Following the King of the Sea

The Herring Industry during the 19th and 20th centuries was an important part of Shetland’s fishing heritage. Shetland is close to fishing grounds which led to a dramatic expansion at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Although Orkney also took part in the Herring Boom, it was at a substantially smaller scale.

Dutch Herring Fishery

Dutch Herring Busses
Dutch herring fishery by van Salm, Roelof. Early to mid 18th century © National Maritime Museum Collections

The Dutch had been coming to the waters around Shetland for centuries, thought to be as far back as 1164 according to Fraser in his review of the domestic fisheries of Great Britain and Ireland from 1818. They arrived during the summer months to catch herring before following the herring down the east coast of the UK back to Europe. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the fishery was at its peak. The Dutch curing method had a serious reputation and was highly regarded. It was invented by Peter Brockels. It involved removing the gill and long gut from the fish before layering them in tiers with salt. Everything was done at sea and stored to be taken back to Europe by faster ships during the season. The Dutch did come ashore to trade in Shetland for food and clothing which led to the growth of Lerwick as a town. W. M. Gibson states in his book The Herring Fishing Stronsay Vol. 1 that it was thought at its peak, the herring industry was worth around 3 million pounds to the Dutch.

Development of the Scottish Herring Fishery

Fraserburgh Harbour 1880s
Fraserburgh Harbour 1880s © Scottish Fisheries Museum

For many years during the 18th and into the 19th century, there were reports from various people such as John Knox of how Scotland and the UK could be prosecuting the Herring fishery like the Dutch as it was only done on a very small scale in Scotland at the time. Shetland wasn’t even considered a land base initially and fishing was conducted similar to the Dutch with boats coming north for the season and curing fish on board. In 1786 the British Fishery Society was set up to encourage growth in the industry.

As the herring would migrate from their winter grounds off the coast of Norway, south to the coast of Scotland, it was thought that the Scots could be better placed to exploit the industry and could use smaller, cheaper boats. It was also possible to cure the herring onshore which had a big advantage of the capacity as the Dutch were restricted to the size of their busses.

During the latter half of the 18th century there was a change and the government offered a tonnage bounty for fitting out herring busses in Scotland and over 300 busses were fitted to take advantage of the herring, however the endeavour was not very successful. In 1785 the government offered bounties on barrels in a bid to increase production. This was more successful with curers making engagements (a sort of contract) with the fishermen before the season started offering a guaranteed price for the fish they landed.

The British Fisheries Society decided to focus on the West coast of Scotland with Tobermory developed in 1787 and Ullapool the following year. However, the shoals of Herring moved from the west and the society decided to focus on the east coast, focusing on Wick in particular with construction beginning in 1803.

In 1809 the Fishery’s Board was set up. The board had offices in a number of ports where officers would check the quality of the herring being cured and if it was deemed good enough a distinctive crown brand was put on the lid of the barrel.

In 1815 The Herring Fisheries (Scotland) Act was devised which detailed certain standards for cured herring. Up until this point, Scottish Herring had been an inferior product to the Dutch herring however the poorer quality also meant it cost less and the fish became more common for the general public and not just the gentry. The Act included that the fish had to be gutted with a sharp knife and packed in salt within 24 hours of landing, herring is a fatty fish which needed to be cured quickly to prevent rotting.

The Scotch Cure

In 1819 in a bid to rival the Dutch fishery, the Arts Society of London ran a competition to develop a new way to cure the herring. J.F. Donovan from Leith won fifty guineas for developing the “Scotch-cure” after employing 6 Dutch curers. The Scotch cure meant that fish were landed fresh, before being gutted and packed in salt and was adopted by the Fishery Board as the new standard. Before 1819, fish were lightly salted at sea and then packed with more salt on land, without gutting usually. The Scotch Cure was really just a variation of the Dutch Cure.

