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Aberdeen Fish Market

Aberdeen Herring Cleaners at WorkOld Fish Market
88 Shiprow.

Much was done to displace the Shiprow fish market as a foul smelling nuisance as it had also previously been in Castle Street no doubt to take advantage of the convenient and valuable Site for re-development. 

It was replaced by a new Post Office later to become the Unemployment Bureau - The Bru and is now a cleaned Commercial Office at the bottom of Market StreetNote the ubiquitous Bun and long dress for warmth with basic pinafores.  Creels, Baskets, Coopered Barrels and troughs await the issue from nimble fingers as fish were dressed by these fast fingered 'cleckin' women in all weathers.  A man stepped into this feminist throng at considerable personal risk of ridicule, scrutiny and harassment.

Herring Fishing 1883

The Covered Fish Market

The old Fish Market was again displaced from the bottom of Shiprow to the Albert Basin and ran the length of Commercial Quay with a full girth of about a mile to Albert Quay, to service the then booming fishing industry Circa 1900's.  Two Pontoon Docks for repairs are clearly visble

Prior to the building of the covered market in 1889. Steam trawling for white fish was introduced into Aberdeen in 1882 and fish were landed at Point Law.   Crews of fish gutters at worked ponds in the open air. The shiploads of barrels full of salted herring were made ready for export to the Baltic .  In a few years, the fleet of vessels grew to number several 100 and a flourishing new industry was added to the port.  A large dry dock for the repair and overhauling of ships built at the eastern end of the Albert Basin in 1885, was demolished in 1924-27 to make way for further extending the covered Fish Market.  it looked for all the world like a giant railway canopy.

It seemed well designed with at first sliding loading doors and ramped for drainage and easy loading of vehicles for swift transport of the potentially deleterious produce from the North Sea and the North Atlantic.  It had a central Canteen which was open to all and sundry and a great source of cheap sustenance and entertainment.  Fish Market Porters wore magnificent high leather and wood clog boots with copper capping and brass rivets for sure footing on the fish slimed screed concrete surfaces on which the boxes of fish were manoeuvred using long steel gaff hooks to drag them across the floor to the loading gates.  The fish boxes were recycled by the Aberdeen Box Pool Ltd and some had the name Joe Little branded on the surface.  There were also large trolleys that Loons used dangerously as monumental steel wheel 'carties' when the market was over and they could easily have ended up in the tidal Harbour with their fearless exploits in the wide free space of the linear Fish Market concourse. Inset Photo 1949.  Once unloaded the trawlers would berth at Point Law for re-coaling, refuelling, hold ice loads, provisions and repairs while the crew enjoyed a raucous rest and recuperation period on shore for 3 days or so and inevitable had to be dragged from their beds both drunk and incapable to their cabin berths to sober up on the way to the fishing grounds.  A trade some 14 times more dangerous than mining.

Reversed Image

Bring in the Catch
During the heyday of Aberdeen Fish Market, it wasn’t unusual for the floor area to fill up with boxes 3 times. The trawlers were lined up 2 and 3 deep, ready to have their haul unloaded. Experienced lumpers would be down in the hold, filling baskets which were attached to a crane pulley system, and hauled up to the Quay floor. The men on the Quayside would pack the fish into the 1 cwt boxes ready for the business of the day; the selling and buying of tons of fish. Every day there is an inspection by the Government Department of Fish and Agriculture. The staff from the Research Laboratory would appear in their shiny white boots and sparkling white coats, and take sample fish from random boxes. They would measure, weigh, and take a small sample back to their lab for testing. The lumpers would tease them about getting their hands dirty, and telling them to get a ‘real’ job, but they did a necessary service to the industry and no-one resented them.

Aberdeen Fish Market. Boxes of fish await inspection, auction bid and purchase by merchants. c.1910

My day didn’t start till about 8am, when I walked down the Market towards my Kiosk, which was in the middle of the long side. The sales would have already started by this time, with chaotic order happening all along the floor. It looked as if the Salesmen are striding around on the top of the fish, but in fact each box has an inward lip of about 3 inches which makes a splendid platform for the Auctioneer to conduct their business.  As I walk down the Market, trying not to get in the way of anyone, the men call out, ‘Late again, sweetheart! Come on, get the coffee on!’, and I smile and wave, knowing most of them would have had a huge breakfast in the Market Café before starting work on the Market floor.

