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Smoked Fish

The Fisherfowk Houses
Properly constructed houses began to be built after the Napoleonic wars in 1815 but conditions could hardly be described as salubrious. A single open room with an earthen floor regularly sanded below roof beams blackened by peat smoke. The beams provided storage space for the fishing gear as well as being used to suspend drying fish, bunches of onions and rush-pith for wicks for the "eeley dolly" lamp. An iron crook held the cooking pots over the fire which burned wholly on peats cut locally. A wooden dresser stored the utensils and a large box bed in which the family slept were largely the only 2 items of furniture. Fresh air in a fishermans’ house of the 19th century was in contradiction to the damp fog from wet clothes in winter and the combination of
peat and mussel bait smells which were an everyday part of their lives.

James Boswell wrote about Finnan Haddie's in the 18th century, mentioning that Scottish Smoked Fish could be obtained in London. But these were heavily smoked (as a preservative) and a bit tough. In the late 19th century, as fast transportation by train became available, the Aberdeen fishing village of Findon (pronounced locally as "Finnan") began producing lightly smoked and delicately flavoured Haddock (Haddies) which were of a much finer texture. They were an immediate success and variations on these tasty fish have become very popular. They can be simply grilled with butter.  Laddie and Finnan Haddie were rhymed by Cole Porter in his song composition of 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy'.


Aberdeen can boast of the world-renowned
Finnan haddock, possessing a flavour and yielding a fragrance due, not, as the Southern imagines, to the effects of pungent wood-smoke, but to the mellowed and sublimed ether of peat-reek.  Nor will the boast exclude the tender, cress like dulse, gathered on the rocks skirting the coast immediately south of the city - that perennial bounty of old Ocean, obtainable, in like perfection, in no other quarter of the world ever heard of.  What Aberdonian, at any distance from the "Four Bows," (Gates) is there, with recollections dating back to the time when the "Plainstanes" formed the centre of the stir and bustle attending the Friday Markets on the Castlegate, who does not treasure in his memory the cheery call, from 1 after another of the double row of smiling fish-wives skirting the Plainstanes, on these occasions, as they attempted to wile the passing schoolboy out of his Friday's copper - "Come awa', my bonny lad, and get fine short dilse, and pepper dilse, and batherlyocks?"  Will he not also gratefully dedicate a small chamber in his memory to the recollection of the delicious boiled crabs  "partens," - their well-filled and juicy "taes," and the toothsome fish-roes, which, in the vernacular of the district, are famous under the designation of "raans?"

Dulce or dilse, (Palmaria palmata) usually known as Dillisk on the West Coast of Ireland, can be eaten straight from the sea.  However the most common way to eat Dulse is to dry it well and then eat it in its crispy dried form.  It can be left in a bowl on the table as a snack for visitors, and if you have Irish friends they will be delighted to enter a house and see some Dilse sitting on the table.

Alaria esculenta is an edible seaweed, also known as dabberlocks or badderlocks, or winged kelp. It is a traditional food along the coasts of the far north Atlantic Ocean. It may be eaten fresh or cooked in Greenland, Iceland, Scotland and Ireland. It is the only one of 12 species of Alaria to occur in the British Isles.

Early curing - Dried Whitings and Haddocks, sometimes called Aberdeen Haddocks from their being shipped from Aberdeen, more often called Findon or Finnan haddocks from a village about 6 miles to the South where they were originally dried for the market, are a considerable article of commerce coastwise as far as London. (Drying trestles on Balnagask as far as the eye can see)

The Drying Trestles site looking towards the North Pier and the Triangular Net Repair and drying enclosure on the former Sandness - Clear air and industrial Smog intermingle with ozone and sewage at Abercrombies Jetty

