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Fishing Industry

In 1820, 15 vessels from Aberdeen were engaged in the northern whale and seal fishing; in 1860, one vessel, but none since. The white fishing at Aberdeen employs some 40 boats, each with a crew of 5 men. Of the 900 tons wet fish estimated to be brought to market yearly, above a third are sent fresh by rail to England. The salmon caught in the Dee, Don, and sea are nearly all sent to London fresh in ice. The herring fishing has been introduced since 1836, and from 200 to 350 boats are engaged in it.

Grampian Scenery and Industry

The sea in the neighbourhood yields considerable variety of fish, of which those principally caught are the haddock, whiting, cod, skate, and flounders of various kinds, as plaice, ling, halibut, soles, and mackerel are occasionally caught, and there is no reason to doubt that an abundant supply of some of the finer kinds of fish, as turbot, might be obtained, if the fishermen' were in the habit of using decked boats, in which they could venture to go 15 or 20 miles out to sea. An attempt was made some years ago by some fishers from Hartlepool to introduce the turbot fishery here, but they did not meet with the encouragement which they had hoped for. Herrings are occasionally caught in' abundance along this coast, but it was not until the exertions of  Provost Blaikie, a vigorous attempt was made to establish a herring-fishery at Aberdeen.

"Come awa', sir, and buy a caller haddock or a fine cod.
There's a skatie nae twa hours oot o' th' water!

The herring fishing began at Aberdeen in 1836 at the instillation of the fishermen of the Cove and Portlethen. Some provision for accommodating herring boats had been made at Point Law, and it was proposed to do more for the promotion of this industry when there was more money at the command of the Harbour Board.


Our townsman, Captain Cushnie, whose simple characteristic monument in the West Church records his charitable bequeathment of a fortune found in the lottery, with the heart, possessed also the humour, of a genuine Son of Neptune. After the accidental acquisition of his prize-money he cast anchor on his native shore, where he spent his time and fortune in relieving the necessities of the poor.  He was a great walker, and would naturally often steer his course towards the sea-beach. During one of his visits thither, while he was viewing a fleet of fishing-boats in the offing, suddenly the sky became overcast, the wind blew with fitful and increasing violence, until the sea into a storm it roused. The bents were soon covered with the relatives of the fishermen, who were in great jeopardy. Amid the roar of the waves, and the howling of the wind, nought was heard save loud lament, and the most extravagant expressions of despair. One lassie, on whose lungs the frequent practice in crying "Caller Haddocks!" had conferred stentorian strength, was particularly exclamatory, and seemed determined to arrogate a monopoly of woe. Amongst other ravings which she bellowed, she exclaimed, "O gin I had but a knife, I wad cut my ain throat!" Whereupon the Captain, who was standing alongside of her, thinking it a hard case that the honest woman should be prevented, for lack of the needful, from carrying into immediate execution so rational a resolve, took from his pocket a large jocteleg, (jacknife) which he presented, unclasped, to the forlorn matron. But, instead of availing herself of the preferred aid, she ungratefully exclaimed, "Ah! you villain! - wad ye gie a knife to a mad woman?"

Fishing Vessels

Busy time in the Navigation Channel with only one Steam Trawler

The 1st boat of the Zulu design, “The Nonesuch”, was built at Lossiemouth in 1879. Its length was 60-80 feet with a crew of 6 or 7. The high mast allowed a huge mainsail and with a mizzen and jib. The Zulu was both fast and very seaworthy, excellent for herring fishing.  Zulus were common along the Moray Firth until the early 1920s when they had engines fitted or were replaced by steam or motor drifters.  The “Clever Lassie” was the last Zulu in Avoch and was used until about 1950.  Fisher Fowk Back Then








The White Fisher Fowk 'Lugger Armada' with Abercrombie Jetty on the left.  The fishermen of Fife and the East Coast preferred the Fifie design which was a strong sea-going vessel. From 1879, however, Zulus were built on the Moray Firth where they were preferred for their greater manoeuvrability.  These sail boats were of three main types: Skaffies, Fifies and Zulus. Common to all three types were the lugsail, hence their collective name Luggers. The need for the larger boats spurred on the building of harbours all along the east coast, in the 1850s and 1860s. This heralded an enormous change in the size of the herring fishery. Initially, the market for the pickled herring was Ireland and the West Indies where it was fed to slaves. The market received a setback in the 1830s following the ending of slavery on British-owned plantations and, from 1845 to 1851 when the Great Irish Famine forced a mass emigration from Ireland. However, improvements in curing techniques produced a superior product and soon meant that new markets opened up in Russia and the Baltic countries.