The other reason for the Kiosk was to receive phone calls from the different fish-houses which are in the area. These were the days before mobile phones so I would announce over the Tannoy System that someone needed to contact their office. Probably there was a change in the demand for 1 type of fish or another. Previously it would have been the job of a young boy to get on his bike, pedal like fury to the market, then try and find his contact to pass on the message, which was a hit-and-miss way of conducting business, to say the least. Now, when the buyer heard his name, he made a dive for the nearest Telephone Box (and there were many sited the length of the market), to get his new instructions.

The Fish Market was on the list of visitors’ 'Things to Do', and before the Kiosk opened, they would often get in the way of the Business of selling and buying boxes of fish, so my Dad put up the idea of a Kiosk and a Guide – that was me!  That was the part of my job I loved best; taking visitors along the floor, pointing out different types of fish, telling how to identify each one such as the haddock which has a ‘fingerprint’ just behind the gills.  St Peter's Thumbprint.  Cod, when it is laid out in huge shoals on the floor have a green tinge on the scales along their back, so is easily identified. When there was something out of the ordinary landed, such as a shark, or octopus, or a huge monkfish, or a massive skate, I let the visitors touch the back of a shark and feel the roughness of the skin. Or we examine the suckers on the octopus tentacle, or admire the ugliness of a monkfish and its sharp teeth. When children, Dad would often bring home a squid or small octopus and we would take it to school to show the Teacher. Visitors often complained about the smell, but I would soon put them straight, explaining that was the smell of money!

When the selling had surrounded my Kiosk I was kept busy giving out change for the phone, selling a chocolate biscuits to go with the coffee from the machine, and generally keeping up with the teasing and joking from the 200 men who would pass by in the space of 15-20 minutes.  Usually, each Buyer had a regular order for what fish to buy. The salesman knew who wanted haddock or cod or mackerel for example, and could anticipate the raising of the eyebrow, or the slight movement of a shoulder or hand which indicated a bid. The buyers would stand around the catch which was on offer, staring at the boxes, shuffling their feet, waiting for the salesman to call Sold!, and then they would move in, slapping their identity tickets all over the catch, and move on to the next lot.

The tickets were there for the fishhouse driver to know which boxes to hook out and load onto the lorry, to be taken back to the fish-house where the women were waiting to gut and clean the catch, ready for distribution to Shops, Hotels, Restaurants, and in some cases getting them ready for going by train to London. The cleaned and gutted fish, which had been checked for quality, were packed into boxes again, surrounded by loads of ice, then the top nailed on, and they were stacked on the lorry again to be taken to the nearby Rail Depot where the Train for London would be waiting. The train left Aberdeen at 2pm, no waiting for anyone, so the activity around the gutting tables became more frantic as the morning wore on. These fish had to be on the Market at Billingsgate by 5am the following day, and if the buyer had been unlucky enough to buy from the last lot, there wasn’t much time to do the preparation. During the days when horses were used to pull the wagons around the market area, it wasn’t unknown for a cart to ‘accidently’ tip after unloading, which enabled another driver to get his load on to the train while the Cart was being set upright.

One of the perks for fish workers at all levels, was the traditional Friday Fry. The market was closed on Saturday and Sunday, so a package of fish, wrapped in newspaper was given to each worker for their family. In our house, we were used to having fish 4 nights out of 7 so it wasn’t a treat for us, but many families welcomed this rite, and would eat well on a Friday night.

As the morning wore on, my duties were to clean and refill the coffee machine, count up the money, make sure the kiosk was clean – I would have been in and out all the time, attending to the machine, taking visitors around, wiping the shelves around the kiosk, and would have been bringing fishy ‘glaur’ or glue in, so it was down on my knees and scrubbing the floor before I left for the day.  Every day was fun on the fish market, with 400 men milling around how could it be anything else. Over the years I’ve had many jobs, but the market stays one of the best. - Lesley P Lyon

Large fish species were arranged in neat rows directly on the floor and smaller fish in Boxes

One of the Steel wheel bogies or trolleys is just of camera to the left of these mysterious monsters from the deep.  The fishwife appears to have wooden Clogs for sure-footing.  The sloping surface run with slippery gut slime and fish scales making walking very difficult and one slip would ensure a smelly coating of clothes.  Then lit by Gas lamps.

