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At da eela

by Laurie Goodlad -

This is the time of year that, when we are not under lockdown, Shetlanders would be starting to think about a night at the eela. The word eela, like much of our language, has its roots in the Old Norse and is a dialect term that means to go fishing by rod or handline, mainly for piltocks, from a small boat. (And before anyone asks, a piltock is the Shetland name for a coalfish that is between two and four years old.)

The nights, as we move into June, are getting lighter in the approach to midsummer and those halcyon days that come with it. These are days of activity and of enjoying outdoor pursuits: come home from work, grab a bite to eat and head back out the door; making the most of every ounce of vitamin D that the sun can throw at us. These are (usually) busy days, spent outdoors, and at the end of them, with the sun setting low on the western horizon, weary limbs are lifted into bed, and the sense of motion from being on the water rocks us to sleep.

These are days of activity and of enjoying outdoor pursuits: come home from work, grab a bite to eat and head back out the door; making the most of every ounce of vitamin D that the sun can throw at us

For me, these always represent some of the happiest moments of summer, both my husband and dad have a smaa boat, so we spend a lot of time on the water on fine simmer nights. (although I trust dad’s boat handling skills a little more, so would usually opt for his boat given a choice).

When we head off, we usually try for a mackerel – which can be incredibly rewarding as these fish travel in shoals so you can generally guarantee to draw in a line of shimmering fish, glittering in the evening sun like jewels from the indigo-blue depths below.

Throughout the summer, eela competitions are a popular part of Shetland life. Dozens of smaa boats take to the water in a bid to land the largest catch drawn in over a pre-specified time (usually 2-3 hours). Eelas are great community events which culminate with fish suppers in the local hall and a prizegiving where trophies and shields are handed out for the largest (and smallest) catch for both men, women and bairns.

This inshore fishery is rooted in Shetland’s maritime past, where fourareens (four-oared) or yoles (narrow, six-oared boat traditional to Shetland’s South Mainland) would negotiate the inshore waters in search of a catch. The catch was usually distributed between neighbours or salted to preserve it into winter when the boats were drawn high into their noosts (a place, often a hollow at the edge of the beach where boats were kept over winter).

It’s thought that the word eela comes from the Old Norse word ‘ili’ which refers to a stone used as an anchor. It helps explain how this fishery was sometimes carried out – with boats lying at anchor (using an eelastane) between the land and a tidal current, or rowed to maintain a position in the current.

It’s thought that the word eela comes from the Old Norse word ‘ili’ which refers to a stone used as an anchor

The first description of this type of fishing is found in the Orkneyinga Saga, written in the 12th century; it details the tale of a disguised Earl Rognvald and his fishing trip with a “penniless farmer” from Dunrossness (in Shetland’s South Mainland). The story goes:

“So they rowed out beyond Sumburgh Head and around Horse Island. There were strong currents where they lay, and large whirlpools in which they were supposed to keep moving while they fished from the current. The cowled man [Earl Rognavald] sat in the bow pulling against the current while the old man tried to fish, and he kept warning the stranger not to let them drift into it, for then they’d be in real trouble; but the cowled man paid no attention to the farmer’s word and seemed not to be worried even though the farmer was finding it a bit of a trial. Shortly after that they were swept into the current and the farmer was in an absolute panic... ‘Cheer up, farmer,” said the cowled man, ‘dry your eyes. He who let us drift into the current will bring us out of it as well.’”

This early description of fishing in a smaa boat describes the ‘ili’ perfectly. This type of fishing has been an important part of life here for generations; with fathers teaching their sons’ the way of the sea. Meids (prominent land features, that when lined up with another landmark, allow fishermen to establish and maintain a position at sea) passed from generation to generation, often closely guarded secrets for those who wish to have eela success and scoop that much sought after shield.

The yole, one of the boats synonymous with the eela, is still built by local boat-builders and used in Shetland today. It is particularly popular with competitive rowing, competed at community regattas throughout the summer, this is a highly-contested sport that sees communities fight tooth and nail to be crowned overall champion of the season. Competing teams of six battle it out to complete a mile-long race, sometimes in quite rough open waters. Each community will have teams of men, women, veterans, under-21s and under-16s so any regatta will see an action-packed day of rowing with much friendly, light-hearted rivalry between communities.

And for me, the best thing about a night at the eela is the warm-glow in my cheeks after being on the water, and a fried mackerel bun with sweet chilli sauce ... Delicious!

Posted in: Heritage

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