Boosted by the Marshall Plan, the herring had sadly reached its nadir by the 1970s
Last week CHARLIE SIMPSON began recalling the history of the family business J & M Shearer, which at one time employed many people in the herring curing industry. Here, he concludes his story with details of what went on after the Second World War.
In the Shetland herring industry, the 1939-45 war produced fundamental changes for the second time in the 20th century. The fishing fleet was in poor condition, with most of the big boats sorely in need of refit and repair after war service. Serviceable boats were in demand, as Magnus Shearer Jr explained.
“Wir flitboats ran for a time after da war started, but it came dey were so many restrictions dey were laid up in da West Dock, dan da Nightingale wis hired oot to da county council to carry shingle for tarring da roads.
“She went ashore in da North Voe o Symbister just at da end o da war, and wis lost. In 1945 when aa da fishermen wis come home, dey were a desperation for boats, to get herring boats. So it was decided to put wir flitboats back to the fishing again, and Alec Johnson of T L Arcus got da work done alang wi da crews at wis goin to hire dem.
“Da Jeannie was ready for da 1945 season an da Day Dawn da year after. We got anidder Nightingale to replace da lost boat; she ran as long as we cured at Symbister.”
As in the case of the First World War, herring markets in Europe were severely distorted after the second conflict.
“Between da wars, da big market was Germany, dan Russia, and a smaa market in Sweden as well. Wir customers were herring buyers; they approached wis, or we approached dem sayin we had so many barrels – hundreds or a thousand, say – and the deals were all done by telegram.
“A lot o folk came to Shetland in da trade; buyers, inspectors – a lot o dem Jewish, for dat’s where a lot o da demand came from. We used to sell herrin to a German firm called Julius Jorgensen; their manager was a Norwegian, and later in da Hitler regime he often went to Copenhagen and posted letters to us fae dere, to get roond a trade embargo!
“Da inspectors came to see da herrin afore dey bought dem. Earlier, dey used to ship herrin direct fae Collafirth ta Hamburg; da big attraction was da maatje market. Da maatjes were just brined, in half-barrels, dey lay nae time on da station. Dey were kept as cool as we could, dan dey went to da Hamburg area; Cuxhaven or Altona, maybe.
“Maatjes couldna go far; once in Germany dey went into huge cold stores in Hamburg, because dey were what was known as a ‘sweet’ cure, lightly pickled.
“But after da war, dey were starvation in Europe again, and no money to pay for anything, hardly. It’s a thing kinda forgotten aboot today, but da Marshall Plan came in 1945, American money to boost up Europe.
“Well, da herring industry got a lot o good fae dat Marshall Plan, for money was put in to supply cured herrin into Germany, to feed Germany and Europe. Dat money boosted up da price; dey were a lot of klondyking – roused and iced herrin going directly to Germany in steamers – but da curers got da good o da scheme as well.
“Dan dey were Associated Herring Merchants, formed after da war; dey were aa da herring exporters in a group, governed by da Herring Industry Board. Dey were naebody left sellin individually; dey selled collectively, and you got a guaranteed amount per barrel ‘with profits, if any’. Dat wis da system it wrought on.”
So, for a decade after 1945 the herring industry regained some momentum, especially when new boats began to arrive in Shetland to replace the worn-out fleet. Ertie’s Magnie, who worked in the company for 50 years, began his coopering career with J & M Shearer in the winter of 1945.
“I wrought on the station in the summer, dan efter aa da season’s cure was inspected and shipped, we made barrels for da rest of da winter. Da cooperage wis where Ron Shepherd’s workshop is noo, and da present Royal Mail yard wis a huge barrel store.
“A shipload o cut staves wid come fae Sweden idda first oda winter; dey near filled da cooperage! Ower da winter we had to empty him; old Bobby Phillips wis da foreman when I started, an dey were eight or 10 o wis. You started work at 6am; you had things ready fae da day afore, so you put together your day’s quota of barrels first. We were on piece rates; so much per barrel; six or eight whole barrels a day, or 10 half-barrels.
“Coopers wrought in pairs, for dat keepit da fire goin, da peerie fire you set da barrel on to get him hooped. Dey took turn aboot at hoopin; dat kept da fire up. We wrought fae 6am until 9am, dan guid home for wir breakfast till 10; you maybe had two or three barrels of your quota to make after dat.
“Da rest o da day you made ready for da next day, jointin staves – dat wis taperin dem to shape – or making ends, clinking an tarring hoops, stencilling ends, an sharpening your tools. Before you knocked off, you’d raise twartree barrels; dat is to say you formed da ring o staves in twa hoopin irons, ready for da fire.