Workers and Contracts

Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther
Stencils used to mark barrels © Charlotte Slater

The gutters would work in groups of three, two gutting at a rate of 60 fish per minute, and one packing. The packer would lay the first layer belly up, and then alternate layers of salt and fish with the last layer laid belly down so that it didn’t matter which end the barrel was opened, the silver was always on top. The cooper would check then quality of the packing before sealing the barrel. The barrel was then left for a set period of time, usually a few days before the brine was drained off, the fish topped up and then sealed finally for export. Most of the curers had their own stencil they used with the Fishery Board also branding barrels of top quality. For the “herring lasses” as they were known, it was the first real taste of independence being able to move across the country following the herring and getting paid in cash. Similar to the fishermen, the Herring lasses would be given arles by a curer to guarantee that they would work for the curer for the season. They then got a weekly wage, with some of this being used to pay for accommodation and food.

Until 1894, curers made contracts with a fishing boat to give an agreed price for so many crans landed during the season, usually for 200-250. A cran was a measurement of herring and it roughly took 4 crans of fish to fill a barrel. The boat could only land to that curer until they had filled their obligation for the season. In 1894 an auction system was set up in Lerwick and Baltasound as it was a particularly productive year. Although the daily prices were usually lower than the previous contracts, there was no restrictions on the amount of fish which could be landed. Auction soon became the preferred method for the fishermen and the curers.

Changing Market

Although there had been expansions in the industry for Scotland, the initial markets were mainly confined to Ireland and the plantations in the West Indies. With the freeing of slaves in the 1830s and the severe potato famines of the 1840s, the herring industry  in Scotland saw a downturn. Scotland was left with a surplus of Herring and began to compete with the Dutch to export fish to Europe. The Dutch were beginning to lose their hold on the European market due to a loss of ships during the Napoleonic Wars. It wasn’t until the 1880s that herring really took off as an export for Scotland. Curers were looking to expand the season as it had been kept to June/July up until this point. They began looking at the west coast of Scotland for the early summer fishing followed by Shetland and Orkney. In the autumn they began to carry on down the coast of England and end up in Yarmouth and Lowestoft.

Shetland Herring

Hillswick Herring Station
Hillswick Herring Station © HEARD

Shetland was overlooked by the government as a location for herring fishing during the early 1800s, suffered from a lack of capital and markets were geared towards the Dutch product. It was a number of Shetland merchants who had had some fortune at da haaf fishery and faroe cod fishery that began the herring industry in Shetland, such as Hay and Ogilvy. There was a small boom during the 1830s but this had all but disappeared by the 1840s. There was a slight recovery in the 1850s but it wasn’t until the late 1870s/early 1880s when the north east Scottish merchants began to open stations that the boom really began.

In 1839 there were 56 stations throughout the Shetland Isles with Lerwick having 12 followed by Uyeasound in Unst with 6 and Waas having 4. All the stations within the central zone of Shetland were trading in both cod and herring. Hay & Ogilvy, a local fish merchant who later became Hay & Co owned 8 of the herring stations in 1839 which meant they had a good share of the market.  From these 56 stations, between 30-40,000 barrels of herring were exported which shows that it wasn’t a huge industry at that time, with herring mainly caught as extra income to da haaf fishery.

The Peak Year – 1905

Herring Lasses
Herring Lasses © 60 North

1905 was a peak year for the herring stations in Shetland. Baltasound and Lerwick were the main centres for the herring, by this time. 1,024,044 barrels of herring were cured and exported from Shetland that year. Herring had become a huge business with Baltasound’s population alone expanding up 16000 with migrant workers following the herring. Centralisation due to the advent of steam drifters saw the Baltasound stations decline rapidly over the next 10 years and many of the rural stations had disappeared entirely by the outbreak of the First World War.

In Robert M Sinclair’s A Glimpse at Lerwick’s Waterfront History there is a map which shows the stations in operation between 1929 and 1930 in Lerwick. The Point of Scotland to the north of the town was named such because of the vast amount of Scottish curers who had stations in the area. Stations were usually leased on a 10-15 year contract from the landowner, with the landowner receiving a small amount of money for each cran landed on their land. Some curers tried to get around this by building their wharves below the high water mark. There was an interesting case where udal law was upheld against a Scottish curer called James McCombie in 1887 by Sinclair Pottinger. The judge ruled in favour of Pottinger and McCombie had to pay liability. You can find the whole story in James R Coulls book, Fishing, Fishermen, Fish Merchants and Curers in Shetland.

