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'Fesh' Quines - Herring Lassies 

- the Migrant Labour Force

Herring-Fishing. - Until within the last few years, this branch of industry was not prosecuted to any extent in Aberdeen. The late Provost Blaikie used his endeavours to establish it, and, to a certain degree, these endeavours were successful. The number of boats employed in it has been annually increasing; and one year there were about 60 thus engaged during the herring season, and their success has hitherto been such as leaves no room for doubting, that this fishery will continue to he prosecuted, probably to a greater extent than it has hitherto been. (Alas no!)

During the herring boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a boom which saw 1000s of girls employed as fish gutters, following the fishing fleet from Shetland to Yarmouth and Lowestoft as the herring season progressed.  These women knitted whenever they had free time, and incorporated patterns they saw in other areas. A former herring girl told of the rivalry between knitters and the one-upmanship of using a new pattern that no-one else in the village had. 

Ernest Pledge - "you’d tae sign a paper, and you got arles. Ye were arlesed, ye see, ye was fixed. ken ye took up your arles, ye wir fixed. Ye couldna ging to another body to work ... Well if we get awa' and workit to another body, ye was ta'en to Court."

They visited all the main Scottish Harbours en route including Lerwick, Wick. Lybster, Findhorn, Buckie, Banff. Fraserburgh Peterhead, Aberdeen, Stonehaven, Montrose. Arbroath,. Anstruther, Lieth, and Pittenweem before continuing further south to East Yorkshire and East Anglia.  Following tlie enormous shoals of herring South, meant that the fishermen could be at the herring fishing for 8 months from May until November, and this often continued into December.  By the early 1900s there were approximately 1,000 Scottish vessels converging at the East Anglian Ports.  From about 1850 the women followed the herring fishing fleets to process the catch, and continued this practice until the 1960s.  At the turn of the 20th century there were over 100 Scottish curing companies operating at Great Yarmouth, with approximately 6,000 women working for them.

The Fisher girls travelled to the fishing ports each season. “There was the fishing at Yarmouth, and the summer fishing when we went to Lerwick. We went to Ireland between the summer fishing and Yarmouth.” -

Silver DarlingsUsually they would take the train, but sometimes they would go by boat following “the silver darlings” “Barra! That was some crossing I can tell you!”. “I was at Lochmaddie 1 year and we were coming home; it was a stormy night and I was sick in the boat. We caught the bus from Dunvegan to Portree. Well! The boat was bad but the bus was worse.” - .

The girls put their possessions in a large wooden trunk which would have had to have been scrubbed and well aired before the season started. The trunks were sent on before them by carrier’s wagon and train. The girls’ chaff bags and oilskins were tied on top with rope. The trunks were used as seating in the accommodation huts which usually slept 6 girls.

The work was long and hard, but these girls were so fast they could gut and pack 30-50 herring a minute. The herring was poured into the “farlin” to be gutted and the “guts were taken out with a very sharp gutting knife”. The fish were then graded and put into a tub for “rousing” - turning in salt. Rousing the herring - the packer would rouse the herring before packing them into barrels. Salt herring was no use unless it was well roused - which meant they had to be turned over and over in the salt tub. (This salt tub was probably an old washing tub in which housewives used to do their weekly wash before tbeing emancipated by washing machines.)  The packer’s job was to tightly pack the fish in alternate layers into the barrels. If this was done correctly, none of the fish would have moved an inch when the barrel was moved - the layers would remain intact. The packer also had the job of making the breakfast and doing the cooking for the mid-day meal, because the girls who were doing the gutting had their fingers wrapped in “clooties” – bandaged cloths to prevent any knife nicks.  The girls looked forward to going away for the season and had a good time in their leisure hours.  The fishermen looked forward to Sundays and hoped to be invited to tea by the girls.  “Sometimes at the weekend the men would come round and sing - lovely songs, lovely voices”

The 3 W's, - weirs, wusset and wusker (knitting needles, wool and knitting belt.  Scottish Herring Lassies knitting as they wait for the boats to return.  The. women wore. a leather belt known as a "whisker". This was stuffed with horsehair and used to support the  weight of the knitting and the 4-5 needles they used as they walked the quayside.

