John R Tudor.

The Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state online

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boat alone. Each bought has eleven hooks fastened to it at
regular intervals by tomes or snoodings, a yard long ; the part
next the hook, called the bid^ having one strand taken out to
prevent its being destroyed by the teeth of the fish. When the
different packies are joined together and make a haak^ bolta-
stanes, or kappics^ heavy sinkers of stone are attached to each
end, and smaller stones called bighters fastened at intervals to
keep the line in position. To each of the kappies a bow or
buoy of pigskin is attached by a line of the same thickness as
that forming the back, and another bow is fastened to a kappie
in the centre. For bait, herring, haddock, halibut, mackerel,
piltocks, conger, tusk, cod, and ling are all used at times, the
three last named only Avhen short of other bait at the fishing
grounds. Herring is the best of all bait, where it can be pro-
cured, and is either caught in nets, on the white fly, or with
bare white hooks on dandy lines, worked up and down from a
boat that is andooed for the purpose. So numerous are the
herrings at times, that the sinker (^ lb. to i lb. lead) is stopped
on its descent by the number of fish striking at the same
moment, and six hundred have been taken by one boat
between eight and ten o'clock in the evening. Haddock are
caught on small long lines of five boughts each, with ten score
hooks laid in about twenty to sixty fathom water, and baited
with hmpets, cockles, or razor fish, or, what is best of all,
when they can be obtained, mussels. One of the Old Country
Acts ordained, " That none use mussels or other bait, but such
as all or the most part of fishers hath, under the pain of £,\o ;
and that none fish with haddock lines within voes from Beltane
to Martinmas, or so long as they can draw haddocks on the
hand lines, and that none take bait nor cut tang in another
man's ebb, under the like pain of ^10." The Shetlanders are
said to have nearly exhausted the large whelks known as bieckies,
and to be fast destroying the mussel scalps as they have already
done the oyster-beds which formerly existed in Cliff Sound
and other places. At the far haaf the lines are generally set
and hauled three times every trip, and at depths varying from


80 to 120 fathoms. The setting in fine weather takes from
two to two and a-half hours, and, after the operation is over,
they hang on to the last buoy for a couple of hours.

Hauling, or kailin^ as it is termed, takes from three to four
hours, and is conducted as follows : two men shoo the boat ;
one hauls the line ; another gaffs or clips the fish with the
hnggie-staff^ cavils, or unhooks the fish, and kaaes the hooks,
that is, inserts the points in the snoodings to prevent their ravel-
ling ; whilst a fifth guts and takes the heads off. The heads are
dried by the fishermen for their own use, and the livers used to
make oil. If a heavy fishing is made, not only are heads and
livers thrown over, but, at times, even small ling, tusk, and cod
have to make way for their betters. Ling, tusk, and cod, are
the fish handed over to the curer, though conger, skate, and
halibut, which latter fish the Shetlanders call turbot, are also
caught in large numbers, and used by the fishermen for their
own consumption. Conger are looked upon as miclean, and
are only used for bait. According to Scott,^ skate also were con-
sidered unclean by the Fair Islanders. The true turbot is very
rare in Shetland waters. The dog-fish, heckla, as the natives
call him, at times does a deal of damage. The tusk, torsk, or
brismark, as the Shetlanders term the gadus brosme, is essentially
a fish of the northern regions, being rarely found south of the
Orkneys, and not in any great quantity even off those coasts ; and
in Shetland waters it is far more abundant on the eastern than
on the western side of the islands. To be properly appreciated
tusk should be eaten fresh, as when cured they lose, as old
Brand says, "much of their savour and relish." The skin is
very gelatinous, and melts in your mouth like the " thin " of
a turbot. Before being cooked, the fish should be laid on a
stone and well mashed with a " beetle," or heavy piece of
wood, as otherwise they are apt to be somewhat tough. Small
sharks are sometimes caught at The Ness, and on being hooked
are drawn alongside the boat, a slip-knot passed round the tail,
and the liver cut out, after which the fish is cast off, to see if
1 Scotfs Life, vol. iii. p. 173.


