John Skinner, General Inspector of Sea Fisheries

In 1906 the first of a regular series of reports about the Continental market was published as part of the Annual Report 1 . It was written by John Skinner, who at that time was Assistant Inspector of Sea Fisheries 2 . He was promoted to the post of General Inspector in 1907 3 , and continued to visit the Continent and publish reports until the outbreak of war in 1914. From 1910 onwards his reports were published separately from the Annual Reports 4 . The reports and his correspondence from 1909 to 1913 with David Jones, the Secretary to the Fisheries Board, give a fascinating insight into the Continental trade before it was disrupted by the outbreak of war. John Skinner was a very experienced fishery inspector. He was born in Portmahomack, Ross and Cromarty, in 1849 5 , and was the son of a fishcurer 6 . He was first appointed as a Fishery Officer in May 1877 7 , and in the 1881 census he was living in a village called Strath, near Broadford on the Isle of Skye 8 . He married in 1883 in Peterhead 9 and had two children, a daughter, born in 1885 10 and a son born in 1889 11 . In 1891 he was recorded as a lodger in Aberdeen 12 , and in December of the following year he was granted a divorce 13 . He remarried in 1894 14 , at which time he was living in Rothesay. The 1901 Census shows him living in Stornoway with his wife, his son, Hugh, and a domestic servant 15 . On becoming General Inspector, he was based in Edinburgh.

As Mr. Skinner was already aged 56 at the time of his first visit, which lasted nearly three months, it must have been quite demanding, but his report reflects a lively mind with a keen interest in the trade, and a willingness to understand its complexities. It is just as well that this was the case, because, as the sole representative of the Fishery Board on the Continent he was often expected to mediate in disputes between German merchants and Scottish fishcurers. He was a practical man who was quite happy to open up barrels and inspect their contents in order to determine the nature of problems encountered 16 . At the same time, the Fishery Board did not take complete responsibility for the finished product. The Board was only responsible for ensuring the quality of the branded product at the time of packing. If there was a deficiency in the barrels or their contents due to inadequate inspection, then this would be reported back to Edinburgh, but the final commercial responsibility for the product remained with the vendor. The process of packing the herring with salt to preserve them was not fool proof, and if the barrels were left exposed to bright sunlight – either on quays or on the decks of ships - the contents would be spoilt by becoming “sunburnt” 17 . Problems like this could result from carelessness, but they were also affected by the nature of the premises available for their storage. As with any trade, there was also the possibility of unscrupulous business practice, and Mr. Skinner could not simply ignore problems which were encountered with unbranded goods, as the reputation of the whole Scottish trade was at stake 18 .

Needless to say, there were opportunities for unscrupulous practice – and even theft. One dubious practice was the sale of used Scottish barrels to Holland. The barrels would then be returned containing Dutch fish, but with the appearance of having originated in Scotland 19 . Mr. Skinner also encountered a number of cases where barrels of unbranded herrings had been marked with misleading stencils, implying fish of a higher quality than that which actually pertained 20 .In one case, he even discovered that lower tiers of herring had been stolen from barrels, presumably while in transit 21 . The following table summarises of the visits of Mr. Skinner between 1906 and 1913:

Visits to locations by year
Town/City/Port 1906 1907 1908 1909 1910 1911 1912 1913 Visits
Annaberg x 1
Berlin x x x x 4
Breslau x x x x x x x 7
Chemnitz x x x x x 5
Cuxhaven x 1
Danzig x x x x x x x 7
Dresden x x x x x x x 7
Geestemünde x x x x 4
Halle on Saale x x x x x x 6
Hamburg x x x x x x x x 8
Hanover x 1
Ijmuiden x x x 3
Königsberg x x x x x x x x 8
Leipzig x x x x x x x 7
Libau x x x x x x x x 8
Magdeburg x x x x x x 6
Nordenham x x x x 4
Prague x 1
Riesa x 1
Riga x x x x x x 6
Scheveningen x x x 3
St. Petersburg x x 2
Stettin x x x x x x x x 8
Vienna x 1
Vlaardingen x 1
Number Visited 5 10 18 18 18 15 13 13 110

