Herring Girls

Stornoway Harbour Herring Girl plaque

In 18th, 19th and early 20th century Scotland 'traveling the fishing' began in May and ran through October. Beginning in Baltasound (Shetland) and following the herring in their migration along the coast of Britain, populations swelled on both land and in sea in unison. In 1914 a combined 20% of the Isle of Lewis' population (3,000 women and another 1,600 men) 'went to the herring'. Put into perspective, the all time highest population of Unst was in 1871 at 2269, yet at the height of the herring season, in 1905, the population of Baltasound swelled to 10,000.

'Traveling the fishing' was not an individual behaviour, nor was it movement outside the community of women. Setting a fixed rate per piece for the season, the fish merchants would pay arles money, a earlais in Gaelic, to a skilled gutter before the season began, she would in turn recruit two women to work with her. The normal arrangement was two girls gutting and one packing the herring into barrels. Their only equipment was a short, sharp knife, their hands protected by a strip of flour sack wound around their fingers and thumbs like bandages, layered in shawls and oilskins they stood on the quay exposed to all sorts of weather at large farlanes (specially designed container/workbenches) elbow deep in fish guts from before dawn often working through until 2 am the following morning if the catch was good, 6 days a week with Sunday off to attend church. In their spare time, when they were waiting for the fish, they could sing or spend time knitting the traditional fishermen's ganseys and stockings. A skilled team of three women could gut and pack 21,000 herring in a 10 hour shift, on average a herring girl would be able to gut about 40 herring a minute, with highly skilled gutters averaging 60 to 80 herring per minute. The curing industry paid the crew as a whole, a rate of 1 shilling per barrel, with each finished barrel holding a cran of herring (about a 1000). The amount of money a Herring Girl earned, and to ensure the arrangement was repeated the following year, depended on the speed, skill and experience of each individual team.

These teams undoubtedly had strong rules of their own to foster survival in such harsh conditions and by recruiting one another, living and working and sleeping together mainly above the herring sheds, newspapers covering the walls in an attempt to absorb the odour of the their work, clothes hung outside, helped to cement those bonds. Forming their own society within the male dominated industry that completely relied upon their expertise they had more freedom in migration than if they had stayed in their local villages. Regardless, they were viewed with suspicion not only beyond their own speech communities but also when they returned home at the end of the season as a result of their travels and their ability to earn wages on their own.

Special thanks to the BBC National Film Archives for invaluable research material used in this Thistle & Broom Scotland Page.