The Herring Girls of Stornoway
In Stornoway the work of women in the heyday of the Herring fishery is commemorated by two statues, one on North Beach Quay and the other on South Beach Quay. The picture above shows a herring girl working gutting a herring. The girl is surrounded by barrels similar to those that were used in the herring industry throughout the 19th and 20th century. The herring industry - provided many a Hebridean family with an income. Many families owed a lot to the "herring girls". At one time every young Island girl looked forward to the time when they were old enough to get into the herring industry.
The Herring Industry in 1914
In 1914 a combined 20% of the Isle of Lewis' population (3,000 women and another 1,600 men) were involved in the herring industry. In the early 20th century the fishing ports of Scotland were packed with women who worked the summer gutting herring, before heading down the east coast of England following the fishing. For the women of that time there wasn't much work available and even though being a "herring girl" was jolly hard work - with long long hours and very low wages many of the girls loved the company of the other girls and looked forward to the start of the herring season. Although many of the girls working in the Stornoway herring industry - came from The Islands - they also worked alongside girls who came from all over Scotland - these girls travelled from port to port - wherever the work was on offer.
The Herring Girls Travel to the Shetlands
Sometimes they went on to travel to the Shetlands. The girls provided for themselves. Travelling to and from the fishing ports was a trying time for the girls, particularly to the Shetlands where they sometimes went in their hundreds on a very small - not suitable at all - ships. It really was only luck which - when they endured terrible weather, that these trips didn't end in disaster.
The 'Herring Girls', followed the herring fleet around the coast each year. The women worked in teams. There were three women in a team - two if them gutted the herrings, whilst the third - packed the herrings. The gutters were very adapt and it only took one stoke of their knives to gut the herring. The barrels that you can see in the picture would have been used to pack the fish into. Nothing was wasted as even the guts were used as fertilizer by the farmers.
The Herring Girls - and how they Gut the Fish
The herrings intestines were flung into a gut basket - while the fish was slung into the barrels. The girls worked very long hours - often 6am to 6pm - and always just outside - having to withstand the elements of weather that were thrown at them. As you can imagine the girls hands often sustained injuries and blisters. The girls wrapped their fingers in sacking or cotton in order to protect them - however inevitably, the sharp knives they used, caused nasty cuts and as their arms were often deep in the salty brine which soaked into their wounds - making the sores even worse.
The herring was placed into the barrels - the barrels they went into being chosen according to the quality and size of the herrings. The herring girls were so experienced and could speedily judge the size of each herring and throw the fish of the appropriate size into the correct barrel.
Coopers check the sizes of the Herrings
There were coopers employed in the herring fish industry who watched over the herring girls - they checked that the fish going into the barrels were all of a uniform size - they used a wooden gauge to check the herring sizes. Each layer of fish was covered in rough salt before the next tier of fish was placed on top. The faster the girls worked the more wages they received - they were paid by the barrel. Saturday night was the highlight of the week, when the boats were in port and the boys from home came to the ‘ceilidh’
The herring girls from Stornoway were known to be used to hard work and they were popular with their employers. Thousands of Hebridean herring girl gutters travelled every season, summer and winter, particularly from the 1840s
onwards to most of the main Scottish and English herring fishing ports including Lerwick in The Shetlands.
The Herring Gull Markets
The main markets fort the salted herring were Germany, the Baltic States and Russia. Understandably the First World War had a detrimental effect on these markets. Germany suffered from serious inflation after the First World War.
The Stornoway curers, as well as others, were paid in worthless money after the war. Other countries too - started to build up their own fishing fleets and by the 1930s the herring catch in Scotland had fallen to a fraction of what it had previously been. When times were harder and the girls were less busy the girls would go round the quay for a walk, arm in arm and sing Gaelic songs and knitting socks etc. as they were on the lookout for young men, deck-hands on
the fishing boats.
Fortunately for Stornoway in The Isle of Lewis the Merchant Navy picked up in the early 1930s and the Harris Tweed weaving got really busy - otherwise there may well have been mass emigration and migration.
The Sad End for the Herring Industry
The Second World War finally brought about the end of the herring industry and the herring girls were no longer necessary.