This overview shows that while his main focus in 1906 was on the ports of arrival, in subsequent years he extended his investigations in Germany to important inland destinations such as Breslau, Dresden, Leipzig and Magdeburg. He clearly took a keen practical interest in the logistics of the trade, and his accounts give many interesting details about modes of transport. For instance, in the case of Magdeburg we learn that it is ‘nicely situated on the Elbe and has almost daily steamer communication to Hamburg in the north and Dresden in the south’; while in the case of Halle we learn that as the Saale is a tributary of the Elbe, the herring are transported direct from Hamburg by barge 22 . In describing the export of herring from Königsberg to Russia he describes the use of railway waggons whose wheels can be swopped in order to overcome the use of a wider gauge on Russian railways 23 . He also tells us that in the case of Vienna, which he only visited once, Scottish herring were imported via both Hamburg and Stettin. In the case of Stettin they were brought up the Oder to Breslau while in the case of Hamburg they were brought up Elbe to Tetschen. They were then transferred to Vienna from their respective river ports by rail. However he also relates how one importer preferred to transport the herring by rail directly from Stettin, as the transport by river and rail took four weeks 24 . At the time when Mr. Skinner was visiting the Continent, Germany was establishing its own modern fishing fleet, helped by government subsidies for harbour improvement and the construction of fish markets 25 . The ‘Nordsee’ company was established in 1896 in Nordenham, and was the first German company to use steam ships to catch fish on the high seas. The company proceeded to establish retail outlets which were ‘models of cleanliness with all modern conveniences and appliances for the handling of fish.’ 26 However it undoubtedly presented a challenge to the Scottish trade in cured herring 27 , as did a number of other companies of similar size 28 . Mr Skinner’s visits to Geestemünde, Nordenham, Ijmuiden, Scheveningen and Vlaardingen can therefore be seen as a form of market research. In the case of the Nordsee Company he was able to establish good relations with its chief director, who showed him round their premises 29 . In Vlaardingen in the Netherlands he saw German, Scottish and Dutch barrels, and one of the traders showed his contempt for branding by saying ‘we can supply herrings in whatever package the dealer likes.’ 30

One recurrent theme in Mr. Skinner’s reports is the use of salt. While it was necessary to salt the fish adequately in order to preserve them, there was a distinct preference, especially among Russian buyers for lightly salted fish. Unfortunately, without sufficient salt, the fish would go off. On some occasions he would be asked to inspect barrels where the purchaser complained of over-salting 31 . The problem was restricted to the Russian market, as German merchants and customers understood the need for salt better, and had not acquired a taste for lightly-salted fish 32 . It would appear that Mr. Skinner’s campaign in his reports was eventually successful, because, after 1910, he notes an improvement and in 1912 he comments that light salting had practically disappeared 33 .

While he travelled widely, and presumably had a fairly broad remit, it should not be assumed that Mr. Skinner was a free agent. During his travels he remained in contact with David Jones, the Secretary to the Board. It would appear from their correspondence 34 that they had a good working relationship, and that Mr. Skinner could rely on the support of Mr. Jones when things went wrong – as they sometimes did, but there is no indication in Mr. Skinner’s reports of the extent to which the Board felt obliged to provide a service to the herring trade in Scotland. In practise, the correspondence reveals that important fishcurers would ask for Mr. Skinner’s assistance in resolving difficulties which arose with consignments of herring (which were known as parcels) when they had reached the continent. Mr. Jones also had to deal with written complaints from foreign merchants sent to Edinburgh while Mr. Skinner was abroad.

1. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1907 26th Report p.302

2. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1905 24th Report p.184

3. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1906 25th Report p.302

4. National Archive of Scotland AF490-493 Herring Trade on Continent 1910-1913

5. Scotland's People 21/11/1849 Skinner John (O.P.R. Births 083/0000200041 Tarbat)

6. Scotland's People Skinner John (Statutory deaths 685/07 0968)

7. London Gazette 1 June 1877, p.3471

8. Scotland's People Skinner John 03/04/1881 Skinner John (Census 1881 119/00 006/00 005)

9. Scotland's People 1883 Skinner John, Simpson Maggie W. (Statutory Marriages 232/02 0002)

10. Scotland's People 1885 Skinner Margaret Simpson (Statutory Births 558/00 0021)

11. Scotland's People 1889 Skinner Hugh (Statutory Births 558/00 0021)

12. Scotland's People Skinner John (Census 1891 168/01 001 00 012)

13. National Records of Scotland CS46/1893/1/94

14. Scotland's People Skinner John Alexander, Lizzie Sinclair (Statutory Marriages 644/09 0332)

15. Scotland's People Skinner John (Census 1901 088/00 004/00 021)

16. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1909 28th Report p.266

17. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1906 25th Report p.298

18. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1907 26th Report p.311

19. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1907 26th Report p.310

20. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1908 27th Report p.270

21. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1908 27th Report p.273

22. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1908 27th Report, pp.270-271

23. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1909 28th Report, p.263

24. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1908, 27th Report, p.278

25. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1907 26th Report p.304

26. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1908 28th Report p.286

27. Heidbrink I., Beckmann W., Keller M. Und heute gibt es Fisch (Bremen,2003) p.17

28. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1909 28th Report, p.287

29. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1907 27th Report p.304

30. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1909 28th Report, p.298

31. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1907 26th Report pp.311-312

32. Herring Trade on Continent Report of a visit Inspection 1911 p.38

33. Herring Trade on Continent Report of a visit Inspection 1912 p.28

34. National Archive of Scotland AF62-333 to AF62-345