Silver Darlings

By Fiona Grahame . Art By Martin Laird

“The boats leave the harbour their wakes spreading wide,
And empty they roll with the swell of the tide.
Oh soon may their hatches be thrown open wide
With a catch of the silver darlings”

Jim McLean/Bob Halfin

Today mackerel is Scotland’s most valuable fish worth £146million in 2019 with 121,000 tonnes being landed by  Scottish registered vessels.

In the same year Scots fishermen landed 49,000 tonnes of herring worth £26million. The herring which has inspired many a poet, songster and writer was a boom industry for Scotland in the 19th and into the 20th century but it had very humble beginnings.

Scotland’s fishing sector grew slowly from small inshore boats to the highly successful industry it is today. The majority of vessels continue to be under 10m – 1,557 out of a total fleet of 2,096. Indeed of those small boats most of them are for creel fishing.

There are very few countries in the world that possess waters where the natural harvest of the sea is so bountiful.

The European sea fish trade grew rapidly from the 16th century onwards and the waters around Scotland was the place to be. Just like today international negotiations took place and James V, King of Scots, made agreements with his European counterparts that allowed the great fishing fleets of the Dutch to fish.

The Dutch had a ‘buss’ fleet. These were large ships that would stay out to sea for 6 to 8 weeks fishing for a catch in the North Sea and up into the waters of Orkney and Shetland using drift nets. On board they would cure and preserve their valuable catch of good quality herring.

In Scotland, fishing boats were small and kept to the inshore waters, manned by four to eight men.  They specialised in fishing for lesser quality herring which was exported to France, England, Flanders, the Baltic countries and over the Atlantic to the plantations. Although it was not of the standard of the Dutch buss fleet, it was plentiful and affordable for the market in Europe.

It was an efficient and successful way to allocate the fishing grounds. The Scots fished inshore and the Dutch out into the deeper waters on a licence granted to them by the Scots King. The herring they caught catered for different markets with the Scots going for the cheaper but more plentiful product. It worked all round.

Unfortunately for James V, his Uncle, Henry VIII King of England, wasn’t one to observe territorial waters or land borders. Border and coastal raids continued until an uneasy peace was signed between the two nations on 12th of May 1534.

A year later, James V made a formal complaint that English fishermen were raiding in Orkney and Shetland,  fishing where they did not have rights to and even carrying off some poor islanders as ‘slaves’.

Perhaps because of the coastal raids, or just to view the extent of his realm, James V embarked on a voyage around Scotland in 1540 with his second wife, Mary of Guise, future mother of Mary Queen of Scots.

He set sail with 12 ships, suitably decked out for the conveyance of a monarch and calling in at Kirkwall, Orkney.  His retinue included his pilot the French trained Alexander Lindsay.

The French influence at the Scottish Court would continue after the death of James V when Mary of Guise became regent.

In the years following the death of James V the raids by the English affected the Scottish herring trade with exports being hit hard dropping by almost three quarters. This period was an attempt by Henry VIII to bully the Scots into agreeing to a marriage between his son, Edward, and the child Mary. Henry in the past had been unsuccessful in his pursuit of Mary’s mother so never to be deterred he set about plans for a betrothal between the two children. This would have put an end to the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France and brought Scotland under his control.

The Scots fishermen continued to supply herring to Europe and James VI, King of Scots, extended fishing privileges in Scottish waters to the Dutch fleet in 1594.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, herring was to become a boom industry in Scotland. It provided employment for island and coastal communities for those who went out to sea, those who cured and gutted the fish barrelled up for export, and all those other businesses trading along the supply chain.

The island of Stronsay, Orkney was one of the many communities to experience tremendous growth at this time due to the humble herring. In the 1920s the island had a population of 1,067 which during the herring season grew to 5,000 with something like 300 vessels at a time harbouring whilst the herring lassies gutted the fish for exporting to Germany and Russia.

“There’s ice on the rigging and death down below,                                                                
With the gales screaming wild and the glass hanging low.
The wives and the sweethearts are women who know
The price of the silver darlings.”

Jim McLean/Bob Halfin

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