life is worth living without a liver. Occasionally very rare fish
are caught, thus in 1878 an opah or kingfish was landed from
the Feideland haaf, weighing nearly one and a-half cwt. Three
tons of ling are looked upon as a very big fishing, though three
tons and a-half are said to have been landed in very fine
weather. Thirty cwt. is however considered an average good
catch. In Northmaven a ling weighing 28 lbs. is looked upon
as a big fish, the average 1 1 lbs.; 14 lbs. a big tusk, average 4 lbs. ;
28 lbs. a big cod, average 10 lbs. These weights are all taken
as the fish are delivered to the curers, minus head and entrails.
A ling is said to have been landed at Balta Sound this last
May (1882) that weighed, as taken from the water, 84 lbs. It
is reported to have measured 5 feet 11 inches in length and
3 feet in girth. Saith, or coal-fish {inerlangus carbonarms) are
principally caught in the rapid tideways off The Ness, and the
north of Unst, in smaller boats than those used at the haaf,
by trolling a herring or a skinned piltock by a hook mounted
on a five-fathom tome, when the tide runs strong ; and when
it slackens, by yaaghig, that is jerking the bait up and down
rapidly in the same way that dandy-lines are worked. Ling,
tusk, and cod, will keep if the weather is tolerably cool, from
Saturday till Monday ; but saith must be put in pickle at once.
The fish when landed are weighed in a couple of hundred-
weights at a time, each hundredweight being termed a 7veigh.
They are then split, the backbones taken out, washed in the sea,
and carefully brushed from shoulder to tail in order to remove
blood or other impurities. They are then laid in a vat, the
bottom of which has already been covered with salt, skin-side
undermost, and sprinkled with salt, and so on layer after
layer till the vat is full. Liverpool salt is always used at the
present day for curing white fish, as ling, tusk, and cod are some-
times termed, Lisbon and St. Ubes salt being only used for her-
rings ; though in former years the latter was mostly used for all
fish exported ; it being stated before a Committee of the House
of Commons in 1785 that a gentleman residing in the islands
had owned that he had in one year imported — euphemism for


smuggled — no less than 972 tons of foreign salt. The quantity
of salt used has to be carefully regulated, otherwise the fish is
apt to get salt-burned. After lying three days in pickle, the
fish are again washed and brushed to remove any imjmrities
the salt may have brought out, and are then placed heads and
tails alike in a long row call a damp, and left in it for a couple
of days or so, according to the weather, after which they are
spread out on the beach to dry, skin-side undermost, except
when sun or wind is drying them too rapidly, when the skin
side is placed uppermost. They are thus spread out to dry
every day or alternate days, according as they are -being cured
slowly or quickly, being built up in small cubical hills called
staples, and covered with tarpaulins at night or during rain.

After thus being exposed for some time, till a white
efflorescence, known as bloom, is shown by the salt appearing
on the surface, they are again built up into larger staples ; and
if, after remaining in these larger staples for a lime, the bloom
should have disappeared, they have again to be spread out to
dry, till by its becoming fixed the curing is shown to be
completed, and the fish thoroughly ////^^ or dried, when they
are carefully packed away in air-tight cellars or sheds till wanted
for exportation. It takes from 2 cwt. i qr. to 2 cwt. i qr.
14 lbs. of wet or green fish to make i cwt. of dried fish, and the
whole process of curing takes under favourable circumstances
about a month.

Up to the commencement of the present century the
fishermen were paid by the lairds or their tacksmen so
much for each fish ; in Low's ^ day the fishermen in Sand-
ness received 4^. for each ling, and id. or 2d. for each
tusk or cod; and nearly twenty years later- the Dunross-
ness fishermen were receiving 3^'. for each ling, id. for each
tusk, and Id. for each saith. Nowadays there is a sort of
quasi partnership between the fisherman and the curer, the
price the former receives for the green fish being calculated
on what the dry fish are fetching in the later autumn months,

^ Low's Tour, p. 120. - Eirst Stat. Ace. vol. vii. p. 397.


and not being known before Martinmas, and sometimes much
later. The cost of curing, usually estimated at 2s. 6d. per
cwt. dry, and curers' commission, likewise 2s. 6s. per cwt., are
first deducted; then, if the cured fish are fetching 23^-. per
cwt, and 2 cwts. i qr. of wet fish be required for the cwt. of
dry, the fishermen will receive Si-, per cwt. for their fish as
handed over to the curer. Ling, for the five years ending
1878, ranged from ^17 to ;;^28 per ton; cod ;!^'i6 to ^^26;
tusk ^'15 to ^24; saith ^9 to ^16. The best cod, and
occasionally ling, go to Bilbao and Santander for the Spanish
market ; saith principally to Ireland and Leith ; the small cod,
ling, and tusk being sent to Leith, Liverpool, or London for
home consumption or exportation.

