The days when the herring fishery had us all (or nearly all of us) over a barrel

It is more than 30 years since the family business J & M Shearer cured herring. But once upon a time it was at the centre of a colossal Shetland enterprise that employed thousands, as CHARLIE SIMPSON narrates in the first of a two-part series.

Charlie Tulloch, my maternal grandfather, was a cooper to trade, and wrought among barrels and herring all his long working life. It’s 35 years since he died, but last summer when I helped to clear out the shed in the back garden of his home in Knab Road, the exercise brought back a flood of fond memories. Here were the tools of his trade in a kist, the barrels, lids and hoops, the rusty hooping irons, a dusty bag of oak driving wedges – each item now a museum piece, a part of history, a mute and redundant symbol of an earlier time of industry and activity. These finds prompted a hunt for old photographs in dusty albums. Among them was an image I couldn’t remember ever seeing before: a small snap of my grandfather in a group of coopers and gutters – not taken on a curing station. A closer look revealed Sunday best rather than working attire and then I realised where the photo was taken – on the top of Ronas Hill, believe it or not. Indeed, it was one of the Collafirth photographs, from the period in 1930s when herring curers J & M Shearer employed more than 80 people there every summer. All this reminded me it was high time I made use of an interview I recorded nearly three years ago with the late Magnus Shearer, and wrote of the history and times of his family fishcuring business. Over 30 years have passed since J & M Shearer cured its last herring – which means that around half of our population has no memory or knowledge of my subject. So, I’ll go right back and start at the beginning – as all sagas should.

Both Magnus Shearer senior and Charlie Tulloch were born in 1890, in Whalsay and Cunningsburgh respectively. They grew up with Shetland’s booming herring industry which after a succession of fits and starts before 1875 had taken off spectacularly to put Shetland firmly on top as Europe’s premier centre of the herring industry. In 1875 a total of 533 people worked ashore and afloat; from a fleet of 94 boats 2,896 barrels of herring were produced.

By 1890 there were 459 boats, 4,484 men and a production of 104,795 barrels; the peak came in 1905 – the year Magnus and Charlie left school – when 21,201 people and 1,783 boats were involved, producing 1,024,044 barrels of salted herring from a catch that exceeded 100,000 tons. According to Jim Coull, “the area of netting in the sea at any one time must have been big enough to cover an area as big as Bressay had it been spread on land; and had all the bush ropes (to which the nets were attached while in the sea) been tied together they would have reached right across the Atlantic with much rope to spare”.

Over the next decade times were pretty good. Magnus Shearer and his brother Ertie served their apprenticeships on the herring station at Symbister, and came to Lerwick later. My grandfather served his time with Tom Brown & Co in Lerwick. Then in 1914 the First World War came, to change things for ever. Fishing effort dwindled, many herring curers were never paid for herring shipped abroad and thus ended up bankrupted, while the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the defeat of Germany took away a vast slice of the market for salt herring. Nevertheless there was optimism when the fishing resumed in 1919, and opportunity ashore, as Magnus Jr told me. “Da story as far as da Shearers were concerned is dat my auld grandfaither – Robbie Shearer fae Clate – wis a cooper, and my faither and my uncle Ertie served dir time wi him in Whalsay. Dey were baith in da Territorials, so dey were mobilised and went away to France wi da Gordon Highlanders. Me faider ended up as a lieutenant, an Ertie was a sergeant. In 1919 dey were demobilised and came home; by dat time of course dey were starvation in Europe an everybody wis goin back inta herrin. So dey set up dir ain curing company alang wi dir uncle Jeemie Shearer o Bellsbrae in Symbister. He was da ‘J’ of J & M Shearer; he wis been a fishing skipper – he actually had a steam drifter built for him, da Maid of Thule – and he had other boat shares, did agency work, and sold nets, that kind o thing.

“So, where were dey to go? Dir were very few places left in Lerwick, but dey started in da summer of 1919 at Scarfskerry at da Sooth End in Lerwick, which is where Lerwick Boating Club stands noo. Everything came in and oot by sea; it wisna a very big place. Dey were two years there, dan dey moved to da bottom o Freefield Road, on Hay & Company’s land; just on da ‘Coal Corner’. Dey rented a small widden jetty, and huts up Freefield road. Dey also operated da station in Whalsay in 1922, rented fae Hays after George Couper & Sons gave up the lease of it.”

