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HOME > Biographical > Life of Robert Stevenson > CHAPTER XIV. FISHERIES.
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Mr. Stevenson was ever an intelligent and anxious observer of the habits and industry of the people of those remote and isolated parts of the country which he so often visited. He was specially interested in the fisheries from which they mainly derive their support, as testified by frequent allusions to them in his journals and notes.

The following notice regarding the state of the Scottish fisheries, made in 1819, to the editor of the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal,11 will be read with interest:—

“Having been for many years conversant with the navigation of the Scottish seas, I have, prior to the war with Holland, seen fleets of Dutch ‘busses’ engaged in the herring fishery off the northern parts of our coast. For a long time past, however, those industrious fishermen had not ventured to approach these shores; and they are now only beginning to reappear.

“In the early part of August last, while sailing along the shores of Kincardineshire, about ten miles off Dunnottar Castle, the watch upon deck, at midnight, called out ‘Lights ahead.’ Upon a nearer approach these lights were found to belong to a small fleet of Dutch fishermen185 employed in the deep sea fishing, each vessel having a lantern at her mast head. What success these plodding people had met with our crew had no opportunity of inquiring; but upon arriving the next morning at Fraserburgh,—the great fishing station on the coast of Aberdeen—we found that about 120 boats, containing five men each, had commenced the fishing season here six weeks before, and had that night caught no fewer than about 1500 barrels of herrings, which in a general way, when there is a demand for fish, may be valued at £1 sterling per barrel to the fishermen, and may be regarded as adding to the wealth of the country perhaps not less than £3000. In coasting along between Fraserburgh and the Orkney Islands, another fleet of Dutch fishermen was seen at a distance. The harbour and bay of Wick were crowded with fishing boats and busses of all descriptions, collected from the Firth of Forth and southward even as far as Yarmouth and Lowestoft. The Caithness fishing was said to have been pretty successful, though not equal to what it has been in former years.

“In the Orkney and Shetland Islands one would naturally look for extensive fishing establishments, both in herrings, and what are termed white fish (cod, ling, and tusk); but it is a curious fact, that while the Dutch have long come from their own coast to these islands to fish herrings, it is only within a very few years that the people of Orkney, chiefly by the spirited and praiseworthy exertions of Samuel Laing, Esq., have given any attention to this important source of wealth. It has long been a practice with the great fishmongers of London to send186 their welled smacks to fish for cod, and to purchase lobsters, around the Orkney Islands; and both are carried alive to the London market. This trade has done much good to these islands, and has brought a great deal of money to them; but still it is of a more circumscribed nature, and is less calculated to swell the national wealth, than the herring and white fishery in general.

“Hitherto the industry of the Orcadians has been chiefly directed to farming pursuits; while the Shetlanders have been almost exclusively occupied in the cod, ling, and tusk fishing. It is doubtful, indeed, if, up to this period, there be a single boat belonging to the Shetland Isles which is completely equipped for the herring fishery. But on reaching Shetland another fleet of Dutch doggers was seen collecting in numbers off these islands—a coast which is considered a rich harvest in Holland.

“So systematically do the Dutch pursue the fishing business upon our coasts, that their fleet of busses is accompanied by an hospital ship. This vessel we now found at anchor in Lerwick roads, and were informed that she paid weekly visits to the fleet, to supply medicines, and to receive any of the people falling sick, or meeting with any accident.

“Though Shetland is certainly not so much an agricultural country as Orkney, yet it may be hoped that the encouragement judiciously held out by the Highland Society, for the production of green crops in Shetland, may eventually have the effect of teaching these insular farmers the practicability of providing fodder for their cattle in the spring of the year. This has long been a great desideratum. The command of a month or six187 weeks’ fodder would enable the proprietors of that country to stock many of their fine verdant isles with cattle, and to employ their hardy tenantry more exclusively in the different branches of the fishery.