The splitters, beach-boys, or women, are paid so much a
season, varying from ^8 to ;£io for an experienced head
curer, to 30J. for a beach-boy in his first year. The regular
haaf season commences about the 15th of ALiy and continues
till the 15th of August, when it is wound up at each of the
stations by the /or or feast, in a square meal and a big drink,
at which the principal toast is, " Lord, open the mouth of the
grey fish, and baud thy hand abune da corn." The chief haaf
stations are The Skerries ; Funi in Fetlar ; Gloup in North Yell ;
Norwick in Unst ; Feideland, Uya, Heyla, and Stenness in
Northmaven ; West Voe in Papa Stour ; Dale in Sandness ; the
Isle of Burra ; and Spiggie and Boddam in Dunrossness.

In addition to the summer fishing, an early spring fishing
has been si)ringing up of late years, when the fishermen either
fish for a curer at a fixed rate for each class of fish, or else
cure for themselves. From Lerwick, too, of late years a
fresh-fish trade with the south has arisen, which the increased
steam communication will probably develop into a very pro-
fitable business. 60 cwts. were despatched, packed in ice,
in 1876; 100 in 1877; 300 in 1878; 1,000 in 1879; 6,000
in 1880 ; and 10,000 in 1881.

Fishermen are always intensely conservative in their
ideas, and for a long time it was an article of faith with the


Shetlanders that no boat larger than sixareens could be em-
ployed at the long-line fishing, it being supposed that bigger
boats could not be handled deftly enough to pick up the
lines without damage to them.

In 1876, however, some Buckie-men — probably the finest
and boldest fishermen in the British Islands — came north to
try their hands at the ling fishing, and, taking some native
fishermen to show them the way about, astonished their pilots
by their hardiness and handiness, hardly losing a hook, though
using much lighter lines than the Shetlanders. More came
in 1877, and still more in 1878. Their example set the
Shetlanders thinking that, after all, there might be something
in the big-boat theory, and in 1877 five Burra men purchased
a second-hand boat at Fraserburgh, which more than repaid
her total cost {^120) the first season. The next year her
owners are said to have had a hundred weighs at the spring
fishing and six hundred between the 12th of May and the
20th of June, when they turned their attention to the herring
fishing, at which they caught over 400 crans. Another big boat
in 1878 was said to have divided nearly p^ioo a man amongst
her company between the ling and the herring fisheries. Fifteen
pounds a man was in former years considered as much as
could be done by a sixareen at the haaf fishing, so it was not
to be wondered at, that many others went in for the larger
boats, and, intending to devote themselves wholly to fishing,
gave up their farms. That the old Shetland sixareens must
have given place to the wholly or half-decked boats in use
on the east coast of Scotland was only a question of time, but
the disaster of the 20th of July, 1881, when six boats from
Gloup, one from Unst, one from Feideland, and one from
Heyla were lost with all their crews, will probably accelerate the
change much more rapidly than would otherwise have been the
case. The opponents of change will probably cite the Ber-
wickshire catastrophe as proof, that the big boats are no safer
than the sixareens ; but, though perfect immunity from loss
can never be guaranteed, there is little doubt the adoption


of either the split-lug, or the cutter-rig, which will obviate the
necessity for the sail being lowered, when going about ; of some
means by which shifting of ballast can be prevented ; and of
some kind of rope bulwarks, will render the east country boats
at present in use nearly as safe as human ingenuity can render
them. One objection that has been advanced to the change is,
that the big boats could not be used at the present exposed
haaf stations, where the boats now in use are drawn up on the
approach of dirty weather. As has, however, been shown, these
stations were originally chosen because they lay closer to the
fishing-grounds than many of the voes, and so necessitated
less manual labour in rowing. This reason no longer holds good
with boats, the motive power of which is chiefly that of the
sails, and no portion of the British Isles is so rich as Shetland
in natural harbours, which only require lighting to render
access to them as easy on the darkest night as in broad
daylight. The question of expense will really be the greatest
obstacle to the proposed change. Prior to the calamity of
20th of July, 1 88 1, the greatest disaster the boats have met
with at the haaf was in a gale which, commencing on the i6th
of July, 1833, lasted four days, when thirty-one boats were
lost, though the crews of fourteen were saved by the Dutch

