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The Historic Herring

Helmsdale and the Herring
If we could step back in time to 1818, Helmsdale Harbour would look very different to the quiet, picture-postcard image we see now. Fishermen, their wives and families, coopers, gutting lassies, buyers and ships’ crews would all mingle, busy at their work.

At that time, over two hundred boats fished from our harbour and over five hundred men were employed at the fishing. Men from the opposite coast with fishing experience were encouraged to move here to teach the ways of the sea to the crofters, cleared from the Strath of Kildonan.

Seven hundred women worked at gutting ,cleaning, washing and salting the thousands of barrels of herring. The salt they used was imported from Spain or France. The fisherman’s wife would bait his lines every evening with mussels, one for every hook. Children had the job of collecting the shellfish from the seashore. During the day she would sell fish to the outlying crofters, carrying them on her back in a creel (a large basket). The more productive Seine netting arrived in 1928 and took over from line fishing, saving a lot of work.

Seventy coopers worked here in 1818, making wooden barrels for the packing and export of the fish. The catch was loaded onto large sailing ships and exported as far as the Baltic. By comparison, in 2003 there were only 4 prawn boats and 3 lobster boats working from Helmsdale and only 14 men employed. The last white fish boat, the "Bunillidh" was sold to England in 1999. The total population of Helmsdale is now just under 800.

The herring fishing formed Helmsdale - lots of employment - new people - building of the Telford Bridge - curing yards and the expansion of the harbour. A planned village that we can still recognise today began to appear and spread. All this from some small, shiny fish – ‘The Silver Darlings’.

Lorna Jappy, Timespan
Article for Moray Firth Matters Issue 17 'Fishing in the Moray Firth'

Herring Fishing in Wick
By mid nineteenth century, the town of Wick had the largest population increase and the highest herring catches of all the Moray Firth Ports. One Scaffie could make as much money for a good night’s fishing as a crofter could make in a full year. Fortunes were made by fleet owners, the curing yards and exporters. Money was "found" to improve most of the harbours around the Moray Firth coastline. When the herring season was over, the standard of living dropped significantly and only relatively few men had work. The shoals of herring were thought by most fishermen as being inexhaustible and if fishing methods had not improved that may well have been the case. Neil M. Gunn’s "The Silver Darlings" gives a great insight into those memorable days of the herring boom. Or better still, visit The Wick Society’s Heritage Centre and art gallery in Bank Row. See a restored fisherman’s house with tableaux of fossils, toys and 19th century fashions, fish kiln, a cooperage, blacksmiths shop, a complete harbour and the famous Johnston collection of photographs of 115 years history.

Donald Sinclair, Wick Heritage Society
Article for Moray Firth Matters Issue 17 'Fishing in the Moray Firth'