“It is well known, that, next to the Newfoundland Banks, those of Shetland are the most productive in ling, cod, tusk, and other white fish; and by the recent discovery of a bank, trending many leagues to the south-westward, the British merchants have made a vast accession to their fishing grounds. The fishermen who reside in the small picturesque bay of Scalloway, and in some of the other bays and voes on the western side of the mainland of Shetland, have pursued with much success the fishing upon this new bank, which I humbly presume to term the Regent Fishing Bank—a name at once calculated to mark the period of its discovery, and pay a proper compliment to the Prince. Here small sloops, of from fifteen to twenty-five tons burden, and manned with eight persons, have been employed. In the beginning of August they had this summer fished for twelve weeks, generally returning home with their fish once a week. On an average, these vessels had caught 1000 fine cod fish a week, of which about 600 in a dried state go to the ton, and these they would have gladly sold at about £15 per ton. So numerous are the fish upon the Regent Fishing Bank, that a French vessel, belonging, it is believed, to St. Malo, had sailed with her second cargo of fish this season; and though the fishermen did not mention this under any apprehension, as though there were danger of the fish becoming scarce, yet they seemed to regret the circumstance, on account of their market being thus preoccupied.

188 “Here, and at Orkney, we had the pleasure to see many ships arriving from the whale fishing, and parting with a certain proportion of their crews. To such an extent, indeed, are the crews of the whalers made up from these islands, that it is calculated that not less than £15,000 in cash are annually brought into the islands by this means. With propriety, therefore, may the whale fishery be regarded as one of the most productive sources of national wealth connected with the British Fisheries.

“From the Orkney and Shetland Islands our course was directed to the westward. A considerable salmon fishing seems to be carried on in the mouths of the rivers of Lord Reay’s Country in Sutherlandshire: the fish are carried from this to Aberdeen, and thence in regular trading smacks to London. We heard little more of any kind of fishing till we reached the Harris Isles. There, and throughout the numerous lochs and fishing stations on the mainland, in the districts of Gairloch, Applecross, Lochalsh, Glenelg, Moidart, Knoidart, Ardnamurchan, Mull, Lorn, and Kintyre, we understood that there was a general lamentation for the disappearance of herrings, which in former times used to crowd into lochs which they seem now to have in some measure deserted. This the fishermen suppose to be owing to the Schools being broken and divided about the Shetland and Orkney Islands; and they remark, that, by some unaccountable change in the habits of the fish, the greatest number now take the east coast of Great Britain. This is the more to be regretted, that in Skye, the Lewis, Harris, and Uist Islands, the inhabitants have of late years turned their attention much to the fishing. Indeed,189 this has followed as a matter of necessity, from the general practice of converting the numerous small arable farms, which were perhaps neither very useful to the tenants nor profitable to the laird, into great sheep walks; so that the inhabitants are now more generally assembled upon the coast. The large sums expended in the construction of the Caledonian Canal have, either directly or indirectly, become a source of wealth to these people: they have been enabled to furnish themselves with boats and fishing tackle, and for one fishing boat which was formerly seen in the Hebrides only twenty years ago, it may be safely affirmed that ten are to be met with now. If the same spirit shall continue to be manifested, in spite of all the objections which have been urged against the salt laws, and the depopulating effects of emigration, the British Fisheries in these islands, and along this coast, with a little encouragement, will be wonderfully extended, and we shall ere long see the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in that state to which they are peculiarly adapted, and in which alone their continued prosperity is to be looked for, viz., when their valleys, muirs, and mountains are covered with flocks, and the people are found in small villages on the shores.”
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The following history of the origin of the Shetland herring fishery, communicated to Blackwood’s Magazine in 1821, is, I think, worthy of being recorded:—

“Few people, on examining the map of Scotland, would believe that the herring fishing has only within these few years been begun in Orkney, while the natives are almost strangers to the fishing of cod and ling.

190 “On the other hand, it is no less extraordinary that although the cod and ling fishery has been carried to so great an extent in Shetland as to enable them to export many cargoes to the Catholic countries on the Continent, not a herring net has been spread by the natives of Shetland till t............
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