Beyond the Grampians

The Skaffie appeared at the beginning of the 19th Century.

These boats were initially small so that they could be easily beached but later versions were heavier when large harbours became prevalent. Their sterns were rounded and they had had raked sterns

In 1815 the skaffle herring boats used in North East Scotland were little more than 20 feet in length with a 12 foot beam and cost £6.00. They were timber built with what is termed a raked stern and a curved bow. By 1835 they measured from between 24 to 26 feet with a 14 foot beam and they cost £60.00.  Conditions in these un-decked boats were very basic.  There was no shelter for the crew and the men had to sleep exposed to the elements, often under cover of the sail. A fire was kindled amongst the ballast stones to cook their food and this continued until the late 1850's, when the herring boats were for the first time decked. The life was extremely difficult at sea in those days.  These little craft were totally unfit for storms or heavy seas.

The Fifie was the predominant fishing boat on the east coast from the 1850s until the mid-1880s.  The Fifies main features were the vertical stem and stern.  Fifies built from 1860 onwards were all decked and from 1870s onwards the bigger boats were built with carvel planking, i.e. the planks were laid edge to edge instead of the overlapping clinker style of previous boats.  Some boats were built up to about 70 feet in length and were very fast.

The Zulu took its name from the Zulu War that was raging in South Africa at the time. Lossiemouth fisherman William 'Dad' Campbell was the first to introduce this form of fishing boat.  His boat, the Nonesuch, had the characteristic vertical stem and steeply raking stern. The Zulu Boats rapidly became very popular in Lossiemouth and then along the whole of the east coast. Because these boats were ultimately very big and fast, they could reach the fishing grounds quickly and return with the catch equally fast.

The weather on the afternoon of 18th August 1858 was favourable, promising good fishing and, from Wick to Stonehaven around 800 boats set out to sea to gather the day's herring catch. By midnight the weather was deteriorating rapidly with strengthening winds and increasingly heavy seas. Many skippers decided to haul their nets and make for shelter. During the course of the following storm, 124 boats were lost, many while trying to enter harbour, and 100 fishermen lost their lives, leaving behind 47 widows and 161 children.

Painting of model of Leith baldie, by Peter Anson

In 1860 the Baldie was introduced in response to the Washington Report following major  losses in the storms of 1858 . It was a smaller version of the fifie designed for inshore fishing, and was either half decked or fully decked. These boats were named after the Italian patriot, Giuseppe Garibaldi. The baldie was carvel, rather than clinker-built, meaning that the planks were edge-to-edge rather than overlapping. These boats were around 25 feet in length with a single dipping lugsail on a mast positioned well forward. They were light to row, although depended mainly on their lugsail. The advantage of the lugsail was that no bowsprit or bars projected beyond the hull, which meant these boats could be packed closer together in the busy herring fishing harbours.


The Seine Netters initially were converted Fifies and Zulus. From 1906, petrol and paraffin engines began to be installed, initially for auxiliary power. However, as more powerful engines became available, sails (apart from the mizzen sail) were dispensed with.

Danish seine net boats were landing huge quantities of plaice and other white fish at English east coast ports. Lossiemouth fishermen noted this and a few decided to use the seine net. It was obvious that this would be successful, but they were still hampered by the design and cost of the majority steam boats.

John Campbell, nephew of William Campbell who designed the 1st Zulu boat, saw that a new design was needed to accommodate the large amounts of white fish that could be caught. His boat, the Marigold, did very well and over a short period the entire fleet (the first in Scotland) converted to the seine net.











This early picture shows a steam paddle tug towing a number of herring boats out through the navigation channel past the Roundhouse in an orderly manner rather than the helter skelter jockeying of steam trawler Captains below.


