Collection, University of Aberdeen

Although the early 1880s were characterised by an economic downturn, the herring trade remained buoyant until 1884, when a glut of fish caused serious disruption. It took the industry nearly ten years to recover from the consequences of over-capacity and retrenchment 1 . Figure 3 illustrates this development. One of the victims of the downturn was James McCombie, who suffered bankruptcy in 1888, owing £73,000 to the banks 2 . The problems which had been experienced were described in the Annual Report for 1892, stating however that ‘the trade has been gradually recovering from the crisis and it is expected that in the near future it will attain to a better position than formerly, for at no previous period have so much energy and skill been displayed in all branches of the industry.’ 3 This spirit of optimism turned out to be well-founded, and the industry thrived during the following years. The technological and organisational improvements which characterised this period helped to improve productivity, but they also led to a greater concentration of the industry, and smaller fishing ports found it progressively more difficult to compete, as can be seen from the statistics. In 1888 the Foreign Office was asked to enquire about foreign markets for Scottish herring. This resulted in a voluminous report including a letter from Sheikh Ata Muhammad stating that there was no market for Scottish herring in the Yemen 4 . Fortunately, William Reid also provided a sensible and pertinent reply in which he said ‘the best way of obtaining satisfactory information on the subject would be that one or two practical and technical members or officers of the Fishery Board were afforded the opportunity of studying the requirements of the trade at Stettin which is the largest market for cured herrings of all kinds.’ 5 The reports on the state of the Continental Trade led to a clear warning against complacency in the Fishery Board’s Annual Report: ‘…before any new measures of an administrative nature are resorted to, it would be wise and judicious to send someone well-versed in the methods of cure and assortment practised in Scotland to visit the Continental markets. 6

In the following year it was reported that a delegation had been sent to the continent 7 , and the branding regulations were changed in the year after that 8 . Ten years later a second survey was carried out. Once again there were some idiosyncratic replies. In the report from New York, it was stated that ‘the demand for salted herring appears to come almost entirely from the poorer class of Jews’ 9 Although the survey is mentioned in the In the Fishery Board’s annual report 10 , and although the General Inspector of Sea Fisheries made a visit to the Continent, after which a report was published and circulated to the trade, in the following year there was only a passing mention of the Continental market 11 – in a report of 856 pages!

In the 1898 reports, Paul Schoeller of the British Consulate General in Vienna makes a recommendation to promote the sale of Scottish herring, which gives an insight into how herring were eaten locally: ‘after arrival here they are first soaked in fresh water, and are then placed in a liquid composed of vinegar and oil and seasoned with onions, capers, pepper etc. and are sold by grocers as ‘marinirte’ or ‘pickled’ herrings. At present this grade is consumed in quantities by the lower classes of the population. It would appear that herrings for the ‘pickling’ process are seldom of English or Scotch origin, but on the few occasions such are offered they find a ready market.’ 12

The Annual Report for 1900 did include an account of a visit to the Continent by the General Inspector of Sea Fisheries, Alexander Millikin 12 . He had visited Hamburg, Libau, Königsberg, Danzig, Stettin, Bremen and Geestemunde. In 1902 he returned to the Continent, and his account was published in the Annual Report 12 . It describes a favourable situation for the trade, helped by low temperatures, a good potato crop and a rise in the price of meat and provides useful insights, emphasising the importance of Russia as a final destination for the herring exported to German merchants in the Baltic.


1. Gray, M.Fishing Industries of Scotland p.148

2. Unsworth C., The British Herring Industry: The Steam Drifter Years 1900-1960 (Stroud, 2013),p.22

3. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1892, p.v

4. 1888 Scotch herring trade. Reports from Her Majesty's diplomatic and consular officers abroad on the subject of the best means of increasing the demand in foreign countries for Scotch-cured herrings and other fish. 1st Series p.26

5. 1888 Scotch Herring Trade pp.20-21

6. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 7th Report 1888 pp.170-171

7. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 8th Report 1889 p.xix

8. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 9th Report 1890 p.xx

9. 1898 Reports obtained by the foreign office on the state of the markets for Scottish-Cured herrings on the continent and in the United States of America p.29

10. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 17th Report 1898 p.v

11. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 18th Report 1899 p.xxxii

12. 1898 Foreign Office Reports pp.27-28

13. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 19th Report 1900 Appendix N

14. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 21st Report 1902 Appendix Q