Aberdeen Herring Cleaners at WorkAn old Fish Wife reproving a young lass for complaining of some little duty to be done —"Lassie, ye dinna ken fet it is to be livin'.  When I wis your age I had tae start fae Finnan, wi' a birn that took twa tae lift on my back, at 3 o'clock on winter mornin's, wi' the blin' drift i' my face, an' tramp in tae Aberdeen by the Brig o' Dee road, which wisna sae steep nor slippy as yon Suspension Bridge road; then a' foreneen i' the Market; syne we filled oor creels wi' groceries or mussels, an' startit hame in the aifterneen, and eh, sirs, it wis a stiff road hame. On the frosty nichts we ees'd tae pick the middle o' the road, where the horse feet had chippit the ice, but files the hill wis sae slippy we had tae tak the ditches, an mony a nicht the tangles on oor frozen petticoats wad hae oor legs cut an' bleedin' an' frozen again, afore we wan hame. Then there wis the fish to carry up the lang steep Finnan braes, the mussels tae shell, an' the line to bait, the fish to clean an' smoke, syne the hoose tae tidy up, an' the bairns tae look aifter, an' awa tae Aberdeen again. Eh lassie! lassie! mony a week oor een never steekit on a pillow ; an' in the simmer time, besides the ither wark, awa tae the moss, 3 weary miles, tae cast peats, an' when they were dry an' ready, to carry them hame again, - Lassie, dinna complain o' your bit wark bein' a fash."

Birn - Burden, Blin - Blind, syne - since, Wan - went, fash - bother

Women of the villages, sometimes family but also widows with little income whose husbands had been drowned at sea, known as fish wives, laden usually with the smallest of the catch in wicker creels hoisted onto their backs and held with a rope sling, walked many miles in one day to barter with farmers and crofters for butter, eggs and vegetables. As one Whitehills fisher described; "Cargo baith wyes!".


Industrial Scale Kiln Smoking
A great deal of labour is required to hand and strip a kiln and the process is not a pleasant one to carry out.  There is, indeed, an increasing difficulty in obtaining skilled fish smokers.  Although the skilled smoker can turn out a good product it nevertheless may be covered with smuts, dust and ashes.  In some firms these are carefully removed with a soft brush, so adding to production cost.  The actual time involved in the smoking process itself is also considerable.

Torry was normally covered by a pall of smoke, liberally scented with the aroma of smoked fish.  I do know a lot about this industry because I first started helping my father at the weekends by pickling fish, all this at the age of 9 or 10.  I have attached a sketch out of a book by J J Waterman, a extremely knowledgeable person on all manner of fish processing.  You will see that the sketch portrays a smoking house with a line of bearers at half-width. The operative is "striding the kiln" but what you do not see is that up above him and facing in the other direction is another bloke who will collect the sticks of fish from the guy beneath, in turn passing the stick upwards to the next guy in the queue. This was the traditional method of hanging a kiln, and in the morning the process had to be repeated in reverse for striking, the inconvenience being that the kiln was most likely still reeking of smoke. 

The fire or fires were made by laying a mound of wood chips and almost completely smothering the chips with a layer of damp(ish) sawdust . The sawdust did not go all the way to the front of the kiln as it was necessary to leave a clear area where the chips could catch fire and generate heat before being swamped  by the sawdust. The secret was to produce so much initial heat that you would see the fish sway and shake their tails, thus shedding unwanted pickle . The sawdust would then encroach upon the burning chips and this would create dense smoke. It was necessary to keep an eye constantly on the wind direction as the required effect was to have the smoke drift upwards through the kiln and be sucked out by the passing wind. Of course if the wrong louvres were opened, the wind would blow back down through the kiln and you would have a nice layer of ash smuts on your fish, to be brushed off the next morning. Absolutely everyone in the company was required to load and strike the kiln except the office girls who had to guard the phones while we were way up high.

When my Dad was getting on a bit, I was constantly agitating for a Torry mechanical fish smoking kiln, but he was absolutely dead against it, because it could not produce sufficient smoke. AFOS manufactured an automatic fish smoke generator, the high-tech input being a freewheel mechanical paddle wheel device off a bicycle, and a moving grate. This grate and paddle wheels kept a gentle supply of sawdust being swept over the burning fire. In this case it was a small bunch of burning wood chips being smothered by a constantly regenerating supply of damp sawdust. Once again technology saved the day, but Dad was still dead against it. Then I went on a trade mission with the City of Westminster Chamber of Commerce to all the main towns in Australia. The old man was desperate to find what I had sold and his jaw hit the ground when I told him the 1st order was for 14,000 stones of smoked cod and as many golden cutlets as we could produce. Thus the newly established proprietary brand fish smoking kiln was launched and I did all the smoking myself from then on. The trolleys of pickled fish were put into our huge walk-in chill and they actually shone like glass. I had a constant job at night smoking 0.75 ton of smoked fish every 90 mins.

