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Gutters

Orkney has a rich heritage of fishing, as you might suppose of an island group. There is plenty of evidence that the prehistoric inhabitants took full advantage of the seas, and fish would have been a staple of the Vikings’ diet. It has often been said that the Shetlander is a fisherman with a croft, and the Orcadian is a farmer with a boat; and for the most part, Orkney has been predominantly an agricultural place. However, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the fishing came into its own as never before, or since.

For centuries, shoals of Atlantic herring would migrate around the top of the British Isles and make their way down the east coast of Scotland and England. From about 1880 onwards this became a huge industry and provided a boom time for many of the UK’s fishing towns and villages due to the ability to meet demand for the fish in Eastern Europe and Russia. The ‘silver darlings’ were chased from Stornoway in the Isle of Lewis, through Lerwick in Shetland, past Whitehall, St Mary’s and Stromness in Orkney, the Moray firth in north-east Scotland, Musselburgh, Tyneside, Grimsby, Hull, and all the way down to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft on the Suffolk coast. The season lasted from early spring in the north to the autumn months in the warmer south, but in Orkney the season lasted roughly from about June to mid-August, and for those 8 weeks the islands would be heaving with boats, nets, barrel makers, fishermen, herring gutters, salt merchants, and the constant screeching of seagulls overhead. In Stromness, every pier and jetty and slipway became a gutting and curing station for the silver fish, and the work was relentless.

stromness-herring

The fishermen who caught the herring in their nets would drag them ashore and dump them in boxes on the piers, before heading back to their boats for sleep or more fishing. The boats might be the larger Zulu types, or they might be the yole-type with the sails brown through being steeped in bark to deter insects and prolong the life of the fabric. As the boats sailed south down the coast, they were followed on land by the womenfolk who traveled in trains, carts and charabancs, and slept in tents or lodging houses or sheds. These were the gutters – the lassies who processed the fish by cutting off the heads, scooping out the guts, and packing the fish tightly into barrels of salt. This preserved the fish for export, at a time before refrigeration. Herring are a fatty fish, so they need to be processed as fast as possible to prevent them rotting.

Along every pier and quayside would be set out dozens of long wooden trestle tables, and hundreds of wooden barrels. The women would cover their hair with headscarves and don large leather aprons before standing behind the tables and wielding a small, sharp knife. A herring gutter was not paid by the number of hours she worked, as would be the case today; she was paid by the number of barrels she could fill. Thus the faster she worked, the more money she earned. Working at high speed with a very sharp knife could be a perilous business, and fingers were occasionally lost. As the women were outside all day, their fingers could easily become very cold (even in summer), which made them not only more clumsy but could also lead to loss of feeling, and this numbness meant that they sometimes did not feel the knife slicing their hands until it was too late. To prevent this from happening, the women would tear up strips of cotton and use them to wrap round each finger, thus protecting them from knife wounds.

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There was a woman from Portknockie called Betsy Slater who was widely regarded as the champion of herring gutters. At the height of her powers she could gut over 60 herring in a minute – quite a feat! An old fisherman in Stromness explained to me that it was all in the way you held the knife – in one movement you sliced off the fish’s head and slit its belly, whilst with the ring and pinkie fingers of your right hand you scooped out the fish guts before throwing the entrails into a bucket and the herring into a barrel…then picked up another fish. All that in under a second! The lasses were often at work for 12-15 hours a day; whilst the fish were being landed, they had to be processed immediately.

Economically, the herring boom benefited Stromness in a number of ways. It gave employment to fishermen and herring gutters, but it also provided enough related work to support at least 3 boatyards and 7 coopers for making barrels. Lodging houses made money from gutters and boat captains, and the 30 or more pubs, taverns and ale houses that graced the main street would also have had cause to thank the silver darlings. The herring season added up to 5,000 people to the town’s population, and it was said that you could walk from one end of the harbour to the other on the 400 or so fishing boats, without getting your feet wet.

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It was the same in Great Yarmouth – the figures are astonishing. 1913 was a record year in Yarmouth; the records show there were 1163 boats using the port and over 1200 million (1,200,000,000) fish were caught! At its peak in the early 1900s Great Yarmouth’s population would increase by 10,000 during these two months. It will be no surprise to hear that the fish finger was invented, by Birds Eye, in Great Yarmouth.

I’ll confess at this point to a family interest. My great-grandfather was a fisherman, operating from a small village on the Moray Firth called Findochty. He followed the herring shoals each summer, and whilst he sadly never had a son live long enough to accompany him, he was blessed with four daughters, all of whom were expected to become herring gutters. My grandmother’s two eldest sisters worked ‘at the fishing’, and Nana said that on the occasions she saw them in action, there seemed to be a lot of laughing and singing and flirting with the fishermen. However, this light-hearted banter did not detract from the plain fact that it was gruelling work – long hours, filthy, smelly conditions and low wages. In fact, so unpleasant was the job, that my grandmother and her younger sister refused to do it. In the face of family pressure they both opted instead to go into domestic service; this, they decided, was a preferable career option! My grandmother eventually rose to the dizzy heights of becoming a live-in housekeeper to the man who invented the squeezy Jif Lemon, but that’s another story….

Whilst searching for songs to do with the herring industry, I found this fabulous film of two folk singers. The song is about herring gutting lassies, their journey south and the hardships they face. Here are the words, followed by a link to the song. Enjoy – preferably whilst eating a fish finger – and remember these amazing women.

gutters3

Come, a’ ye fisher lassies, aye, it’s come awa’ wi’ me,
Fae Cairnbulg an’ Gamrie an’ fae Inverallochie;
Fae Buckie an’ fae Aberdein an’ a’ the country roon,
We’re awa’ tae gut the herrin, we’re awa’ tae Yarmouth toon.

Rise up in the morning wi’ yer bundles in yer han’
Be at the station early or ye’ll surely hae to stan’,
Tak’ plenty tae eat, an’ a kettle fer yer tea,
Or ye’ll mebbe die o’ hunger on the way tae Yarmouth Quay.

The journey it’s a lang ane, an’ it tak’s a day or twa,
An’ fa’n ye reach yer lodgin’, sure it’s soond asleep ye fa’
But ye rise at five wi’ the sleep still in yer e’e
Ye’r awa’ tae fin’ the gutting yards along the Yarmouth Quay.

It’s early in the morning an’ it’s late intae the nicht,
Yer han’s a’ cut an’ chappit an’ they look an unco sicht;
An’ ye greet like a wean fa’n ye put them in the bree.
An’ ye wish you were a thoosand mile awa’ frae Yarmouth Quay.

There’s coopers there an’ curers there an’ buyers, canny chiels,
An’ lassies at the pickling an’ ithers at the creels,
An’ ye’ll wish the fish had been a’ left in the sea,
By the time ye finish guttin’ herrin’ on the Yarmouth Quay.

We’ve gutted fish in Lerwick an’ in Stornoway an’ Shields,
Worked along the Humber ‘mongst the barrels an’ the creels,
Whitby, Grimsby, we’ve traivelled up an’ doon,
But the place to see the herrin’ is the quay at Yarmouth toon.
Come, a’ ye fisher lassies, aye, it’s come awa’ wi’ me,
Fae Cairnbulg an’ Gamrie an’ fae Inverallochie;
Fae Buckie an’ fae Aberdein an’ a’ the country roon,
We’re awa’ tae gut the herrin, we’re awa’ tae Yarmouth toon.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0Aeety5IGg

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