The Steam Drifters, so called because just like the Fifies and Zulus, they used drift nets. They were large boats, usually 80-90 feet in length with a beam of around 20 feet. Steam drifters had many advantages.  They were usually about 20ft longer than the sailing vessels so they could carry more nets and catch more fish. This was important because the market was growing quickly at the beginning of the 20th century.  They could travel faster and further and with greater freedom from weather, wind and tide. Because less time was spent travelling to and from the fishing grounds, more time could be spent fishing.  However they did have disadvantages.  They were expensive to build and run and as the herring fishery declined they became too expensive to operate.

The Fish Market, Aberdeen

Aberdeen Fishmarket
- was a Mile in Girth they claimed - a magnificent busy place with a legendary canteen.

Men with long gaff hooks and special wooden clogs clad in Copper with rivets for protection and grip on slime covered concrete loaded lorries once the purchasers names stickers had been applied to the fish after an auction that was incomprehensible to the average listener.  Akin to that language of tobacco auctions. Herring Drifters jockey seawards. A sight that prevailed pre oil era every Monday at Dawn.


In the 1790s it was recorded that there were 36 men from Torry engaged in fishing in 6 boats.

By the mid 19th century this had fallen to 3 boats with 6 men in each. Despite the temporary fall in numbers the fish caught were the same: haddock was fished in January and May; cod, ling and turbot were caught at a distance of ‘several leagues’ from the land and herring was fished from the middle of July. Steam powered trawlers transformed the fishing industry from the 1880s and had a significant impact on Torry.

As mechanised trawling grew, bringing an exponential increase in the catch, Torry became a centre for fish processing, shipbuilding and repair. Tens of 1000s of people were attracted to Torry to work in these industries which led to the expansion of the town and building of many of the tenements we see today.

1923 - Dock Riot in Aberdeen; fishermen protesting at the fish landing of German boats leads police to baton-charge rioters in order to disperse them

In England and Scotland, 15th – 20th century, a unit of capacity that held 32 wine gallons (each 231 cubic inches) and had to contain at least 1,000 fish.  The herring barrel held 1000 herring in 1357, but by 1713 it was said to hold 1440 herring. Had the average herring become smaller?  With the change to imperial measure, by 1855 the herring barrel was 26 2/3 imperial gallons (a difference of only 1.79 cubic inches).


In Scotland, the Convention of Royal Burghs ordained in 1722 that the herring barrel contained 66 Scots pints. The statute specifying the dimensions of the herring barrel in Scotland was repealed in 1963.  At that time, a herring barrel of Scotch cured herring was said to hold about 700 to 1,100 fish. A herring barrel of pickle-salted herring weighed about 320 pounds, of which 262 pounds were fish.

Simmonds (1892, page 193) says that the actual barrels for white herrings were made of Norway birch and ash, while those for red or smoked herring were made of fir.

Caller Herrin'

Fish, Boxes and Creels hand woven by the Wifie's and Fishermen at Stonehaven - The Ocean Harvest
In the early part of the year herring were caught in West and Northwest Scotland (including the Shetland Isles, waters west of the Hebrides and the Minch). Here, herring stocks spawn from February to April so herring caught at this time had already spawned. In the Firth of Forth fish were caught in the lead up to spawning.

April was a lean month, with fishing increased in May in the Minch and in Lerwick, Peterhead and Fraserburgh. The great summer fishery in the northern North Sea took place between June and August. Here, good quality fish were caught in the lead up to spawning. The main ports were Lerwick, Stronsay, Wick, Fraserburgh and Peterhead and boats from Yarmouth and Lowestoft also joined the Scottish fleet. The largest spawning group, the summer spawners (including the Buchan and Shetland herring) were caught at this time. They winter on the edges of the Norwegian deep, but in spring move westward towards the Scottish coasts, feeding as they go. By April, they are in the central part of the north North Sea where they spawn from July to early September. After spawning they head back towards their winter grounds. Herring fishing on the West Coast also took place at this time and in August the Yorkshire fishery centred on Whitby began.

From September to December, the main fishery in Scotland was over. However, many Scottish fishermen went to join the Yorkshire Coast fishery at Whitby, Scarborough and Grimsby, which was in full swing during September and October. The Banks stocks spawn around Dogger Bank and off Northeast England at this time. During October and November there was fishing in the East Anglian grounds at Yarmouth and Lowestoft. In the mid twentieth century trawlers also began working in the Channel. The Downs stock, which spawn off East Anglia and into the East English Channel in late autumn were caught at this time.

