The east coast herring bonanza
In Nairn Harbour stands the statue of a Nairn Fishwife holding a handful of what look like kippers. They’re Nairn speldings, one of the many ways the silver darlings (herring) were cured.
Unlike kippers, which are smoked, Nairn speldings were split open and dried in the sun. The name comes from the Scots verb “speld”, meaning to spread out. Most herrings weren’t turned into speldings, they were salt-cured and packed into barrels for transport to markets far from where they were caught.
Herring fishing was a huge industry all down the east coast of Scotland, from the early 19th century until the First World War. The west coast got in on the act later in the 19th century. Their season was later too. Boats from the east coast would make the difficult journey through the Pentland Firth to take part when their own season had ended.
At its height, the industry employed thousands of men at sea and women on land. The boats got bigger and the herrings dwindled. By the 1970s, catching them was banned and stocks are only now recovering.
The women worked in teams of three, two gutting and one salting and packing. They also kept house, looked after the children and the aged, found bait and attached it to the hooks and helped mend nets.
Around Arbroath, and possibly elsewhere, they also piggy-backed the men out to the boats so they wouldn’t have to spend the whole trip soaked. I’m not sure how effective that would have been; my experience of small boats is that you get soaked anyway.
The women also sold fish locally, walking miles inland with their creels on their backs to hawk the fish from house to house. The word “fishwife” now has a rather derogatory feel to it, but these women played a very important part in the local economy. The one in the statue stands tall and strong, sure of her worth.
The statue is interesting in another way. The sculptor seems to have clothed his clay model in real clothes before casting it. You can feel the texture of her cardigan and see the weave in her skirt.
Across the Moray Firth from Nairn, at Cromarty, we found an old turf-roofed ice-house built to supply the fishing industry. Freezing the catch helped preserve it longer and extended the selling season, as well as providing unsalted fish for those who preferred it.
Half built into the bank, the building would have been filled with ice harvested from fresh-water lochs through the winter. The semi-dungeon construction would have kept the ice cool enough to last until the herring season in May and June.
The Silver Darlings
If you want to get an idea of what the herring fishery meant to the north-east of Scotland, I strongly recommend Neil M Gunn’s book The Silver Darlings. Published in 1941 and made into a film in 1947 by Clarence Elder, it gives an only-slightly-romanticised view of life in the early years of the industry.
The main characters were victims of the Clearances; fishing became a life-line for many such people, displaced in favour of sheep. These were tough folk fighting a hard land and a capricious sea to make a living; they earned every penny the hard way.
Find out more
The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn (ISBN: 9780571090419)