“After 1946 it wis all iron hoops, but I actually wrought on da very last o da widden hoops – lengths o split hazel. Dey came in bundles and hed to be steeped in a farlin; da watter got very smelly! Da hazel wis put through a mangle afore you notched wan end, measured it to da length an notched da idder end. Da notches caught fast on each idder when you hoopit da barrel and drove da hoop tight.
“So dat wis it, da whole winter, five days a week, half-day on Saturday. Besides barrels we made kits for holdin a basket o herrin, bigger kits for ice, tubs for carryin gutted herrin, and ‘gutty-cogs’ – peerie tubs dat sat in da farlan for da gutter to put guts in.”
Apart from the making of barrels, the next preparation for a new season came early in the year when Magnie’s father Ertie Shearer went up to Whalsay to hire the services of gutters for the coming season. Arles is an old French word meaning “earnest”, and each gutter was paid “arles” – a retainer in modern parlance – a sum of money to signify both parties were contracted, one to employ, the other to work.
“In practice, many of the women worked for Shearers year upon year. They were hired in crews of three, two gutters and a packer; the scale of operations on the Garthspool station needed 10 crews. Then, usually in early May, the annual cargo of curing salt came, often from Spain, in a bulk shipment.
“Empty barrels were taken from da store, and filled in da ship’s hold by dockers wi shovels. Da coopers headed up da full barrels, an dey were loaded on to trucks, taken up and stacked three high, right in da middle o da curin yard,” Magnie explained. “A lot o manpower involved! A full barrel o salt weighed mair as three hunderweight; it took four men to stack dem, using short rope slings.”
When the season started, everything had to be ready before the herring, bought at the auction every morning by Ertie Shearer, arrived for curing. There was far more to the curing process than the seemingly simple activity of filling barrels with herring and salt. Boats came alongside to deliver herring, landing the catch into tubs on a bogie that ran on a set of rails from the quayside to the farlins – a row of large wooden troughs on legs, into which the herring were poured.
The gutters stood along one side of the farlin, gutting the fish by hand. The curing process began with the gutters, as Magnie explained.
“Besides gutting da herring properly, a gutter also made da selections. On the ground behind where she stood dir were usually five peerie tubs or baskets to hold da various grades of herrin – small, matties, matt fulls, fulls and large fulls – each to be cured and packed separately.
“Da barrels bein packed wi herrin were all in a row, called ‘da face’, an when a tubs o selected herrin was full, da two gutters wid carry dem to da third een o da crew, da packer, an empty da load inta her rousin box – laek a peerie farlin.
“Der wis a cooper supervisin every ‘face’; he wid rouse da herrin wi salt as dey poured inta da rousin box, an da packer wid pack dat herrin inta da appropriate barrel, wi more salt atween every layer o fish. Da cooper marked every barrel on its end, wi da date, da selection an da number o whatever crew had filled it. Dat wis quality control – and traceability!
“As da barrels were filled da cooper wid put a temporary lid on it an set empty barrels in front, so da face moved ahead slowly. Guttin aye started at 10am, an dependin on da amount o herrin, could go on till 10 at night, wi breaks in atween.
“For a year or twa we had a ‘canteen’ set up in een o da Nissen huts dat stood where Shetland Janitorial is noo. Da crews were paid by da barrel, an da coopers were on an hourly rate, wi overtime when it was needed.
“Packin gutted herrin was just the start o da process, though. Da workin day for all hands actually began at 6am, fillin up, as we called it. Dis wis usually done da day after a barrel wis first packed; it wis topped up wi da same selection o herrin. Next its head was put in an tightened, dan it wis laid on its side an rolled away to have its bunghole bored and a bung put in.
“It could lie maybe twartree weeks ‘pinin’ – while da herrin settled an a pickle formed. Den da barrel wis stood up again, opened up an da pickle drained doon to da bunghole. More herring were packed in to fill it completely an it wis refilled wi pickle again.
“A peerie spile hole wis bored in da head, an you blew air in to make sure da barrel was tight. Da spile plug was driven in trimmed flush to da lid – an der was your barrel o cured herrin. We kept da ‘broon’ pickle oot o da barrel for fillin up. Da only fresh pickle made on da station was for da maatjes; dat wis peerie Gibbie Jamieson’s job, makin pickle.
