NEFA - The North East Folklore Archive

The Sea

Herring and White Fish from J. T. Findlay's History of Peterhead, 1933

Peterhead South Harbour, late 1800s (Arbuthnot Museum)

Peterhead South Harbour, late 1800s (Arbuthnot Museum)

So much do the progress and prosperity of Peterhead depend upon the herring fishing that a successful year for trade in Peterhead is synonymous with a good fishing season. The town is now so much associated with this great industry that people find it hard to imagine that there once was a time when the town knew no such trade. I have already traced the first rude beginnings of the Peterhead herring and other coast fishing prior to 1750, when, to all appearances, it was about to blossom forth into a great and important industry. But from 1750 to 1815 it was actually discouraged. It will be remembered that within those dates Peterhead was a fashionable watering-place and spa, and its aristocratic visitors and water- drinkers - “the flower of the Scottish nobility” - naturally enough objected to the carrying on of a not over- clean or sweet-smelling industry. The town, they said, ought to be very thankful for their condescension in patronising it, and should endeavour to make its one end the contemplation and care of its patrons.

The town was accordingly grateful and for a time accepted the situation. The fishing industry was uncertain, whereas visitors were something tangible. During the years in which Peterhead was known far and near as a Spa whatever herrings were caught on the coast were evidently used up by the small community; and in the Barra-head fishing, begun in 1773, the town employed at the most only three ships, each bringing home from ten to fifteen tons of cod and ling; which were usually exported to Spain and the Mediterranean ports.

When, however, fickle Society took unto itself wings and flew away, Peterhead was left without adequate means of subsistence. The whale fishing gave employment to many of the sea-faring class, but it left stranded the great middle class of hotel and lodging-house keepers, shopkeepers, and tradesmen of every description, who at that time formed the majority of the population of Peterhead. Something had to be done. So the inhabitants naturally turned their attention to the adjoining sea, and began to question whether its harvest might not again be made a profitable industry.

Here, however, an unexpected difficulty presented itself. The rise of the whale fishing industry in Peterhead had killed the Barra-head and Iceland fishings. Peter Buchan in 1819 states that the Barra-head and Iceland fishing “have not been so much frequented of late, partly owing to the demand for fishermen to man those ships that go to Greenland.” The change was undoubtedly beneficial to Peterhead at first, but when the townspeople wished to develop their local coast fishing they were met by this difficulty. They had no fishermen of experience.

They had little knowledge of net-fishing and less of the modern methods of curing the fish when caught. Line fishing was all the vogue. By this laborious means herrings were caught in such small quantities that they were not worth exportation. Cod, ling, and other white fish were then caught in at least as great quantities as herrings, and being considered greater delicacies were exported. Thus, whereas in 1793 and 1815 the town exported only 400 barrels of cod, for the year 1819, 2341 barrels of “wet” cod and 28 tons of dried fish were placed to its credit in the export list.

From 1810 to 1820 a change was gradually brought about, and somewhere between those dates must be placed the rise of the modern herring fishing industry of Peterhead. In 1815 Arbuthnot, that shrewd man of business, who first pointed out the adaptability of the peculiar situation of Peterhead and its harbours for the development of the herring fishing industry, wrote:- “The local advantages with Peterhead possesses render it a most eligible situation for a fishing station.” Yet, he mourned, very few herrings “have been caught upon this coast, although large shoals have regularly frequented it for several years past, generally at a considerable distance from the shore; but in 1812 they came close in shore, and remained so for several days; numbers of them were caught in baskets by persons upon the rocks - the quantity caught in the nets was comparatively small, not being prepared for such visitors; the number of nets employed were not equal to the complement of one boat; about 2000 barrels were cured.” The cran measure for herrings was not used in Peterhead at this date, and was probably not used until made the legal measure by the Commissioners of the Herring Fishery some years later; indeed, it was not till 1826 that imperial weights and measures were first used in Peterhead. In 1818 a joint stock company was formed in Peterhead to develop the herring fishing industry. The manager was John Leslie; succeeded in 1820 by George Arbuthnot. The company had a few boats engaged in the fishing with more or less success till 1821, when the concern collapsed. The Peterhead boats almost without exception then gave up the herring fishing.

Then a singular event occurred. The last Baron Bailie of Peterhead but one, Robert Robertson, was about this time proprietor of the estate of Boddam. For the extension of the fishing industry in Boddam and neighbouring coast it is said he gave “every encouragement and indulgence to its inhabitants.” The Boddam boats then fished at Gamrie or Gardenstown during the herring season there, and after it was over a few boats tried the fishing at Peterhead, and were successful. So in course of time, Peterhead being nearer and more convenient, the Boddam boats gradually deserted Gardenstown, and fished at Peterhead during the entire summer. The fishing prospered and the boats increased until in 1832 they numbered twenty-one sail; fishing off Peterhead, but all belonging to Boddam. Between 1821 and 1832 there were at least three firms of fishcurers in Peterhead, namely, John and Alexander Leslie - the oldest and most important firm; William and James Simpson; and Keith Turner.

