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Compelling Account Of Cod Fishing

by Alastair Hamilton -

Shetland is known for many things - knitwear, ponies, bird rarities and fiddle music, for example – but the scale of the islands’ fishing industry isn’t always appreciated. That supermarket packet of haddock or cod will probably state its origin as ‘North-East Atlantic’, giving no clue as to where the fish was landed and who caught it.

But it may well have been landed in Shetland, for fish is at the heart of our island economy. The islands’ fishing harbours – mainly Lerwick and Scalloway – land more fish than all the ports in England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. In the late 19th century, the prosperity flowing from the ‘herring boom’ was reflected in the planning of a Victorian ‘new town’ to the west of Lerwick’s overcrowded ‘lanes’ area and in the confident and culturally sophisticated design of a new Town Hall that was fitted with some of the finest secular stained glass in Britain.

Perhaps because it left such a tangible legacy, most Shetland folk know about the herring boom. However, most of us are less well aware of island fishermen’s success with cod. A new book by John Goodlad, The Cod Hunters, aims to put that right. In it, John recounts the story of a fishery that took Shetland boats as far as Rockall, Iceland and Greenland, and led to Shetland fishermen teaching their Faroese counterparts all they knew about successful cod hunting.

It's a story that touches on every aspect of Shetland life and economy over the century between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of the First World War. John vividly describes the successes and failures of the era, from the collapse of a leading fisheries company and the Shetland Bank to the beach-curing of an astonishing 11,500 tons of cod in a single year.

It's a story that touches on every aspect of Shetland life and economy

It’s very far from being a dry account of events. John populates the narrative with the people who were involved in the trade and brings them to life. For example, in this passage he’s describing the insolvency of Hay and Ogilvy, a leading enterprise in the fishing industry:

William Hay was a proud man. He was also very ambitious. The early success of Hay and Ogilvy, particularly in the cod fishing, had done nothing to temper his pride and ambition. He had borrowed heavily to buy land around his country house in Laxfirth where he had aspirations to become one of Shetland’s main landowners. Now all of this lay in ruins. The anger that consumed him had nowhere to go. He was incapable of accepting any personal responsibility and believed it was all the fault of his brother-in-law. He decided to walk to Seafield House, the home of Charles Ogilvy, to confront him. There was no chance that the brisk 15-minute walk through the hill was going to ease his anger. On the contrary, his fury had reached new heights by the time he reached Seafield.

The book contains 29 chapters and, although they’re linked by a common thread, most if not all of them could be read as freestanding essays; but the story is, by and large, presented chronologically.

John populates the narrative with the people who were involved in the trade and brings them to life

Until the advent of the cod fishery, Shetland’s fishing had been undertaken by hundreds of relatively small, six-oared open boats known as sixerns, which ventured between 20 and 40 miles offshore. They caught fish, mostly ling and tusk, on long, baited lines, and the catch was gutted, split, salted and then dried on stone beaches. The fish was then exported, mostly to Britain and Ireland, but also to Spain. The boats were vulnerable in bad weather, so the fishing season lasted only from mid-May to mid-August. Even so, there were times when the fleet was caught in an unexpected storm and many boats and lives were lost.

The cod fishery owed its origins to a chance catch by two cargo boats, which had become becalmed to the south west of the island of Foula in 1817. Their crews decided to try a spot of fishing and, to their surprise, they were very successful. The boats’ owner persuaded an experienced Shetland fisherman, William Thompson, to try catching fish in the same area. The first trip, in early April 1818, was, as John Goodlad says, “a disaster; they only caught four cod” but on their second voyage they hauled in more than 1,000 cod, which was unheard of. They would have caught more, had they not run out of bait.

William Thompson’s attempt to keep the location secret was unsuccessful; he was unable to shake off two vessels that followed him all the way to the fishing grounds. Word then spread rapidly and a total of 24 cod sloops took part in the fishery in 1819. These were sailing vessels, larger than the sixerns (at up to 15 metres) and with decks.

They would have caught more had they not run out of bait.

With the ending of the Napoleonic Wars, the market for cod in Spain became more active and that became the main destination for Shetland cod. The Shetland curing method seems to have produced exactly the high-quality dried fish that customers demanded. The trade grew steadily, helped initially by a government subsidy on the boats, and was focused on the area around Scalloway and other parts of south-west Shetland that were convenient for the fishing grounds.

The cod fishery south-west of Foula was successful for several years, but gradually became less predictable. The withdrawal of the government subsidy in 1830 also depressed the trade. However, there were still some good years, with a record landing of 3,350 tons in 1837. The 1840s started very badly, however, with the bankruptcy of Hay and Ogilvy, prompted in part by a fishing disaster in 1840 in which lives, boats and nets were lost.

Recovery took time, but, in 1846 William Hay sent his largest vessel, the 30-metre Janet Hay, to fish off Greenland, where – John Goodlad suggests – the crews of Shetland whaling vessels may have reported catching cod. In May of that year, the crew of the Janet Hay returned with 29,403 cod. In 1849, Hay and Co’s four large vessels were fishing off Greenland and caught 119,769 fish.

The bumper catches didn’t last, though, and the fleet turned its attention to waters off Faroe and Iceland, which were in any case much closer to Shetland. The Faroe fishing was highly successful and relatively predictable. The demand for cod from Spain continued to increase, and English and Norwegian vessels began to land their catches in Shetland. Faroese fishermen eventually joined in, and they, too, sold some of their catch in Shetland.

Recovery took time

The cod fishery did eventually go into decline and one major factor was the higher level of profit to be made from herring. It became harder to find crews for cod boats and indeed many vessels were in the end crewed by Faroese rather than Shetland men. There was a more prosperous cod fishery off Rockall in the mid 1890s, which prompted a temporary recovery, but between 1905 and 1908, only three Shetland vessels pursued cod. By 1910, there were none, and, as far as Shetland was concerned, the fishery was over.

But it wasn’t over in Faroe. Faroese boats and crews continued to hunt cod well into the 20th century, often applying lessons they’d learned from Shetland. John Goodlad devotes the last chapters of his book to an account of that trade, which didn’t just provide incomes for fishermen but, as John explains, inspired many Faroese artists in islands that – like Shetland today – are host to an energetic and talented creative community.

The book was launched in Lerwick at a reception which featured readings by John Goodlad and Claire White and an interview with him by Davie Gardner. There was also some fiddle music, but this time it was played by Maurice Henderson (of Fiddler’s Bid) on a fiddle made of brass. These instruments – now exceedingly rare – were made so that they could be taken to sea, without the risk of damage by water.

There was also some food, in the form of generous helpings of bacalao, the Spanish dish made from salt cod; it was delicious, and if any of those present wanted to replicate it at home, they could buy today’s Shetland salt cod, Thule Ventus.

This account of John’s book is necessarily brief and can only hint at the rich detail, based on meticulous enquiries, that he has incorporated. It is a thoroughly good read, whether or not one has a grounding in fishing heritage. Another good reason to buy it is that all the profits from its sale will go to supporting the Swan, Shetland’s beautifully-restored sail-fishing vessel, which was built in Lerwick, by Hay and Co, in 1900.

Posted in: Heritage

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