Stonehaven's Harbour Clock above a an old Bollard- my yon basket looks familiar. 
Note the large Hands of a fisherman born of generations of Rowers.
Natural Darwinian selection at work through the eyes of long sighted Lassies.










Coopers and those engaged in the Barrel Factory. There is a very large trade in barrel staves, imported from Norway and Sweden.  Comparatively few “made” barrels were formerly imported; and the year 1893 was recorded by a riot in Peterhead town of the arrival of a vessel laden with foreign-made barrels.

The vessel was not allowed to discharge its cargo, and for some days a rabble held the street.  They had to take the staves from abroad, but would have nothing to do with coopered barrels.

Fishermen have been casting their lines off the coast of the north east of Scotland since before Viking longship keels scraped the shingle beaches and the Danes set foot ashore around about 794 AD. From Buckie, east along the rocky shoreline of the Moray Firth to the Knuckle bending from Fraserburgh southwards round the sandy beaches of Rattrayhead to Peterhead and down the eastern seaboard to the villages of Footdee or Fittie, Stonehaven and beyond, communities of fisher folk lived and worked for many generations in isolation of a larger world yet bound together in commonality of a hazardous, unpredictable occupation. Their lives were, and are still today, inextricably bound in a unique history of traditions and beliefs.


Bailting Lines image

In North East fishing villages there were few surnames in proportion to the population. To remedy this and distinguish between the scores of Buchans, Duthies, Ritchies, Strachans, Whytes, Watts etc., living near each other, nearly everyone had a Teename or nickname by which he was usually known. For instance, a man might be called John Stephen “Pettie,” his son would be Pettie’s Sandy, and his grandson Pettie’s Sandy’s John. Another was John Strachan “Jockel,” his son Jockel’s John, and his grandson, Jockel’s John’s Archie. There were some peculiar teenames, such as Jimpit, Jockie Bugle, Orra Borra and Jamie Tobacco. John Duthie “Jeckie” had a son called John Duthie Jeckie’s Jock, and a grandson, John Duthie Jeckie’s Jock’s Johnnie, another was Jock Cow’s Doh!

Very few new villages were built after the late 19th century and the established communities continued to grow steadily.  Those men born in the parish seldom left to reside elsewhere.

The only incomers to the villages would be if a man took a bride and nearly always she would be a daughter of another fisherman.

There was little integration between country and coast. "Cod and corn dinna gaun the gither" was a saying of the time.

Latterly it was common for girls to turn to another occupation but sons usually followed fathers into the fishing. 

Baiting lines was a job for the whole family through the 19th and early 20th centuries




Preparing lines was very labour intensive. First the bait (usually mussels or shellfish) had to be gathered from the shore, then each hook had to be baited and the lines laid out in a basket ready to be shot by Women.  The Older men did much of the line preperation and repair work.  The main line (the Back) consisted of a String, a thick piece of brown backed cord approximately 60 fathoms long (a fathom is 6 feet). Attached to the String were Snoods - shorter pieces of thinner cord spaced at intervals of between 36 to 45 inches along the line. To the Snoods were fixed horse hair Tippens, around 11 inches in length onto which the hook is whipped with strong thread. This is called "beating the hooks". The Snood is bent onto the line with a knot called a clove hitch and sufficient end left to turn back around to form a kind of plait. This prevents ravelling and twisting and is called a Pen.  The head of the line went over the side first, shot across the tide so that the Snoods would drift away from the main line and was anchored to the sea bed by a plain, unhooked line (a Tow), held in place by a heavy stone. A buoy marked the position of the Tow on the surface. The boat was allowed to drift for a time before hauling in the line to be stowed in a wicker scull or basket.  Despite sharing a common occupation the methods had regional variations. From Stonehaven to Fraserburgh the fishermen preferred to bait their lines wet - a wet line, can be argued, was easier to shoot over the side. Along the Moray Firth coast it was practical for ease and for the longevity of the lines to hang them (made easier by hauling the lines back into the sculls on the boat in bights) on a horizontal wooden pole (called a spiletree) supported at 1 end by another pole, the other end resting on a stone protruding from the gable end of the cottage. Spiletree stones can be seen today on houses in Cairnbulg near Fraserburgh. Usually 2, sometimes 3 lines were kept allowing for at least one to be dried and baited whilst the men were at sea.

a woman carrying a manThe Women of the Fishing Villages

Baiting lines, St AndrewsThe pillar of the fishing communities were the Women, stalwarts behind their men and at the fore in all matters domestic and business, from gathering the bait, baiting the lines and selling the fish to accountancy and child rearing. An old east coast saying is no exaggeration; "No man can be a fisher and lack a wife".

