St Magnus Conference Opens With ‘The Cod Hunters’

‘When all is said and done, life is first and foremost about salt fish.’ Halldor Laxness, Salka Valda (1931)

The 5th St Magnus Conference got off to a raring start with a key note talk by Dr John Goodlad on The Cod Hunters.

Fishing for cod in Shetland by line was an exclusively male occupation which lasted just under a hundred years, starting in about 1818.

The vessels were smacks, 2 masted schooners, crewed by 12 – 16 men. At the height of the industry there were up to 80 smacks in Shetland.

Fishing was by a single line with 2 baited hooks with each man using a line. The crew were quite young and were out at sea for 12 – 14 weeks at a time.

The cod was split and salted on board. When the smacks returned home the fish were dried on the beach. This work was done by boys aged between 12 and 14 who would cover steeples of the cod with tarpaulin when it needed protected from rain.

Once this process was completed (6 weeks) the dried cod was exported mainly to Spain. Fishing for cod became so successful it came to dominate the economy.

As the 19th C wore on Shetlanders took to fishing for herring. Crew could not be found for the smacks so young men from the Faroes were recruited to man them. This eventually led to many of the smacks being sold to the Faroese.

With the travel in smacks between the Faroes and Shetland a profitable sideline of smuggling grew up. Brandy bought in The Faroes was duty free and with a year’s credit, Shetlanders could illegally resell the spirits back home.

‘I’ve left your gear in the usual place’ which was either a barn, peat stack or similar hidey place near the croft.

John Goodlad gave us some idea of the scale of the smuggling – the annual wages of a crewman on the smack was £18 and he was buying £21-£23 worth of brandy. Which is why the year’s credit was important.

This was a fascinating start to the conference which also reminded us of the price in lives fishing cost.

The St Magnus Conference is all online and free to view. If you are interested click on this link: 5th St Magnus Conference: Island Histories and Herstories

The Conference is organised by the Institute of Northern Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The Cod Hunters was a HIStory but Wednesday’s talks also featured HERstories. The talks have been recorded.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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