The year 1832 marks the opening of a new chapter in the history of the herring fishing industry of Peterhead. About this time Wick was, without question, the leading port on the East Coast of Scotland in the herring fishing industry. A large number of boats consorted in Wick during the summer season - from the shores of the Firth of Forth and the Moray Firth, from the northern islands and the Western Highlands. During 1832 cholera broke out in Wick with deadly virulence, and drove not only the stranger fishermen south but even those of Caithness. The southern fishcurers, who had Caithness stations, followed the fishermen with sloops laden with salt and barrels. A considerable number of the fishing boats endeavoured to get into Fraserburgh, but the authorities would not allow them to enter. They then tried Peterhead where, after the crews had been strictly examined by doctors in case of infection, they were granted entrance and immediately commenced fishing. The southern curers rented stations; the work was carried on vigorously; and so successful was the fishing that fishermen and curers returned and were augmented year by year by local men in both branches of the industry.

Peterhead then became a fishing station of some note, and was acknowledged as such in 1836 by the Fishery Board of Scotland appointing an officer for the port. Before 1850 the permanency of the Peterhead herring fishing industry was assured. Every summer during the fishing season - then held to extend from the middle of July to the first week of September - the population of the town was increased by four or five thousand inhabitants, visitors who amply filled the vacant places of the fashionable crowd of fifty years previous. Before 1850 more than three hundred boats were engaged in the herring fishing of Peterhead; and there were over forty fishcurers in the town, about ten of whom belonged to other ports, the rest being local. There are now (1932) 120 steam drifters belonging to Peterhead.
Gutting "Quines" and cooper "loons" packing herring at a Peterhead curing yard, late 1800s

Gutting "Quines" and cooper "loons" packing herring at a Peterhead curing yard, late 1800s

Peterhead fishcurers now follow the herring all round the British coast. During 1896 seventy-four Peterhead fishcurers were actively engaged curing herrings in town. Now, in 1932, there are fifty-one fishcurers. The progress of the Peterhead herring fishing industry has been very marked. Its success has been good and bad by turns, as in all other fishing industries. In its annals there have been many disastrous financial crises; but the frequent bankruptcies of fishcurers in Peterhead have been the means of bringing about the break-up of the boat-engaging system - a system by which the prices of herrings were kept at an inflated level. At one time fishcurers, according to their wealth, engaged from half-a-dozen to a hundred boats which during the season fished for them exclusively. Each boat received from its employer a “present” of from £40 to £60 on engagement; got a fixed price - which, however, fluctuated every year - for its complement of 200 crans or more; and after its complement had been completed, which often happened early in the season, was generally re-engaged at so much per cran, at the current price. With a constantly fluctuating price in the market of the consumer or the middleman, what might appear advantageous terms for “live” herring at the commencement of a season spelt ruination at the end. So the boat-engaging system naturally came to an end, and the requiem over it was sung to the sharp beat of the auctioneer’s hammer in the fishmarket. This transition took place between the years 1887 and 1890 in Peterhead. Fish are now all sold by public auction, and in this way the price is kept more in touch with supply and demand. To meet the requirements of this new mode of disposing of the fish the Peterhead Harbour Trustees in 1893 built over Cormack’s slip of the South Harbour a wooden fish market, at a total cost of a little over £78. In spite of the sneers cast on it and its recognised insufficient accommodation for buyers and sellers, in 1896 it had already paid for itself.

In 1907, owing to the extension of the north end of the South Harbour, this fish salesroom had to demolished, but a commodious substitute for it was erected at the corner of Farmer’s Lane and Bridge Street.

Statistics of the Herring and White Fishing Industries of Peterhead from the Year 1840

 

Year Max. No.
of Herring
Boats.
Crans of
Herrings
Landed.
Approx.
Av. Crans
Per Boat
Barrels
Herrings
Exported
White
Fish
Exported