The Lambie Hoose, Skerries

The First World War had detrimental effects on the herring fishery in Shetland. Herring was an important food source and although submarine attack was an imminent danger, fishing was still encouraged by the government. However, with many of the fishermen drafted to the Royal Navy and larger vessels seconded, only around 60 boats headed to Shetland in 1915 for the start of the herring season, a tenth of the vessels from the previous season. As was custom, the shoals of herring were found to the north east of Shetland by midsummer. On the evening of the 23rd of June, around 20 drifters were laying nets about 30 nautical miles east of Unst when an enemy submarine was seen approaching.

The fishermen were allowed time to get into their lifeboats before their drifters were gunned by the submarine and sank. It was early the next morning before there was any knowledge of the event when a small boat arrived in Lerwick from the Primrose. The men regaled their story and by noon the crews of 11 boats had been returned to Lerwick with similar stories and only one casualty who had been hit by shrapnel and died of his injuries about a week later.

Later that same day two crews arrived on the Earl Zetland which had returned on its weekly trip from Whalsay. The crews had been from the drifters PD82. Uffa and the PD63. Ugie Brae. The first that the Skerries residents knew of the wrecks was when the crew of the Uffa were spotted wandering over Grunay after landing at East Geo. While assisting the crew, another boat was spotted off the coast and some of the Skerries men went to investigate. The crew of the Ugie Brae were exhausted and struggling to make any progress. The Skerries men guided the boat into the harbour and after caring for the two crews immediate needs they were quickly taken across to Whalsay to get passage on the Earl Zetland to Lerwick. Both of the lifeboats were left in Skerries, and the one from the Ugie Brae, became the infamous lambie hoose, a landmark on the isle.

The beginning of the end

There was a small resurgence in the herring between the two world wars, however it was never at the same level as it had been before. The Russian market remained closed until the 1920s and then the USSR were more aimed at being self-sufficient and increased their own fishing fleet rather than buy from Scotland. There was an increase of demand for Germany but with a number of years of poor fishing, the market never really recovered. One of the reasons given at the time for a lack of Herring was that the whaling stations which were operating in Shetland at the beginning of the 1900s were attracting sharks (could this have been dogfish?) to the islands with the blood and this in turn was scaring away the herring.

During the Second World War herring fishing for export stopped completely and some firms such as J & M Shearer managed to begin again after the war. The fishery had had time to recover during the war and was abundant around the isles. Herring was also in high demand during the late 1940s for Eastern Europe through the Marshall Plan a controlled arrangement made through the British Government. However, the herring industries days as it had been in the 1880s were numbered. The arrival of the purse net seiners and the enforcement of the EEC which banned herring fishing in the North Sea saw an end to the herring industry with companies who managed to diversify the only ones to survive. Herring also went “out of fashion” in a sense, being seen as a poor man’s food.

Orkney Herring Fishery

Stronsay Herring
Stronsay Herring © Radio Orkney

Orkney did engage in the herring fishing but at a much lower level than Shetland. Nevertheless the herring industry began earlier in the 18th century in Orkney due to the archipelagos proximity to Caithness especially Wick, which became a huge area for Herring fishing. At the beginning of the 19th century, it appeared that Orkney was going to follow Caithness in its expansion of herring ports indeed a Fishery Board officer was posted to St Margaret’s Hope in 1816 where there were already a number of small curing businesses. A number of Wick curers opened stations in Orkney as the rents were cheaper than on the mainland.

Development of stations

The appointment of a Fishery Board Officer to the isles did encourage a growth in the industry with 11 stations in 1816 expanding to 30 by 1820. However, the importance of the kelp industry and then the expansion of agriculture during the 1840s in Orkney meant that it never reached maximum capacity.  The three main centres for Herring stations were Stromness, Stronsay and St Margaret’s Hope. Stations were also found on a smaller scale in Birsay; Flotta; Herston and Cara in South Ronaldsay; Burray; Roseness; Holm and Sandside and Mirkady in Deerness.  At this time, the practice in Orkney was to still land fish on beaches with little or no pier facilities which obviously had an impact on industry development. Busses from the Clyde began to come up to Orkney for the season and offered better money than the shore based curers which meant the fishermen were more likely to give priority to the Clyde busses which in turn stinted the growth of the shore stations.