I forgot to mention dye. You could have smoked fish any colour you wanted even green or blue if you could find a market. The pickling juices were made out of an 80% brine solution (once again made in a constant supply brine generator) The dye was so many ladlefuls of food quality dye added to a pail of boiling water and stirred until the correct colour was reached. London, Liverpool, Swansea, Cardiff, Sheffield, Huddersfield all preferred a light lemon colour. Bradford, Leeds. Birmingham and Wolverhampton had to have a darkish brown. Of course all export fish for Australia had to be done in Annatto dye. This is obtained only from the berries of the annatto plant which grows from 3000 to 5000 feet in some parts of the tropics. Needless to say annatto dye was very, very expensive. - Donald L

Fishing ports in the UK, by J. J. WATERMAN.
The haddock, by J. J. WATERMAN.
Advice for the fish industry; who does what, by J. J. WATERMAN
Fish smoking: a dictionary, by J. J. WATERMAN
Chilled and frozen fish: a dictionary, by J. J. WATERMAN
Composition and quality of fish: a dictionary, by J. J. WATERMAN

Hot Smoking


Smoke Houses

During the Medieval Period Aberdeen was famous for its ‘sweet red’ salmon. Today many firms carry on this ancient and honourable trade. The firm of John Ross Jr (Aberdeen) was started as a salmon-smoking business in 1857.  Today the firm employs about 50 people and exports its salmon to 38 countries. Most of its fish is smoked the traditional way, in the old brick kilns, and much of the preparation work, including filleting and salting, is still done in the time-honoured fashion, by hand.  The firm’s brick kilns have been used for over 150 years.  In February 2008 Historic Scotland designated 2 of their ovens as category B listed buildings.

John Ross Jr, Smoke House, 82-84 Sinclair Road, Aberdeen

Probably earlier to mid 20th century. Sole surviving, rectangular-plan, traditional red brick smoke house in Torry, located close to dockside in heart of fish processing area on the south side of River Dee. Only premises still (2006) using traditional method of smoking over fire mounds in whole of Aberdeen fish curing industry. Tall brick kiln projecting above the later office and fish processing units.  Base of kiln now encased in breeze block, and metal and polystyrene foam sandwich to comply with stringent health and safety regulations.  Gable ends of smoke house kiln is to the N and S, the longer E and W elevations with steeply-pitched corrugated roof rising to full-width, slate-roofed, 4-part, timber-louvered ventilator with brick gablet ends.  Interior - entrance to kiln through low fire door at base enclosed by later units. Kiln floor of long firebricks, with tenters above.

This rare structure sited at the centre of a busy fish processing area which has survived throughout the 20th and into the 21st century is made all the more remarkable as it still fulfils its original function. A small group of similar structures, all listed at category C(S) in 2005, survive to the North of the River Dee in Aberdeen but none serves its original purpose.  Bricks for building kilns in the area would have been readily available at the Seaton Brick Works which was located in Sinclair Road just a short distance to the west beyond Baxter Road Salt, water and woodsmoke were the only ingredients necessary for the traditional smoking process. There were 2 methods of smoking, the 1st of which, for cold smoked finnan haddock is basically that used at John Ross Jr for cold smoked salmon. The prepared fish were hung in lines on racks, or tenters, within the kiln. A worker would climb up and straddle the racks while hanging the individual lines in ascending order, the wet fish would drip onto the worker below passing up the lines. After allowing the fish to drip for a while, small circular wood chip fires would be lit at floor level, and allowed to smoke slowly throughout the night. The wood fire was damped with sawdust to create smoke; this was constantly tended as naked flames would cook the fish rather than smoke it.   It was not unusual for workers to need to climb up the racks during smoking if the process were complete in some areas. The desired level of smoking was judged by eye and feel. Ventilation slots or Louvres, operated by strings (still evident in this kiln) which reached to the raised ventilator at the kiln apex, would be opened on the side away from the wind direction, preventing smoke being blown back into the kiln.