1840

268

48,595

181

-

-

1841

364

56,785

156

-

-

1842

398

50,458

126

-

-

1843

347

63,740

183

-

-

1844

402

44,642

111

-

-

1845

421

54,854

130

-

-

1846

395

58,051

146

-

-

1847

381

55,081

144

-

-

1848

376

70,228

186

-

-

1849

393

61,844

157

-

-

1850

270

31,389

116

-

-

1851

327

31,657

96

-

-

1852

242

18,048

74

-

-

1853

240

34,636

114

-

-

1854

234

30,900

132

-

-

1855

239

24,244

101

-

-

1856

230

33,655

146

-

-

1857

246

20,358

86

-

-

1858

232

22,456

96

-

-

1859

271

17,277

63

-

-

1860

254

18,558

73

-

-

1861

240

32,435

135

-

-

1862

270

52,733

195

-

-

1863

385

36,500

99

-

-

1864

420

36,350

86

-

-

1865

407

22,500

102

-

-

1866

413

57,200

138

-

-

1867

474

51,200

107

-

-

1868

503

72,500

144

-

-

1869

590

68,000

115

-

-

1870

650

110,000

170

-

-

1871

630

107,000

172

-

-

1872

705

141,500

200

-

-

1873

780

168,000

215

209,851

-

1874

746

170,000

227

-

-

1875

730

138,000

189

-

-

1876

700

78,171

111

-

-

1877

712

86,353

121

-

-

1878

683

122,760

179

-

-

1879

768

83,274

108

-

-

1880

716

177,297

247

-

-

1881

728

106,000

145

-

-

1882

882

185,704

210

157,026

44,597 in number

1883

631

102,103

161

-

-

1884

655

162,340

247

-

-

1885

612

118,156

193

-

-

1886

480

120,194

250

183,395

832 tons

1887

648

116,999

180

146,295

1,143 tons

1888

562

76,766

136

104,965

1,148 tons

1889

506

137,352

271

178,890

1,922 tons

1890

530

154,255

291

176,016

2,376 tons

1891

530

112,262

211

122,391

2,871 tons

1892

520

151,307

290

185,189

2,721 tons

1893

577

197,365

342

209,794

1,908 tons

1894

580

180,804

311

223,832

-

1895

495

168,855

341

201,964

-

1896

504

165,477

328

195,762

-

1897

492

177,607

361

97,619

-

1898

540

185,810

344

216,571

-

1899

455

62,947

138

71,840

-

1900

360

61,431

171

82,273

-

1901

420

64,384

153

80,800

-

1902

358

141,162

394

169,606

-

1903

380

118,822

313

129,465

-

1904

360

153,878

427

182,562

-

1905

389

155,192

399

165,067

-

1906

405

184,033

454

197,208

-

1907

420

291,713

695

315,017

-

1908

450

209,054

464

207,530

-

1909

470

201,685

429

200,922

-

1910

430

228,855

532

230,061

-

1911

420

191,463

456

194,067

-

1912

352

196,475

558

210,982

-

1913

430

221,545

515

240,924

-

1914

466

170,566

366

152,134

-

1915

-

-

-

27,124

-

1916

143

80,047

559

40,694

-

1917

109

47,550

436

-

-

1918

120

55,051

459

25,858

-

1919

227

148,464

654

95,533

-

1920

262

104,080

397

39,498

-

1921

137

55,314

404

82,120

-

1922

124

53,178

429

30,366

-

1923

197

94,613

480

72,034

-

1924

178

127,020

714

126,225

-

1925

145

48,504

335

29,581

-

1926

192

123,508

643

121,215

-

1927

226

148,941

659

159,239

-

1928

206

127,539

619

127,500

-

1929

204

153,224

751

150,822

-

1930

260

114,130

439

104,740

-

1931

186

64,043

344

57,174

-

1932

164

50,457

308

36,285

-

Under the rapid rise and development of the herring fishing industry, the salmon and line fishing had taken a secondary place. The line fishing is now engaged in all year round, and with improved, safer and larger boats a much greater quantity of white fish is now caught, although latterly trawlers have affected this industry to some extent. The rapid development of the line fishing on the Aberdeenshire sea-board is responsible for the founding of such fisher villages as Burnhaven, Ronheads and Buchanhaven. Burnhaven is possibly the oldest of the three as a purely fishing centre; it is now the smallest. Ronheads was at one time quite distinct from Peterhead, although now absorbed by its powerful neighbour. Buchan haven was founded in 1814, as a fishing village, although we find it mentioned before that date by the settlement of a boat’s crew of six men from St. Combs. The then proprietor of the land, Arbuthnot, offered long leases to the settlers, but they would only accept nineteen-year leases. Arbuthnot built a pier for their boats which he never finished; and shortly afterwards sold the estate to Admiral Ferguson of Pitfour. With the advance of the fishing industry those villages grew apace; but the most flourishing era of their existence is past. With larger boats, deeper and more extensive harbour accommodation was required; with increased stress of competition a minimum of cartage was necessary, and as few middlemen as possible. Peterhead only could supply those wants, and so Peterhead is slowly but surely killing Burnhaven and Buchanhaven. Ronheads has escaped, because it is now Peterhead.

To turn from sea fishing to fishing on the River Ugie, where the angler can ply the rod is to go from arduous toil to pleasant relaxation. The salmon and sea trout season extends from February 11th to October 31st, and brown trout from March 1st to October 15th. The sea trout fishing is good, and about fifty salmon are now landed yearly. As in other Scottish rivers, salmon were in the past far more plentiful. Both the ice-house at Inverugie and that built by the 4th Earl Marischal at the mouth of the Ugie testify to this, and as we have already seen, the market price of salmon in Peterhead at the beginning of last century was but 4d. a lb.

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