The elements are however not the only dangers to which
boats fishing in Shetland waters are exposed^ the leviathans of
the deep, on amorous thoughts intent, being occasionally too
obtrusive in their attentions. Finner whales and grampuses
at times are given to following boats, and, when the latter did
so in Edmondston's ^ day, the fishermen threw in some small
coin, the idea being that the animals were begging. In July,
1878, the lighthouse boat belonging to the Flugga station was
one day, when at the fishing, so persistently followed by a
finner, which one of the light-keepers estimated as being over
sixty feet in length, that the crew were compelled to take
refuge at the Out Stack till the tyranny was overpast ; and only
^ Edmondston's Zetland Islands, vol. ii. p. 300.


last May (1S82) a boat was so pestered by a finner, that they
had to cut away from their lines.

In the month of June, 1878, whilst the Henrietta of
West Yell was hanging on to her lines at Ihe Feideland
haaf, a huge head was projected over the side and came
down amongst the crew. So great was the force of the
blow^, that the gunwale and three planks were smashed, the
forethwart and sailyard being also broken, one man badly
injured in the breast, and others scratched on faces and
hands. As the skin of the fish was described as very rough,
it was probably some species of shark. A few years previously
a boat at the mackerel fishing from Fetlar was struck amidships
by a fish, supposed to have been a swordfish, which had
followed after the mackerel fleet, the boards being cut as if
with a knife.

The Cod, Smack, or Faroe Fishing.

During the last century the smacks belonging to the islands
seem to have been used principally to tow out to and convoy
at the haaf the sixareens, though no doubt they did a certain
amount of hand-line fishing on their own account. About the
year 181 7, the Regent's Bank was discovered to the south-west
of Foula, but the establishment of tonnage bounties for vessels
engaged in the line and cod fisheries by i Geo. IV. c. 103,
was undoubtedly the stimulant which called the Shetland
smack-fishery into existence in its present form. In the
year 182 1, only twenty-four smacks are shown in the
Report of the Commissioners of the Fishery Board, as
fishing from Shetland, whilst in 1829, the last year of the
bounty system, the number had increased to eighty ; and
though in 1830 we find none credited to Shetland, in 1831
we find seventy-four, since which date the number has
fluctuated from time to time. The largest number in any one
year was in 1864, when 107 smacks, of 4,362 tons aggregate
burden, and manned by 1,185 men, were registered. As the


increase in the number of open boats, when the small crofting
system was established in the middle of the last century, com-
pelled the fishermen to go further afield in search of fish, so
the increase in the number of cod smacks obliged the latter
from time to time to look out for fresh banks ; and about
the years 1832 or 1833 the late Mr. Hay sent some vessels
to fish on the coasts of the Faroes, and continued to do
so for several years. After this there was a break in the
Faroe fishing till the year 1849, when Mr. Hay again sent
smacks there, and in a few years other owners followed his
example, and at the present day so few smacks fish on the
old giounds, that it is usual to speak of the smack fishing as
the Faroe fishing. In the year 1846, and for several years
afterwards, some Shetland smacks fished at Davis Straits, and
so numerous were the cod the first year, that, it is stated
in the Fishery Report for that year, they were strokehauled
or jiggered with i-aspers, or bare hooks tied back to back on a
line. The size of the fish too seems to have been enormous,
some weighing, when taken out of the water, 80 lbs, and after
being headed and gutted, over 60 lbs. However, by 1850,
they had to give up the Davis Straits fishing, as the cod
caught there were, more or less, found to be unmarketable, ■
owing to their rank and oily taste, due, it was supposed, to
their feeding on the kreng of the whales. In the Faroe fish-
ing the smacks belong to the curer, the crews, who join some
time in March, agreeing to prosecute the fishing on the coasts
of the Faroes and in the North Sea generally, with all due
diligence until the middle of August, and, if required, to leave
Faroe for Iceland before the 30th of August. In the Faroe
portion of the fishing, there is a sort of partnership between
curer and crew, the former curing and selling the fish for the
benefit of all concerned. From the proceeds are first deducted
expense of bait and curing, five per cent, for sale and com-
mission, allowances to master and mate, and score-money of
(>d. or ^d. to each member of the crew per score of sizeable
fish caught by him. After these deductions the net proceeds


are divided between curer and crew, the latter having to find
themselves in provisions, except i lb. of biscuits per diem
supplied by the curer, and also to provide themselves with hand
lines and hooks. The share of each member is settled at the
time of engaging, according to whether he is a skilled or green
hand. On the Iceland venture at the end of the season the
curer used to find provisions and pay wages, but at the present
time the Iceland fishing is said to be conducted generally on
the same terms as the Faroe one.

