Tobar an Dualchais: The sea wanted to be visited

Angus John and James Campbell in the St Bride, South Lochboisdale – Photograph by Margaret Fay Shaw (c) National Trust for Scotland

This month’s Tobar and Dualchais feature is on the traditions and customs associated with fishing and was written by Professor Hugh Cheape, who currently teaches on the MSc in Material Culture and Gàidhealtachd History at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

Living in sight of the Minch and Atlantic, it may seem unsurprising that sea fisheries have headed up  the UK’s latest negotiations to leave the EU. But as the proverb has it: Dh’ iarr a’ mhuir a bhith ga tadhal (‘The sea wanted to be visited’).

The motives of negotiators are mixed and we’re hearing about access to Scottish waters, controls, quotas and profit margins rather than the perpetual surge of the sea –an ataireachd àrd – or torann a’ chuain (‘the thundering of the ocean’) (Tobar an Dualchais Track ID 74024 and 50304). If it’s a bargaining-counter for political élites, it’s a way of life for islanders and the sea is powerfully part of island identity.

The West Coast and Hebrides were rich in supplies of fish; much has been written about this and much remains to be written. The exploitation of a natural food resource, its commercialisation and the boom and bust of industry are the chapters of textbook history but the sound archive resource of Tobar an Dualchais / ‘Kist ’o Riches’ offers a fresh history from within.

Recordings made by Calum MacLean and Donald Archie MacDonald for the School of Scottish Studies in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, include wide-ranging accounts of the place of fishing in island life and an acute understanding of the spectrum of fishing between food source and solvency (Tracks ID 39158 and 99590). These include commercial fisheries which were more significantly part of Hebridean life from earlier centuries than we might imagine. This was an arena of competition and strife between locals and incomers.

Uisdean Cheape

A successful ‘fishing industry’ in Lewis in the 17th century was taken over by the Dutch with their state-supported investment in boats and fishing gear.

The processing of fish for sale and export was learnt from the Dutch and the onshore dimension of ‘curing houses’ and ‘salt stores’ became an established part of West Coast history along with centres of commercial activity or ‘fishing villages’ which received the victims of the Clearances.

The imperative of acquiring new skills for deep-water fishing and the struggle to earn money also led to annual migrations of island fishermen to the East Coast,  vividly captured in Gaelic song such as Iasgach a’ Gheamhraidh from South Uist (Track ID 100061 and 39999). As the 20 year-old South Lochboisdale bard, Seonaidh Caimbeul, tells us about the 1870s, the work was hard, the conditions harsh and the pay minimal.  Lads from Back and Gress were crewing Lochinver boats to go as far as the Grand Banks (‘Bancaichean Newfondland’) for cod in the 1890s.They spent the summer there, catching the big Atlantic cod on forms of handlines or dorgh with a pair of hooks on each line and selling their catch in Newfoundland (Track ID 3230)

Hebrideans were also crewing the bigger boats of Moray Firth and North East fishing businesses – the ‘Scaffies’, ‘Fifies’ and ‘Zulus’ of the new ‘language’ of 19th century fishing.

This had come to be a world away from getting your food from the sea. Trapping fish on the shore is remembered in the word cairidh and is evident in the remains of low stone dykes in bays and estuaries round the coasts.

Fishing from the rocks with a rod and line or a net has always been an alternative pastime. Every coastal community had its carraig or ‘fishing rock’ where the tàbh was used to catch saithe or ‘cuddies’ with limpet bait.

The tàbh was like an oversized landing-net on a large hoop about six feet in diameter on the end of a long pole.

Different kinds of fishing and boats evolved to match the different fishing levels of the sea and the different habits of fish. ‘White fish’ such as saithe, cod, haddock and whiting, have always been an important source of food in the coastal zone, being taken with nets and lines baited with hooks.

‘Small lines’, na lìn beaga, were used mainly for winter work and ‘great lines’, na lìn mòra, were for the spring and summer and in deeper waters.

As boat-building became more professional, fishing extended into deeper waters. In the Uists and Barra, going for the ‘big fish’ such as cod and ling took them out into Na Haf and the fishing banks around a dozen miles from shore (Track ID 99590).

Their boats, say, of 25 to 35 feet length, clinker built and undecked, were the work-horses of ‘inshore’ fishing and developed raking lines and sailing features which distinguished regional types. Perhaps the best remembered because it has been ‘rediscovered’ from surviving examples is the Ness yole – the Sgoth Niseach –  customarily launched off the open beach (Track ID 39158).

Bringing the boats ashore in stormy weather was potentially fatal and depended on skippers of supreme experience and judgement.

In terms of North Atlantic fisheries and European trade, the herring has been of long-term importance. Tha an sgadan fhèin os cionn nan uile or ‘the herring tops them all’ was the mantra.

The herring were in the Minch in May and June and migrated round the coast to provide an autumn herring season as far south as East Anglia. For some decades in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Scottish herring industry was the biggest fishery in the world, dominating the main international market in Germany, Poland and Russia and selling south to Portugal, Spain and Africa (Track ID 99590).

The industry employed, it was estimated, about 100,000 people by the end of the century and a migrating workforce of men and women as crews, gutters and packers followed the herring round the coast from the Minch to Great Yarmouth.

The history books map out the development of a capitalised fishing industry, but Tobar an Dualchais preserves the intensity and epic of individual experience.

Loss of life at sea shattered communities and seared memories. ’S daor a cheannaich mi an t-iasgach (‘Dearly I paid for the fishing’)) is so powerful a song to have survived for about 300 years (Track ID 5838 and 75672).

While none can deny the hardships and dangers of fishing, humour may thrive in adversity, such as the tale of Alasdair Breac from Strath who when fishing out of Loch Eishort was swallowed by a whale and cut himself out with his corc or sheath-knife when later the whale was stranded (Track ID 3585).

Only deeply-ingrained knowledge and a boat were between you and drowning.

Little wonder that fishermen made songs for their boats, even characterising them as their lover (Track ID 100055, 34526).

The well-known waulking song, Dheanainn sùgradh ris an nighinn duibh, makes it clear that his beloved dark-haired girl is his boat! ‘I would flirt with the lassie when folks were asleep’, inferring of course that night fishing at sea was a way of life!