The Continental Market

While previous academic studies are very valuable in understanding the industry, there is one major aspect which has been neglected by historians. In the photographic archives we see the pictures of the herring barrels stacked in large numbers on the quays as if that were the end of the process. They were then sent to ‘the Continent’. But the story does not end there. In the long 19th Century Scottish herring established a dominant position in the trade on the Continent of Europe and in Russia, and contributed substantially to feeding Europe’s growing industrial working classes. In this way, the industrialisation of Europe slowed the decline of the population in the Highlands of Scotland. Despite this, the history of the fishcurers and the continental market remains largely unexplored. It was a big market. Between 1905 and 1913 the export of herring never dipped below 1.2 million barrels a year. It peaked at over 1.8 million barrels in 1908 – nearly 71% of the total production.

The purpose of this study is to address this neglected aspect of the industry by looking at the development of the trade in cured herring sourced in Scotland and despatched to the Continent between the establishment of the Commissioners of Sea Fishery in 1809 and the outbreak of war in 1914 and to look at how people of different nationalities and backgrounds contributed to its success. Paul Kennedy has argues that the cause of the antagonism between Britain and Germany before the war was primarily economic 1 . While his argument may well apply to heavy industries, the herring trade provides an interesting counter-example in which continuing transnational co-operation combined with industrial growth on the Continent led those involved with the industry to be optimistic about its prospects until it was disrupted by the outbreak of war. Improvements in transport and storage facilities promised to open up new markets and consolidate existing ones.

The study also deals briefly with the problems faced by the trade in the years after the War. In recent years, the topic of migration from Germany to Britain,and of trade between Britain the Continent prior to the First World War has been of increased interest to historians 2 . This new approach to historical research focuses on the common ground between the nationalities, and the way in which many interactions occurred between cultures and across national boundaries. This study is clearly related to this research. Although they were few in number, there is a Highland dimension to the story of migrant merchants, and it is an area in which further research might prove informative. Another topic which is worthy of further exploration, is the involvement of Jews, both as traders and as consumers of Scottish herring.

How Businessmen Operated

Margit Schulze Beerbühl has described how merchants operated across borders during an earlier period: ‘Transnational trade meant constant struggle with opportunities and limitations of laws that differed from state to state, governing conduct, social hierarchies and business. It was essential for early modern transnational trade to understand and exploit the rules and practises. Immigrant merchants pursued strategies that allowed them to reduce the transaction costs and risks of overseas trade.’ 3

In a similar way, interactions between nineteenth-century fishcurers, merchants and traders overcame barriers of language and custom, extended their markets, and helped to minimise risk, to their collective benefit. This commercial co-operation in the herring trade functioned successfully for more than a hundred years, until it was abruptly terminated by the First World War.


1. Kennedy, P.M. The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism (London,1980) p.464

2. See, for example Manz S. Migranten und Internierte: Deutsche in Glasgow 1864-1918 (Durham 2003) and Manz S., Beerbühl M.S. and Davis J.R. Migration and Transfer from Germany to Britain 1660-1914 (Munich,2007)

3. Beerbühl, M.S. The Forgotten Majority (Oxford, 2015), p.72