The herring trade went fairly well through the twenties, although never on the pre-war scale. Manson’s Almanac tells us that in 1924 the season began in late May with heavy landings and low prices throughout June, before quality and prices improved later on. Some 3,600 crans of herring – around 600 tons – were landed and cured at Whalsay, about 10 per cent of the total Shetland landing of 342,000 crans from 497 boats. Nearly 2,400 people were employed ashore in Lerwick alone. The Russian market reopened that year, allowing exports there of 24,000 barrels. In 1928 the Shearers grasped another op­portunity, as Magnus explained.

“J W Robertson owned da Garthspool property, next to Hays; he went bankrupt, or da next thing to it, and da property was held by da Union Bank for a year or two. Dere were various peerie curers alang dere, but in 1928 some kind of a deal was done and Shearers acquired da whole of da Garthspool property, and moved into da station. J W Robertson had cured at Collafirth in da twenties as well, an Shearers took dat ower too.”

Collafirth was developed origin­ally as a whaling station by the Alexandra Whaling Company, an enterprise owned by Norwegians and operated from 1904 to 1916. With the whale processing plant removed the site was easily converted into a herring curing station, and Robertson operated there for a few years in the 1920s. Here is where the paths of my grandfather and the Shearers cross, for Charlie Tulloch was a Robertson employee before that firm’s demise and when the Shearers took over at Garthspool, they took over some of the employees as well. In the first of the season, herring were most plentiful to the west or north-west so it suited Shearers to cure at Collafirth, whose station was handily sited near these fishing grounds, according to Magnus.

“Da Norwegian hooses were still on da property but Shearers had to extend da pier. Dis move to Collafirth was a bit controversial, because the idea was to get herring caught off the Ramna Stacks in May – maatje herring for da German market. Dey were a lot of Scottish curers objectin to dat; dey didna want da season to start until da beginnin of June, but the fishermen – a few local boats – started in May, fishin oot west aff da Stacks.”

According to Manson’s Almanac, J & M Shearer first cured at Collafirth in 1931. The controversy arose because the Scottish Fish­curers’ Association did not want the Shetland fishery to open until the early season on the west coast of Scotland had closed. With this timetable, the Scots curers could switch operations from Scottish to Shetland ports without missing any of the catching season. This did not please either local fishermen or curers, for the lightly brine-cured maatje herring was the most valuable herring product on the market. Herring were in proper condition to make maatjes for only two or three weeks early in the season, and to make good profits maatjes had to arrive in Hamburg by midsummer. Negotiations be­twe­en the parties collapsed, Shetland went its own way, and from 1926 the home season began in May.

Through the late 1920s the Whalsay station cured between 3,500 and 4,500 crans every season; of 1928 it was said “the herring were the finest for 20 or 25 years” with exports in demand and prices good, to give a very good year for the curers especially. It’s interesting to look at the overall 1928 landings: of the total of 240,000 crans all but 7,555 were landed in Lerwick, while Whalsay took the lion’s share of the remainder – 5,639 crans – with 928 at Cullivoe, 510 at Sandwick and 478 at Scalloway. This year signalled the final demise of Baltasound as a herring port – at one time the premier centre in all of Europe in the heyday of the sailing drifter – with no curers and no herring landed at all.

A study of the fishery of the period shows fluctuations from year to year in just about every factor in the make-up of a “good” season – weather, catches, quayside prices, fish quality, or demand from Europe. There were gluts of herring and dire scarcities, big swings in the value of the German mark or the Russian rouble. Some years the curers did well, some years the fishermen. Only in a few seasons did both prosper. With their other stations in Whalsay and Lerwick, Shearers were in a better situation than other curers along Yell Sound, for into the 1930s curing was abandoned at North Roe, West­sandwick, Ulsta and Burravoe, leaving the Collafirth station on its own. Shearers only cured there for four or five weeks each season, Magnus explained. “Dey used to move fae Collafirth back to Lerwick when the herring shoals moved south, but dey aye kept Whalsay going. You see, everything went all right in the herring trade until the war and the Russian Revolution. Dey were a whole new Germany right enough, but in da thirties da curers had – by and large – a pretty rough time. When da steam drifters and da motor boats arrived, dat slowly put everything to Lerwick and closed da oot-stations. Collafirth survived longest because dey were still a few sail-boats on da go, and it wis nae distance for dem to go wi dir catches.