Fishermen's jumpers, known as Ganseys, were knitted in the round on live or more steel, double pointed needles to create a seamless garment.  They used a knitting belt known as a "whisker" to support the needles as they worked. the women used blue Seafield (Australian Merino) wool, which was very smooth 4-ply wool and the Ganseys were tightly knitted to keep the wind out. The sleeves were knitted in from the shoulder to the wrist and this made it easier to re-knit the sleeve when it became worn. Different fisher-towns were characterised by different patterns,  Each noting if a man was married, how many children he had as well as where he was from. These patterns were passed down through the generations and most young girls were adept at knitting before they began school at the age of 5. The herring girls would knit Ganseys from memory as they walked around the quayside waiting for the boat. Their men-folk required up to 7 Ganseys each, as well as sea boot stockings and woollen underclothes knitted from wool known as Shetland Grey. The girls also had to knit their own stockings, jumpers and shawls. "We never had much spare time. but when we did all the girls used tae go about knitting."

A Herring lassie  would tie up her 'clooties' ready for a day at the gutting. The fingers of both hands would be wound with strips of cloth from palm to tip and bound on by spirals of twine. 

Gutting with sharp knives inevitably resulted in painful cuts and sores, which were constantly aggravated by contact with the salt. The women protected their fingers with "clooties or cloots", crude bandages made from old rags and cotton flour sacks bought cheaply from bakers.  That is until the bakers realised they had a market for them. "when the flour bugs gaed up to 6-pence we thoct our life was ruins"  The strips of cotton were wrapped around their fingers and then tied fast with cotton.

"Every finger had to be tied up. - "itherwise i’ saat wid come a'tween wir fingers an chafe.  Wir’ forefinger wis i' worst. We aye wis hid tae hae a thick wad on wir forefinger because it's whaur i’ knife used tae cut i’ bandage."

The "clooties" provided some protection, but were by no means adequate to prevent sore and painful hands; injuries often led to blood poisoning, which would mean the end to the season's earnings for a gutter.   Some of them get dreadfully sore hands - the least scratch or cut if it is not covered up from the fish and the brine, festers and if these wounds are not attended to at once they get into a dreadful state."  The girls' protective clothing consisted of high leather boots, oilskin overall skirts that fastened at the chest with buttons, worn over old skirts and home knitted woollen scarves to protect their hair. They wore short sleeved oilskins with hoods to protect them from the rain and layers of old jumpers to keep the cold out. After tile 1st World War rubber boots were available and the Shetland curing companies provided their women with oilskins and rubber boots. Salt sores are most difficult to heal and many of the herring gutters bore the scars from their labours for the rest of their lives.  However it was not only their hands that were affected by this work. Many of the women were afflicted with kidney complaints, back strain, varicose veins and ulcers. They would continue to work as long its possible whilst pregnant, "It was very hard work especially if you were expecting."  The farlins where the herring were poured, remained at a very low level usually floor level. After the 1st World War, they were raised to a more accessible height, reducing the need for continual bending to reach the herring. Exhaustion to the point of dropping was not unknown to the women, but fortunately there were voluntary organisations on hand to administer first aid

The Fish Gutter's Sang

Aberdeen Herring Cleaners at WorkHaud the fishie bi the gills,
Rug the knife alang its belly.
Banes are staunin up like quills,
Haud yer heb, it's affa smelly!
Dauds o fite, o green, o yalla,
Yon's the guts the scurries swalla.

Slivvery blobs like dauds o jeely,
Aa come oot the fishie's belly,
Hack its heid aff an its tail,
Guttin on throw snaw an hail,
Cuts an cracks makk fingers reid,

Satty clooties sype wi bluid,
Fa wad be a fisher quine,
Guttin herrin frae the brine?
            

Women gutting fish from a Farlin at Point Law 1900

The fish were emptied from the quarter cran baskets directly into the huge wooden "farlins”or ‘farlans' (gutting troughs or tables where the herring were poured) and coarse salt was then added to allow the women to get a better grip of the fish.  Gutting involved long hours standing outside using a sharp knife known as a futtle in Scots, and a corcag in Gaelic to gut the herring.  Speed was of the essence and the women would keep gutting until the "farlin" was empty, even if that meant working past midnight to ensure the fish received the Crown Brand. At the same time as they were gutting they would deftly separate each of the fish into one of the 7 grades.  The women came to know these grades instinctively and threw the gutted fish into baskets behind them for each of the different selections, with the offal thrown into a separate container at their sides. 'the filled baskets were then taken by the crew to be carefully packed in barrels.  Each Iayer covered in just the right amount of salt, with the bellies uppermost in a rosette pattern. Special attention was payed to the bottom and top layers. because the Fisheries Inspectors would check these.  It was advantageous to be a packer if you were tall, so that you could reach the bottom of the barrel easily and also if you were left handed, in order to reduce accidents at the gutting table.  Gutters were usually right handed and held the herring in the left hand with each fish being gutted in a single motion of their small, sharp knife''

