‘Sharp Tongues and Sharp Knives’ The Herring Lassies

They had a language that was sophisticated and culturally diverse. They defied the social norms of their day and were a crucial workforce. The lives of the Herring Girls was explored by Professor Donna Heddle of the UHI Institute of Northern Studies in “Living on the (knife) edge: mapping the physical and metaphorical journeys of the Scots herring girls.”

Professor Donna Heddle

The Herring industry was a massive success story for Scotland in the 19th and into the 20th century. By 1914 it was worth £2million and employed 35,500 workers. 14,000 women were involved in the vital process of gutting and barrelling up the herring for onward trade.

The women came from the islands and coastal areas of Scotland, travelling to the main fishing ports as the fleet landed their catch.

This was a fast, skilled and very dirty job and Prof Heddle reminded us of the derogatory way many communities thought about this influx of essential workers. Some of these terms still exist today with ‘insults’ to women of shouting like a ‘fishwife’.

The herring lassies were independent thinking workers with a strong sense of camaraderie. Their work brought them an income and travel which was unknown to most women of that time.

Professor Heddle described the efficiency and skills of the women but also their joyous zest for life in their humour and singing.

I was reminded of my mother’s own memories of the Midlands of England in the 1930’s. She was orphaned at a young age and, living in poverty, was expected to go into service. On her first day, aged 14, she was handed a grey uniform which she promptly threw on the ground. That was the end of my mother being a servant. She went to work in the large factories that existed then. She described the amazing singing of all the popular songs of the day that the women workers would join in as they worked at their repetitive chores. But they weren’t servants – they had limited but independent income – and camaraderie.

The Herring Lassies of Scotland were a ‘threat’ to the norms of the day where women were expected to be quiet, work in the home and certainly not travel about. They ‘took the power to themselves’ explained Professor Heddle and ‘chose a voice for themselves’.

The women had to pay for their travel and accommodation which was quite bare and rudimentary. They brought with them items to make their lodgings, often in wooden huts, feel more homely. Crockery, bed linen and magazine pictures pinned on the walls turned the basic into a very clean temporary home.

Professor Heddle reminded us that migratory workers have always been viewed with suspicion and this happened with the herring lassies who were ‘othered’. They ‘created a community separate from the one that had othered them’, she said.

This was not the case in Iceland, where planned herring ports also had large numbers of women working at preparing and packing the fish but there they were part of that community.

The vocabulary that developed alongwith the work was sophisticated and contained words evolved from a variety of sources – Old French, Old Norse, Middle English, Gaelic and modern additions. Some of these work specific words have disappeared from everyday usage but Professor Heddle has a particular interest in the lexical terms that developed with the women which she referred to as ‘not the language of the gutter but the gutters’ language’.

This fascinating talk was part of The Edge (UHI) Seminar Series 2020 and was held on Thursday 10th of December but you can view it on YouTube. And there is a brief mention of Stronsay’s 100ft long bar – which must have something to behold when it was in use.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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