“Da price da fishermen got wis governed by da going price in Lerwick. Dey were nae contracts or fixtures like at wan time – nae boats actually hired to fish – if they came in, good and weel. Of course hit wis a lang sail fae da Ramna Stacks to Lerwick for da sailboats an da aulder motor-boats, so Collafirth an Whalsay wis attractive to dem at dat time, an ony idder boat wi a peerie shot of fish, maybe.”

Over 80 people worked at the Collafirth station each summer, the coopers all from Lerwick, the gutters from Whalsay, Yell, Burra and Northmavine, and a few from elsewhere. According to Magnus, the coopers particularly enjoyed it “because Northmavine was ‘wet’ at a time when Lerwick was ‘dry’. Dey were a pub in Hillswick, so it was easy for dem to get supplies of beer!”

Of the people who worked at Collafirth only a handful are alive today. One of these is Maggie Leask in Whalsay, who has clear memories of her times there.

“I wasna lang left da school when I first went to Collafirth; we guid dere directly in a boat fae Whalsay. Da gutters lived in a building wi da coopers’ kitchen on da end of it; dey had a lass to cook maet for them, but we hed to look efter wirsels! I wis dere twartree summers – really only through da month o June. My first year dey had awful heavy landings; da herrin landed fae da boats wis just roused into barrels on da pier – sprinkled lightly wi salt – until dey could take nae mair. Da price wis laekly very low, but I ken it took wis twartree weeks to gut it aa! We clewed up in da beginning of July and went to Lerwick for da rest o da season. It seemed to me it wis a terrible distance, goin fae Collafirth to Lerwick! I mind fine some o wis goin up Ronas Hill on a Sunday; we followed up da Collafirth burn for a piece, dan made straight for da tap o da hill – nae hard climbin at all!”

The first Collafirth season of 1931 saw only 10 crans of herring landed there, because the herring shoals disappeared in early July and the Shetland fishery collapsed. The next season was Shearers’ best with 3,780 crans cured, but in successive years the landings slowly decreased until the final Collafirth season in 1937, when all of Shetland’s outlying stations – Whalsay, Scalloway, Cullivoe and Collafirth – had less than 5,000 crans among them. Probably the main reason was the demise of the sailing drifter, as from a fleet of 14 in 1932 only four kept going in 1936, and the following year the very last sailboat, the Gracie Brown, fished alone.

The firm’s curing efforts were now concentrated on Lerwick and Whalsay. “Uncle Jeemie was really a sleeping partner,” said Magnus. “My father and uncle Ertie bought him oot in da early thirties. Besides da stations we had flitboats – old fishing boats – to take supplies to da stations and bring back barrels o herrin. The first een in the 1920s was da Agnes, a sailboat, then da Margaret, da Jeannie, da Day Dawn and da Nightingale were motor-boats. Da crew wisna on wages but on shares o da earnings; something like three-sevenths to da owner and four-sevenths to da crew. Dey were a lot o buildin goin on in Lerwick so dey flitted shingle and sand in dem ootside o da herring season.

“When the war came in 1939, da fishing effort went doon. My father went away with da Gordon Highlanders, then came back to run da Movement Control office. He was also Provost of Lerwick from 1941 to 1946, so Uncle Ertie ran da business more or less on his own, through da war. We’d worked a whitefish business through da winter – to keep some o da coopers in work – and so Shear­ers bought and shippit whitefish under Government control – at fixed prices – aa through da war. It wis all from da peerie line boats; aa dat fish wis landed whole, and gutted in da sheds at da dock, an shippit fresh. Da big boats wis aa away on war service, but dey wir a herrin fishin wi small boats. Shear­ers cured a grain o herrin at da West Dock, a government thing again, doon among da army huts and bruck dere. We couldna get doon on wir pier – hit was a coal dump! A lot o dat herrin apparently went to feed German prisoners, so dey said. We got da first ice plant in 1945. It was a terrible struggle to get it for dey were dat many restrictions on supplies o materials and so on.”

After Magnus Shearer Jr was demobbed from wartime service in the navy, he was joined in the firm by another Magnus Shearer – his first cousin, son of Ertie Shearer. “Young Magnie” went into the office, while “Ertie’s Magnie” went into the cooperage, and the herring trade got under way again, in a world changed once more by years of strife.

Next week: what happened after the war


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