Such of the smacks as are well decked take out their bait —
consisting of the larger mussels known in Shetland as yoags^
and of the large whelks termed buckles — alive in their wells.
The other smacks take the same shell-fish in a salted state, and
salted herrings, though when on the banks, as soon as they can
get halibut, they prefer it, if not supplied with nets for the
purpose of getting herrings. Formerly they used to get whelks
in Faroe, but of late the natives have been forbidden to supply
foreigners with them. The smacks make three or four voyages
out and home in the season, and twenty to thirty tons is looked
upon as a good fishing. On the Faroe bank they are said to
get very large cod, twice as large as those caught in Shetland
waters, though, it is said, of an inferior quality, and occasion-
ally very large haddocks. A skate was caught on this
bank in 1878 by the unfortunate smack, Telegraph, that was
probably the largest ever known, if not the father of all
"maids," and rivalling in size the celebrated half-an-acre
Thurso skate of Dean Ramsay. The fish weighed 5 cwt. 3 qrs.
12 lbs., was 14 inches thick at the thickest part, and required
five men to get it on board. The liver alone weighed 20 lbs.
There is said to -be a very fine run of fish on the coast of
Iceland in the months of May and June and till the middle of
July, when, for some cause or another, the fish leave the coast
for a short time. The Iceland cod run very small, as the
following statistics will show: in 1877, when the Faroe fishing
was moderate, the returns of Shetland smack-caught cod showed
1,174,795 fish, weighing when cured 32,878 cwt.; in 1878,


when the Faroe fishing was a failure, and almost all the fish
caught in Icelandic waters, it took 1,807,448 fish to make
34,146 cwt. Occasionally Shetland smacks fish around Rockall,
a lonely skerry, 168 nautical miles west of St. Kilda. The
well-decked smacks on their last voyage, when they go to
Grimsby to refit, generally take back a cargo of live fish. On
other voyages the fish are headed, gutted, split, and salted, and
the curing finished, on their return to port, in the same manner
as that of the fish caught at the haaf fishing, though, late in the
season, or when the weather is very bad, the fish are hung up
by the tails and dried by hot air in a long room, and this mode
of cure has to be adopted in exceptionally bad years with the
haaf caught fish.^

A good many smacks get wrecked from time to time. In 1878
three were lost, the Gondola and Harriet Louisa at Iceland,
and the Telegraph, which is supposed to have foundered at sea,
and in which were lost not only her own crew, but also eight
of those saved from the Gondola. Shetland fishermen rarely
insure Hves or boats, and till last year had no benefit society of
their own. A certain amount of the money raised after the
disaster of last year has been set aside to meet future
emergencies, and, it may be, the lesson thus brought home may
produce lasting effects, but it yet remains to be seen, whether
more permanent harm than good has not been done by
the very magnitude of the sum raised, — over ;;^'i 5^450-
In addition to those employed in the home and smack
fisheries, large numbers of Shetlanders form part of the crews
of the whaling and sealing fleets, and numbers again go south,
and sail foreign. No districts in the British Isles for their size
can compare to the Orkneys and Shetland in the number of
officers they supply to the mercantile marine, and that too, as
often as not, from poor boys who work their way aft to the
quarter-deck; and over a thousand naval reserve men muster at
Lerwick during the late autumn and winter months, and finer
raw material could hardly be found anywhere in the world.
^ See Appendices F and G, pp. 601-5.





The Fisherman-Crofter Ashore.

That agriculture, in any higher sense of the word, should,
till comparatively recent years, have been an unknown quantity
in Shetland, is hardly to be wondered at. We have seen, how
the almost total failure of the kelp trade was needed to awaken
the Orcadians from their apathetic neglect of that soil, which
at the present day so well repays the labour expended upon it.

Online LibraryJohn R TudorThe Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state → online text (page 13 of 59)