There was a small dip in the herring industry growth after 1820, but when it began to pick up again, more local merchants were beginning to engage in the industry such as Samuel Laing from Stronsay who built the village of Whitehall and lowered his rent to encourage curers to come to the isle.

During the 1850s a number of curers moved up to Orkney including James Methuen who was known as the biggest curer in Scotland at the time, Jamieson from Rothesay, Matthewson from Londonderry and Sutherland from Wick. This competition between curers led to better prices for the fishermen and an expansion in the industry. Visiting busses found it harder to engage with the fishermen and disappeared during this time. Stronsay also became the main base for herring in Orkney during the 1850s.  By 1854 over a third of Orkney’s herring business was conducted in Stronsay. When Stronsay was at its height there were 15 curing stations based in Whitehall with population expanding to over 5000 during six weeks in July/August.

In the 1890s Stromness grew as an important port as an alternative to Shetland and Lewis for the early season. By 1898, there were 38 stations based in the town. However, the fickle nature of the Herring, meant that a number of failed years lead to a demise of the industry in Stromness and the industry once again focused on Whitehall in Stronsay. With the move to steam drifters, Whitehall expanded the harbour facilities and new curing yards were built, with some even being built on Papa Stronsay.

A different scale

At its peak in 1912, there were 33 stations based in Orkney with 154605 crans landed. Nearly 80% of the catch was landed by steam drifters, the day of sail was nearly extinct. Orkney’s herring industry never really recovered from the First World War and had completely collapsed by the end of the Second World War.

Historically, Herring was a very important fishery for both Orkney and Shetland although it developed at different scales. It offered women independence but it was a very hard job. Herring fishing was banned in the North Sea for a time due to the poor stock numbers but after a recovery it can now be caught once again for commercial purposes and is included in pelagic quotas along with mackerel.

The future of the pelagic fishery in Shetland

Shetland has once again expanded its industry and has 8 large pelagic trawlers based in the islands, with Shetland Catch based in Lerwick also the largest pelagic processor in Europe. These vessels need to be built to high standard as they are often fishing in extreme conditions. They are replaced regularly with improvements in modern technology. In 2018 the Research and the Serene were replaced and in 2019 another three the Zephyr, Charisma and the Adenia were replaced too. These boats are no small investments with the Research costing around £31 million.

Future research

I have started to try and map the different herring curing businesses who were based in Shetland and how long they were operational for but it has turned into a bit of a herculean task with 6 pages of names so far! You can download the list here. If you are interested in contributing your knowledge get in touch using the contact form.

There are few resources about the Orkney Herring industry. There is a small section in both the Stromness Museum and the Stronsay Fish Mart but so far there hasn’t been any books written and it is an overlooked research topic. Clearly the industry wasn’t on the same scale as Shetland and so there won’t be the same amount of records, but including how the kelp industry and agriculture influenced the interest in the herring would make an interesting project.


There are a number of interesting books on history of the herring fishery such as:

Herring Tales by Donald S. Murray (2015) which is our book of the month for August 2020

Herring: A History of the Silver Darlings by Mike Smylie (2004)

Scottish Fisheries Museum

For Shetland based resources check out:

Fishing, Fishermen, Fish Merchants and Curers in Shetland by J.R. Coull (2007)

The Swan: Shetland’s Legacy of Sail by James R. Nicolson (1999)

Shetland Life and Trade 1550-1914 by Hance D. Smith (1984)

Shetland Fishing Saga by C.A. Goodlad (1971)

The Shetland Catch – The Herring Fishery by Elizabeth Atia (2015)

 HEARD – Herring Fishing

For Orkney based resources look at:

The Herring Fishing Stronsay Vol. 1 by W.M. Gibson (1984)

Memories of the Stronsay Herring Industry with Radio Orkney (2018)

Herring Fisheries in Orkney by J.R. Coull (1998)

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