View across the Outer Harbour of Stornoway

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Views of a dead industry

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the herring industry was a cornerstone of the island economy, here in Lewis. The same applied up and down the coasts of the United Kingdom as a whole. In my transcription of the findings of the Napier Commission, I came across the testimony of a fish-curer from Burghead, on the east coast of Scotland. Thomas Jenkins had been plying his trade at Castlebay, Barra, for 13 years when he was quizzed by Lord Napier and his commission. It makes faintly sad reading to see the earnest and detailed outlining of the problems afflicting the herring trade in 1883 - and knowing that within a hundred years, there would be hardly any herring left. The only tangible memory of the herring trade in the Western Isles is in the statues of the herring girls along the harbour front in Stornoway, as shown on the left.

In the early years of the 20th century, young women would flock to the fishing ports of the UK to gut herring at a rate of 60 a minute, packing them into barrels, with copious amounts of salt. The barrels would go as far afield as Russia, where they were considered a delicacy by the ruling classes. Like the herringtrade, the ruling classes in Russia would be swept away within fifty years.

Wednesday 26 May

It started so nice this morning, blue skies and all that. But showers bubbled up pretty quickly, and some nice cumulonimbus clouds marched up and down the horizon. One brought hailstones to the north of Lewis, and another drenched the town - fortunately, just as I was in the library.

On June 12th, it will be 70 years ago since the 51st Highland Division, part of the British Expeditionary Force, was captured at St Valery-en-Caux in northern France. Many were taken prisoner of war for the duration of WW2, a few managed to escape. I was in the library to dig out the names from the WW2 rolls of honour, which took me an hour and a half.

Tuesday 25 May

Been very busy today, in spite of the nice-ish weather we had, with the research projects - Canadian soldiers from Lewis and the Napier Commission report. On the latter subject, I am currently going through the report for Barra, which shows outright theft, wilful neglect and capricious evictions "because the policeman wants the land" being the order of the day in the 1880s.

A cruiseliner, the Braemar, came to call today and discharged its passengers ashore using tenders. By evening, it set sail in the direction of Kirkwall, 150 miles to the northeast, for a visit to Orkney. Apparently, the town centre here was heaving with the folks off the liner. This first month of the cruiseliner season is proving to be a very busy one.