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!".

Often it was the men who replaced the creels on the women’s backs. In Whitehills near Banff the women waded out to the boats anchored in a sheltered cove - the Hythe - with their men on their backs! This was not exploitation but a necessary act, for the men had to spend hours, or sometimes at the Great Line, days at sea and exposure to the elements in wet clothes heightened the risk of illness and with it absence from the fishing and no income. 

The women played a vital role in the herring fishery, often working long hours onshore, in all weathers, gutting, curing and packing the "silver darlings". They worked in squads - 2 gutters and a packer. Skilled gutters could clean an average of 60 to 80 herring per minute. By the beginning of the 20th century the women and girls followed the boats from Port to Port commencing on the West coast north to Caithness and down along the Eastern coastline until the end of the season at Yarmouth in England.  The boom of 1913 was the peak of the Scottish fishing with over 30,000 fishermen and nearly 10,000 boats catching over 200,000 tons of herring.

Yarmouth Time
Rin up tae the shoppie fur a hunk o string, 
En dinna be lang for there’s nae much time. 
There’s nets tae men, en lots mair tae dee, 
Afore yer father gings tae sea; 
At Yarmouth time.     

The kist’s ah packit wi a kine o gear, 
Sunday claes aye, an ilkiday weer, 
Hame-wiven ganzeys, a’ navy blue, 
Seaboot stockings, like the rest o the crew; 
At Yarmouth time.     

The larrie’s at the door – "Are ye ready Joe?" 
En up the laft mi father wid go, 
Wi a rummle lik thunner the nets rollit Doon , 
Then awa tae the hairber, doon the toon;. 
At Yarmouth time.  

Yarmouth Time Rin up tae the shoppie fur a hunk o string, 
En dinna be lang for there’s nae much time. 
There’s nets tae men, en lots mair tae dee, 
Afore yer father gings tae sea; 
At Yarmouth time.

The kist’s ah packit wi a kine o gear,
Sunday claes aye, an ilkiday weer, 
Hame-wiven ganzeys, a’ navy blue, 
Seaboot stockings, like the rest o the crew; 
At Yarmouth time.     

Fae the school tae the hairber tae see them awa, 
The drifters blawin reek an their sirens did blaw Mi Da wavet his cape, 
aye smilin tae me, Bit there’s mair than the reek , 
thir’s a tear in his ee; 
At Yarmouth time.     

Still thir’s nae time tae mope, 
Thir’s works tae be deen, 
Wivin mair claes an ‘Billy’ tae read. 
En oor herts wid loup up fin we ken they’d a shot 
For mony’s the time they’ve toiled lang for naught; 
At Yarmouth time.   

We’d look for the postie tae bring us a letter, 
A parcel o claes wiz sometimes better. 
Thir wiz maybe a boxie, wi somethin sweet, 
Rock, aipples, or nuts - a richt treat; 
At Yarmouth time.   

Then ae mornin early atween twa or three
A knock on the windae en a vice says, 
"It’s me! Wid ye open the door?"
Of coorse, fit joy, Wir father wiz hame – oh sic a malloy ; 
At Yarmouth time.     

Hid the fishin been guid, there’d be presents for a’,
Gloves for my mither, for ma brither a ba
A dally for me, or maybe a game,
Bit the best thing o a’, he wis safely hame; 
At Yarmouth time.

Film Archive of the Fishing Industry

Downies Shore

Note the longitudinal flat and transverse round timbers anchored to the shore for ease of dragging the open boats above the high water line on their keels. This would have protected the vessel hulls from any damage from the rock strewn shores and perhaps also ensure a speedy berthing in a rough sea.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013