The 2nd smoking method, known as London Smoking, produced hot smoked fish ready to eat, similar to the Arbroath Smokie method of smoking. The London kiln used fires in brick smoke pits approximately 2 feet deep, with tenters of `tie tailes' (split fish tied with jute) suspended over the fire. The opening was covered with hessian to aid even cooking.  Again, sawdust would be thrown over the flames by hand to prevent overcooking.  In 1904 the Duke of Connaught visited `the extensive fish curing works belonging to Messrs Allan & Dey in 6a Raik Road but by the mid to later years of the 20th century, these traditional smoking methods were being replaced by electric smoking, developed at Torry Research and first used by MacFisheries. As early as 1937 `fish-curing yards were being sold in large numbers, as evidenced at Wick. Largely due to pressure from hygiene regulations, and accelerated by supermarket production requiring consistency of the end product, kiln smoking had completely disappeared by the end of the 20th century.

At John Ross Jr, whole gutted salmon are hand filleted, dry salted (not brine soaked), hung on tenters and smoked over small fire mounds of oak chippings which need careful attention for a period of anything from 12 to 24 hours or even longer. The required duration of smoking has always been gauged by a skilled Master Smoker who checks manually for optimum smoking. This depends on a variety of factors including size and thickness of the fish as well as atmospheric conditions and wind direction. After a `tempering' period, the smoked fish is sliced and packed. The kiln at John Ross Jr is used every day and can take anything from 1 to 4 hours to load. The 2nd smoking method, known as London Smoking, used smoking pits some 2 feet deep with tenters suspended above. This method produced hot smoked fish ready to eat similar to Arbroath Smokies. 

The fishing industry at Torry boomed from the 1880s onward due largely to the success of steam trawling. The growing industry created many jobs which led to an influx of immigrants from North and South Shields, Grimsby and Hull. This, in turn, led to a rash of tenements in the area, some at Abbey Road and Fisher Square were designed by William Smith, the architect of Trinity Hall & Balmoral. Fishing and its associated industries created so many jobs, that the population became polarised into `fishers' and `non-fishers', the latter being involved in farming or Industry. The Evening Express of November 4, 1971 recalled that 'Torry's main interest was always fishing. As recently as the 1950s there was fleet of just over 40 great-line boats operating from Aberdeen and these berthed at the former Torry dock'.

Fish Curing Kiln - 11/12 Russell Road
Fish houses in Palmerston Road, Old Ford Road and Raik Road. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries Aberdeen was the leading Scottish centre for the white fish trade. These few surviving kilns in the Aberdeen harbour area are but a tiny remnant of a once prolific type which characterised the skyline. Early 20th century photographs held at Aberdeen Maritime Museum illustrate various types of kiln, including kilns of the more traditional maltings style, as well as large industrial fish houses with rows of rectangular-plan kilns projecting from their rooftops. None of the remaining kilns are operating but there is 1 example across the River Dee at Torry which is used for smoking salmon in the traditional manner. 


Industrial Kilns - Smoking!

Although in Britain most smoked fish is still made in traditional kilns, the Torry Kiln was rapidly adopted.  The control it gives means that a uniform and cleaner product can be made with less waste, more quickly and with less labour and to a considerable extent independently of the weather.  Of recent years it has been adopted commercially with very successful results for producing many products including finnans, kippers, sprats for canning and smoked salmon.

The warm smoke is blown by a fan at an even speed over trolleys of fish in a horizontal tunnel.  A proportion of it then passes up a chimney but most is circulated again; on its way round it is mixed with fresh smoke and more air.  Half way through the process, the trolleys of fish are interchanged because those nearest the incoming stream of smoke dry more rapidly than the rest.  Although in Britain most smoked fish is still made in traditional kilns, the Torry Kiln was rapidly adopted.  The control it gives means that a uniform and cleaner product can be made with less waste, more quickly and with less labour and to a considerable extent independently of the weather.  Of recent years it has been adopted commercially with very successful results for producing many products including finnans, kippers, sprats for canning and smoked salmon.  Kilns of various capacities are available.  Large-scale production is best based on big kilns that can smoke 100-150 stones every 4 hours or so.  Smaller kilns, for example, with 80 stones capacity, are more suitable for some firms while, for the production of luxury and delicatessen products, such as buckling and smoked salmon, there is even a 10-stone size.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013