A farlin could take many crans of herring depending on the size of the farlin. The gutting girls positioned themselves along both sides of the farlin after the herring was lightly sprinkled with rough salt, which enabled the women gutters to grasp and hold the otherwise slippery herring. Speed and fast handling was essential.  The gutting was done in a remarkably quick movement. The girls grabbed a herring and in a fast movement with the special very sharp knife called ‘cutag’ the gut was removed by a quick turn of the hand. Without so much as a glance the fish was flung into 1 of the 3 containers placed on the floor behind the gutter as a preliminary selection of the herring into 3 grades, large, medium and small, or as the trade referred to them, maties full, maties and maties small.

The small containers, or baskets were taken from the gutters and plunged into a large trough and again lightly sprinkled with rough salt ready for the packer to set to work. Sometimes the 2 gutters of the team brought the baskets with the selected herring to their packing partner. The packer then set to work, seizing a handful of herring and arranging them in tiers in a rosette fashion with the bellies of the herring uppermost and their heads toward the outside of the barrel. The tiers were at right angles to each other and a liberal sprinkling of rough salt was applied to each layer, under the eagle eye of a very competent and experienced Cooper.   A barrel of herring was said to contain about 700 herring on average and the whole job of gutting, dousing, and packing only took about 10 minutes on average. The crew of 3 girls gutted and packed about 30 barrels a day of 10 hours, or about 1 fish every 10 seconds of the working day.  It was the Cooper’s 1st job each morning to examine every barrel packed on the previous day to ensure that no pickle had leaked away, and if so the fish had to be repacked in order to make sure that every barrel of fish reached the customer in top quality.  After the fish settled in the barrels and the salt melted, the barrels were opened and once again filled to the top.  The barrels were then fitted with a tight lid and left for 10 days or so. Then the pickle was run out through the bung hole and the barrel was again opened up so that it could be topped up with more herring, or 3rd filling. Then the lid was re-fitted and sufficient pickle was poured back in through the bunghole to fill the barrel. The barrel had then to lie maturing for 15 days before they could be branded with the official Crown brand, ready for export.

At the beginning of the 19th century 50,000 barrels of herring were being produced annually in Scotland and this increased to over 1M by the 1880s. Initially the cured herring were exported to the New World for feeding slaves and to Ireland during the potato famine.   However, demand for the "Scotch cure" rapidly increased with Germany, Russia and Poland importing large amounts of the cured herring from Scotland. The price per barrel almost doubled during the 1850s the "Scotch" herring continued to dominate the market well into the 20th century.

Service in almost all these affluent big City Fish-houses was a worse form of slavery than the offshore herring fishing which was at least jolly and humorous. Whereas the girls in service, often 2 or 3 of them in the 1 house, were invariably subjected to class discrimination and exploitation in both long hours of duty and a miserable monthly wage of only a few pounds, and one day off a week. The 2nd World War emancipated these girls and they went to work in offices and industry and more particularly in nursing. The big houses of the merchants were sold and the well-to-do went out to the suburbs to smaller houses.

Crown Branded Barrels
The brand itself had an outline of a Heart-shaped Crown, containing the word "Scotland" and the specification of the size of fish PM, the year 71 and the initials of the fisheries' officer JJ and the curer, It was a system operated only in Scotland and it specified up to 7 individual categories of herring. any fish smaller than these were called "scran". These grades included:-