A good catch indeed with eager buyers and children swarming around and standing on the fish box edges for a better view.  Above the Roof can be seen the Citadel in the distance through the trawler rigging.  The slime ever present on the floor was hosed away at the end of the sale leaving the market pristine for the next day.  In the creeok of this view is the Fish Market Canteen.  A bogie lies by the quay deck.  Fedora's, Caps, and 'bunnets' abound on spectators heads.  Sadly no close-up of porters clogs to be admired.  Sunlight was not meant to fall on the fish and induce putrifaction, only northlight hence the very sparse illumination.



Market Dining Rooms Centre - Coal Lorries one of which is Steam Driven at Palmerston Quay

When the Market was over by early afternoon one would occasionally find a 6ft Conger Eel a scary monster of the deep lying forgotten in a corner of the floor.  When kicked it would appear to retain some life as it threshed across the wet surface striking sudden fear in the hearts of adventurous wee loons playing unsupervised in the wide free space of the empty Covered Market. C1940

Electric Light and portable winches have been added and the white coated Auctioneers abound among the Fish Merchants and curious onlookers.  When sold the buyers paper identification labels would be placed on the wet fish sold for collection by waiting lorries or horse drawn carts.  Porters would walk along the edges of the wooden fish boxes to do this.  Seagulls would be ever present scavenging for a chance meal conveniently dropped or landed on the quay and this began their demise as cliff dwelling ocean going birds and they evolved into verminous and aggressive City muggers. A cruel prank by loons was to fill a fish with discarded carbide and throw it to the seagulls.  Carbide gave off a flammable gas when immersed in water and the bird would surely die.  Stand taps were by most external stanchions for hosing down the market floor after business was over.

An incongruous 'H' chimney protrudes from the a trawler galley to avoid asphyxiation from stove fumes in windy seas.  Inverted 'U' shaped 'I' beam Gallows frames are evident starboard side for trawling the dragnets behind the fishing trawlers.  High forecastles stand proud of the Landing Quay, Cran baskets and sometimes barrels were a link with past methods of carrying fish in bulk.  Lorries with Barrels of Ice were on hand which were sprinkled liberally over the fish to help preserve them in transit at sea and subsequently in road or train transport to other distribution points like Billingsgate London.

Neatly Regiment fish species awaiting Auction.

Roofscape and Point law Berth for steam trawlers moored up for the weekend before the mad jockeying to clear the bar on Monday mornings.

23rd February 1923 - 'Herren' Wars

Aberdeen Market was the scene of a Bitter Strike Action in 1923 involving 350 Steam Trawlers and Crews

A regular invasion of German Trawlers challenged the Fishing Industry of Aberdeen but this menace has been removed by he British trawl-owners and Skippers having prevailed on the Auctioneers not to sell fish landed by German Vessels fishing in the North Sea.  The British Trawlermen went on strike till the landing of fish from German trawlers was stopped.  The Skipper of a German trawler who proposed to discharge his large catch of fish was told to take his fish to Germany  This  decision did not affect German catches made in Icelandic Waters, which were mostly brought to Aberdeen to be cured.  The fishing strike in Aberdeen was due to the landing by German Trawlers of fish caught under the local fishermen's noses in the waters formerly fished by British Fishermen. German trawlers were being allowed to fish off the coast of Scotland when British Trawlers were precluded from a 3 mile limit.  No settlement of this serious strike at Aberdeen was likely to take place as long as these conditions existed. 

The fish were not caught, in the main, in Icelandic waters, but in waters where no British Trawler was allowed to trawl legally, and that this was a grave injustice to Scottish fishermen.  This situation was affecting the whole of the trawling industry, illegal and legal, around the coast of Scotland, and that the action at Aberdeen was merely bringing the matter to a definite issue.

Some 3000 Trawler men and sympathisers went on Strike for about a month and a near riot took place when Ice and Fish were thrown at the German crewmen and one German Trawler's catch was dumped in the Albert Basin.  German trawlers were also unmoored and cast adrift, market Porters were beaten up for moving the fish and there were Police baton charges after suitable reinforcements arrived.  There were concerns about whether the Germans were reaping the benefit of recent legislation to preserve fish stocks by landing coastal water fish rather than formerly acceptable practice of Icelandic fish being brought here for curing only.