“So, dat was da process, for a good number o years. Dey were me, Willie Couper, Charlie Tulloch, Attie Williamson, Lowrie Thomson, Willie Thomson, Charlie Leith, Jeemie Manson; Doe Sandison some summers, dan Magnie Stickle and later Bertie Tulloch were Whalsay foreman, dey made barrels wi wis in winter. Da crews wis maistly fae Whalsay, alang wi eens fae Lerwick.
“Da cured herrin went into da pier stores, stacked three high on dir sides. It wasna ideal to store barrels ootside, for we reckoned da sun took da oil oot o da herrin, so we put boards over ony eens stored oot, to shade dem.
“After da Shetland season was finished, Shearers cured at Lowestoft for a couple o year, 1952 an 53, I think. I wis doon een o dat years; my faider did da buying and I wrought wi da cartin o da herrin fae da quayside to da station. We had maybe five coopers and five or six crews o gutters; we were doon in October, back before Christmas.”
Sadly, though, demand for the cured product was steadily shrinking, and the days of salt herring in barrels were numbered, as Magnus Shearer related.
“As Germany got more prosperous, da maatje market fizzled away; dey werena goin to eat salt herrin oot o barrels any more. Dat just left da Poles and da Russians mainly; wi dem an wir government it wis a barter system. If Britain bought Russian oil, dey wid take herrin in payment. It was like dat right to da end of curing; it was a hard struggle wi dem.
“We actually cured at Cullivoe for twartree year, after a lot o persuasion fae L J Ratter up dere; he was desperate to get wis dere. We went to Cullivoe, but it was a financial disaster. My faither was still on the go at dat time but he had a stroke, an’ I took his place; me an Uncle Ertie took ower an came right oot o Cullivoe. Da boats werena interested in goin dere.
“Whalsay lasted longer for it was kinda different. Although it wasna far fae Lerwick, for a while o da season it was on da boats’ way from da grounds to Lerwick. So we got landings; especially da Whalsay boats wid often land peerie shots dere. We didna cure dere after 1959 – although Attie Williamson made barrels dere for us every winter into da 70s.
“As time went on, da demand rose for herrin for freezin at da HIB, or ‘freshing’ – shippin sooth on ice. In 1964 we got guttin machines; put dem in da fish hooses for da lasses ta work. Hit was quicker, an a bit mair civilised as workin ootside in aa weathers, but da curers’ price was a lot less than da freshin price, so we only came in when everybody else had been satisfied. Quality got to be more of a problem.
“We had da ice factory, of course, an still had flitboats. Da Nightingale went when da Whalsay station closed, but we had da Margaret Shearer an da Spes Clara for years after dat. We diversified a bit, so curin came to be more of a sideline.
“Uncle Ertie retired; my son Magnus came in when he left school. Ertie’s sons Magnie and Lowrie ran da ice factory; but curin fizzled oot, mair or less. At da end dey were peerie grains o cured herrin goin as far as Israel and Sooth Africa, to ex-Germans oot dere.”
The end of curing was inevitable. From 1965 heavy fishing by Norwegian purse-seiners and other foreign fleets began to reduce the herring stocks, while the first Shetland-owned pursers came in 1969.
Catch quotas and close seasons were introduced in 1974, and in 1975 the last Shetland drifter to rig out for the herring, the Replenish, gave up after only a few weeks.
A complete ban on herring fishing in the British sector of the North Sea began on 1st January 1977, bringing to an end 250 years of herring curing in Shetland.
Various business ventures took the company in other directions. A growing need for waterfront redevelopment saw its Garthspool property acquired by Lerwick Harbour Trust, and the ice factory side of the business taken over by LHD Ltd. Seabed was reclaimed and new berthing faces created.
Today, the quayside ice plant supplies its products directly into boats, while the pier and transit sheds are the container terminal for Shetland Line’s cargo shipping service. Vanished are the pier and its bonny stone-built stores, the curing yard, the tall barrel store and the row of little corrugated-iron huts the gutters lived in every summer.
The area is so vastly changed over the past 30 years that of J & M Shearer’s station very little now remains, save the quay wall along the east side of the West Dock and the headquarters building of Shetland Amenity Trust that once housed the station office and the ice factory.
The cooperage is now a workshop on the east side of the council’s IT section premises. And yet, every time I park outside the Amenity Trust I – and I’m sure many other people – can close my eyes and bring the scene back.
I can picture my grandfather in boots and brat, cap on head, hammer in hand. I hear again the laughing lasses, the rolling of empty barrels, the rumble of the bogie coming with more herring, the scories screeching and thieving: all long gone perhaps, but never to be forgotten.