1. Large Full: Iarge herring full of milt (male) or roe (female) longer than 11 inches (28.7cm)

2. Full: Large herring full of milt or roe, longer than 10-1/2 inches (26.2cm)

3. Mat Full: Mature herring full of milt or roe longer than 9-1/2 inches (23.5cm)

4. Medium: Maturing herring, gut removed. longer than 9-1/2 inches (24.2cm)

5. Mattie: Young virgin herring without spawn longer than 9 inches (22.9cml)

6. Filling: Matured fish. not less than 10-1/2 inches long (26.2cm)

7. Large Spent: Herring longer than 10 inches (25.5cm) which have already spawned.

Fish Offal
As the fish offal accumulates, it is carefully collected and transferred to old barrels set apart for that purpose. A barrel of herring offal realises from 1s. to 1s. 6d. per barrel. In the beginning of the season the farmers contract for a certain supply. Fish offal as a manure is now well known and appreciated as a good crop-raising stimulant.  It is estimated that at the lowest possible over 75,000 barrels were taken delivery of by farmers on the East coast of Scotland alone, and the money value thereof to be not less than £5000. In its raw state the offal is, in the event of its too heavy application to the soil, apt to "burn." To prevent this burning it is apparent that it must have a period of composting. Our fishing centres should not be without manufactories for the drying and compressing of offal with s such composts as, say, peat-moss, road sweepings, fine ashes and cinders from gasworks, or even from the common ash-pits. The composts are easily obtained, would make a capital all round manure, and for cheapness hardly to be beaten.

Herring Fishing 1883

The Scots Girls in Yarmouth - the Silver Darlin's
On shore there was enormous activity. There was an influx of some 5/6,000 Scots fisher girls, who gutted, salted and boxed or barreled the herring. They also worked in the smoke or curing houses.  Local girls worked along side them, but were outnumbered. The girls even worked at night by the light of naphtha flares. Troughs full of silver fish were a wonderful sight, under the light of the naphtha, glistening in the troughs, the stalwart girls bare armed, black wet aprons spangled with scales, red weather worn comely faces crowned by multi-coloured scarves, with shuttling hands wielding gutting knives and casting the gutted fish into waiting barrels. Some 60 fish a minute were gutted by 1 girl. At the same time the fish were graded for quality and cast into separate barrels. Fingers were covered in bandages, cast off bandages were found on the ground months after the end of the fishing season. The girls were tough. In those days before the 1st War they were paid 10 bob a week for certain, and at the end of the fishing season so much on the barrel if they did well enough.

To house all the Scots girls the poorer inhabitants of the town completely cleared 2 rooms, 1 to act as a living room with 2 boxes for seats and perhaps a table. The girls often then slept 3 in a bed. They paid very little for the lodgings, about 3s-6d each. For that sum they received light and cooking facilities. Many houses did not have Electricity before the 1st War. Rations for the girls comprised bread, soup, vegetables and fish". Many of the girls were well educated, as were the Scots fishermen, although some of the girls from the North and the Scottish Isles could only speak the Gaelic. "When not working the girls were often seen strolling about the town, sometimes singing, sometimes chatting amongst themselves, and constantly knitting. As well as the invasion of girls, there were the Scots Coopers, carters and bakers, several 100 men in all. The Scots stayed in the Town for 3 months, spending a large proportion of their earnings in the Town, especially boosting the licensed trade. They also bought large presents to take home, which were lashed to the boats. Before the 1st War the town depended very largely upon the fishing industry for its living. Most of the fish was exported to Russia, but substantial amounts were bought by the curing houses throughout the town, and that way the industry continued throughout the winter, and into the spring, with the fish preserved in salting tanks. The fish sent to Russia was tightly packed into barrels with layers of salt.

The Russian Peasants apparently drank the brine as well as eating the fish, as they were starved of salt by a penal salt tax. The Russian buyers tested the quality of the herring by breaking a barrel and biting a piece out of the herrings back to sample it. No one was too fussy about hygiene. The fishermen themselves were remunerated on a share system, and the share of course depended on the season’s catch. If it was bad the boat’s crew could even end up in debt to the owner!”

North Sea Fishing
A fleet of trawlers head out to sea "A ROSE" the drifter on which this film was taken is the largest in the Yarmouth fleet of 2,000. She is 122ft long. The camera scanning the different trawlers as they sail on with waves lashing the boat. A herring shoal in sight. The fishermen shoot their nets. Then there is a welcome rest before hauling in the nets. The men have a cuppa before hauling the nets back in (8 hours labour to haul in nets) The men pack the fish away and scrub the decks.  They head back to the harbour - tracking shot of the other trawlers also heading home. The fish are unloaded. The famous Scottish fisher lassies who follow the shoals of herring from place to place around the coast.  The women are hard at work gutting, cleaning and packing the fish into barrels. The rows of fish-filled barrels on quayside.  The men return to catch more fish.

When walking the streets of Great Yarmouth and Aberdonian would quite consider himself to be quite at hame - fair skinned freckled faces and lots with red hair populated the streets in the 1970's - no doubt they are in a minority now.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013