The Harbour area was my playground and certain ships and factories would need daily inspection to see what was new and going on.  Woodpiles were our bouncy castles as long ends of springy timber stuck out to provide ready springboards. We would dare each other to run over stinking cowhides piled on the Quayside without falling over on what may have been anthrax laden slime.

A chat with the Esparto grass Ships crew to see if they had found any tortoises on board.

Then a jaunt through the fish market to pinch some herring or odd fish for Tibsy the house cat as we slithered about unsuccessfully on our Gymmies in slime of fish scales and doubtful gut juices; each wishing we had a pair of those those copper clad wooden clogs the Porters wore for good footing adhesion.  All in a days play.


The "cran" box measure was approximately 170.5 litres, which was adopted as the official measure in 1796 for uncleaned herring and was equal to about 1,000 herring. the baskets used lo convey the herring from the boats to the shore were known as "quarter crans" and carried the official brand of certification. This method of unloading speeded up the whole gutting process, as compared to the English method of counting individual fish. Each finished barrel of gutted and salted herring would contain between 1000 arid 1200 herring depending on the grade of herring.

Regimented Foremast Derricks were the previous method of landing fish from the iced Hold Ponds in basket creels for dispersing neatly in rows on the sales floor or into cran boxes for Auction and sale to the highest bidder.  Adverts and information adorned the outer wall of the Fish Market with adverts to inform the public of the fish species landed and or the market byelaws.  The Quay deck surface was scored for ease of drainage and improving foothold.  Undersize fish landed would be condemned for fishmeal use only to discourage future catches of small fish and preserve the rising fishery stocks from further plunder.

Recent but now displaced by the Oil Service demands on Aberdeen Harbour.  Halibut and another loons trolley cairtie survives almost off camera.  Sliding wooden doors were replaces by roller shutters for access to the loading bays.  Tommy Hunter was one of the few Merchants locally with a shop in upper George Street to attempt sell fresh wet fish to an already well connected community that always had regular access to a free 'fry'.  - hey Alec - are ye wit'n a fry

The Strathallan 1972 - victim of a spring tide in the Fishmarket Harbour.  The trawler was trapped under the quay during a rising tide..  She sank and took an adjacent trawler George R Wood with her.  Both vessels were raised and the Strathallan was sold for scrap and the George R Wood returned to fishing

Old Billingsgate Fish Market London

London’s Billingsgate Market

is the UK’s largest inland fish market where an average of 25,000 tons of fish and fish product are sold each year.

Originally, it was a general market for corn, coal, iron, wine, salt, pottery, fish, and various other goods but began to be exclusively associated with fish in the 16th century.

Built in 1875 to the designs of the City of London Architect, Sir Horace Jones, the Billingsgate Fish Market closed in 1982 and was relocated from Lower Thames Street in the City of London to the Docklands near Canary Wharf.




Tiny by comparison was London's old Billingsgate Fish Market on Lower Thames Street.  Billingsgate market porters wore traditional protective hard Leather helmets with a flat top for carrying fish boxes on their heads; there was a special deep drainage brim which caught the residual slime and water and kept it away from their heads.  Boxes of fish from Aberdeen can be seen in this Image.  A Porter at Billingsgate Fish Market carrying boxes on his head using a distinctive leather 'bobbing hat'.  

This is a typical fish porter's bobbing hat. It is flat-topped so that cases of fish could rest safely on top of the head. The rims along the side direct any leaking water and fish scales away from the porter's face and onto the ground behind him. The hat is made of leather and was worn with a white smock. Such hats are rarely worn now, but the smock remains a characteristic part of the new Billingsgate landscape. 

Fish arrived at Billingsgate Market by sea, rail, road or air. The backbreaking work of the fish porters makes the market function. Traditionally there were 240 porters at Billingsgate, all of whom started their day at 5am, moving the fish samples from the delivery vehicles to the merchants' stands. Later they would move more fish from supply lorries to customers' vans. Michael Caine started working life at Billingsgate

Gaffing the fish and boxes with a long steel handled hook and floating them over the slimey floor was much easier work in Aberdeen's state of the art fish landing area. 

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Last modified: 01/09/2013