August 1914 - from Peace to War

On the second of August 1914, the news reached the port of Wick on the far northeast coast of Scotland that the naval reservists had been called out. Just a week before, there was still confidence in the local herring market, which was so vital for the town. Now the town was in a ferment: ‘It rained heavily in the evening but up to a late hour men and women would be seen standing about in the steady downpour with drawn and anxious faces eagerly devouring the small crumbs of information relating to the probabilities of active hostilities.’ 1 On the next day the reservists left by train. It was still raining, but ‘there were tears aplenty too’. That evening, although it was a good night for fishing, the fishing fleet stayed in port, because almost all the boats had lost crew members. At the outbreak of the First World War the herring trade was flourishing. There was a steady demand for herring from both the German and Russian empires, and in 1913 the market had been particularly buoyant 2 . Even after the outbreak of war, advertisements for importers of herring in Hamburg and Stettin, Danzig, Königsberg, Libau and Riga still appeared in Wick’s two local newspapers 3 . In 1913 the industry had provided employment to more than 70,000 people throughout Scotland 4 . By the end of the following month, there was serious concern about the impact of the War on the town’s staple industry. In fact, the industry would never recover from the War.

The Aftermath

There is now little left of Scotland’s once-flourishing fishing industry. At present it gives employment to less than 5000 fishermen 5 , significantly less than the total of 6452 fishermen and boys reported for the Wick District alone in 1862 6 . There is, however, widespread popular interest in this aspect of Scotland’s past, which is reflected in the fact that there are two important museums devoted to the industry – the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther , and the Wick Heritage Centre . The interest in the industry is reflected in well-written accounts for the general reader. As it developed during the 19th century at the same time as photography, there are also several excellent photograph collections which help to provide a real insight into the scale of the enterprise, and these have either been published in print , or can be viewed on websites such as the Johnston Collection and the Aberdeen University Photographic Archive which holds the George Washington Wilson Collection. The Johnston Collection is of particular value, as it spans the most important period, having been gathered by the local photographer’s business in Wick between 1863 and 1975. It illustrates the extent, growth and development of the industry.

1. John o’ Groat Journal 7th August 1914

2. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1913p.v

3. Northern Ensign 11th August 1914, John o’ Groat Journal 17th August 1914

4. Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland 1913 Appendix F, p.142

5. Scottish Government Scottish Sea Fisheries Statistics 2013 p.29

6. Report by the Commissioners of the British Fisheries 1862, Fishery Statistics No 1 p.18