IT was hard in the 1970s, even as a Glasgow Highland boy, to get away from herring. A vast salted bucket of the beasts sat in the back porch. Each Saturday they were boiled for noonday dinner, regardless of our protests, served up with steaming potatoes. We could only endure them with lashings of tomato ketchup. We choked incessantly on the tiny bones. I much preferred them kippered or – a rare treat – fresh, uncured, fried in oatmeal.
At home, on Lewis on holiday, herring were everywhere. They swam on Stornoway Town Council’s coat-of-arms, above the certitude of its motto, ‘GOD’S PROVIDENCE IS OUR INHERITANCE’. And they were landed, of course, daily (save for the Sabbath) and in vast quantities; lorry after lorry lining up, the suckers spewing forth thousands of the silver darlings from hold to truck. Silver they were, shining as mercury; abundant they seemed, as if the bounty of the Minch and the sea-lochs were inexhaustible. You grasped dimly how long they had shaped the island culture; made Stornoway rich. And you learned of grandmothers who, before the Great War, had toiled at the gutting; followed the fleet after this restless, nomadic fish in the circumnavigation of Britain. Gnarled Lewis relatives who had married quietly in the likes of Peterhead or Fraserburgh; fisherboy to fishergirl. Mantelpieces everywhere still sported china with such greetings as ‘A PRESENT FROM LOWESTOFT’…
And then the herring just vanished. The tap turned off. The Scottish Office finally, belatedly, in 1977 imposed a ban. The countless shoals became a trickle; and have remained a trickle ever since. Into this world – not just locally, but internationally – Donald S Murray, with a teacher’s diligence and a poet’s acuity – has now swum, exploring in his Herring Tales the whole biology and culture of herring in an incredible European journey, almost casually opening windows you had never thought on to reveal things you had never imagined.
Herring made men rich; a commodity essential to early northern-European capitalism. They are consumed (as Murray lusciously relates) in a myriad ways. We like them salted or smoked. Edward VII loved fried fresh herring as part of his vast daily breakfast. The Dutch joyously eat them raw. Swedes champ them, half-rotten, from bulging gassy cans; Norwegians knock back, like mother’s milk, mugs of the liquor they are cured in. Or, more bravely, chew them air-cured and dried. ‘Requiring the full force of my molars and incisors to make any real impression on its flesh,’ Murray stoutly recalls of a blokish ritual feast in Norway. ‘I finally bit my way through it, aware it was like a mixture of kipper and beef jerky, a dry piece of salt leather, difficult to chop or swallow. One could imagine that, far from it being eaten, the fish might have been used in the past as a restraint for a Norwegian fjord horse, a halter to hold and control the dun-shaded breed that was used for centuries to carry loads and men, and plough barren acres in this far, north-western edge of Europe. Or perhaps, too, a string of dried herring might have harnessed a boat to harbour, rendering it impervious to the threat of any storm…’
So much of Scotland herself has been defined – even shaped – by Clupea harengus, the humble herring. It’s the fish that built Tarbert Loch Fyne; Mallaig; Ullapool; Lochinver… and The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn, about a Highland boy growing to manhood as he goes forth to sea in search of them, is one of Scotland’s greatest post-war novels. The herring is besides a fish that, even more than the salmon, seems almost maniacally to possess those who pursue it. For it is a sociable, shoaling fish, moving in vast and exuberant companies up and around this or that given coastline; it is beautiful to look on – a radiant, scaly silver; and it was an exceptionally good, healthy, affordable source of protein (readily salted or smoked too) when other fish could not readily be preserved, the deep freeze for the future and meat to most a rare treat.
And no fish in these islands has inspired more traditional song. Most of us had to lisp ‘Wha’ll Buy My Caller Herrin’ at some point through primary school.
Other ballads, from Ewan MacColl through The Corries to Kathy and Wallace Dempster, have extolled the brave men who went out to catch them, and the young women (very many from the Outer Hebrides) who, at the edge of living memory, toiled at the gutting… wielding a sharp square blade with such extraordinary speed their hands blur in the old cine-footage:
With our nets and gear we’re faring
On the wild and wasteful ocean.
It’s there that we hunt and we earn our
As we hunted for the shoals of herring.
O it was a fine and a pleasant day,
Out of Yarmouth harbour I was faring,
As a cabinboy on a sailing lugger,
For to go and hunt the shoals of herring.
Until the 1500s, as Donald S Murray records in his brilliant book, they splashed in the Baltic by the million and the might and clout of the German-dominated ‘Hanseatic League’ was built on trade in them. Then they simply vanished, to the bafflement and desolation of a hundred ports. And a key market for the early trade in cured herring from Scotland was for the feeding of wretched slaves in Caribbean sugar-plantations – and the later, great market in Tsarist Russia was brought to a shattering end by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and with dire consequence for the north of Scotland. But herring returned to the sea of the Hebrides and elsewhere and, after the Second World War, fat new markets revived.
Traditionally herring were caught in the Minches by drift-netting; a sustainable method that snared only large, adult fish and let juvenile Clupea Harengus swim free through the mesh. But voracious, murderous new methods swept in – ring-netting, purse-netting, seine-netting. And the last drift-netters in the islands – men like Murdo MacLennan of Marvig on Lewis; John Mackinnon of Scadabay in Harris – could get no one on high to listen, even as ring-netters and purse-netters and sinister factory-ships from beyond the Iron Curtain hoovered up herring on a fantastic scale. These were creepy vessels – in just one detail cast almost carelessly forth by Murray, the crew of one Romanian ship alone included forty secret policemen – but Scottish Office experts continued to insist there was nothing at all to worry about. Until the same experts imposed the ban; and that they had been wrong and MacLennan and Mackinnon proved right was scant consolation for the end not just of an industry but a way of life.
Murray’s incredible journey begins in Norway, sweeps by the east coast of England and the Western Isles, jaunts by Shetland and Germany and the Netherlands and to climax in Iceland – which boasts a vast Herring Era Museum. He explores everything from the traditional knitted fisherman’s ‘gansey’ of Eriskay to the keen, stern Protestant faith invariably associated with herring country; muses – time and again – on the catastrophic incompetence of modern government, everywhere, when it comes to stewardship of the sea.
There’s a sense of exile in Murray’s offering. He himself, Lewis-reared, teaches on Shetland. But his book is as much about that poignancy we all sometimes feel: that you can always go back to the ‘where’, but never the ‘when’. There’s a Gaelic word for this, ‘ceanalas’ – an inchoate yearning for the past and an ideal; a conscious estrangement even as you try and live in the moment. For Murray, the great days of herring are entangled with his own lost youth; it is no coincidence that he so frequently evokes past melodies and lyrics (‘Nothing,’ said Noel Coward, ‘is as potent as cheap music,’) and that each chapter is entitled after some rock-song or other – all binding a fine, scholarly, restless and keen-brained work.
In SY StorY: A Portrait of Stornoway Harbour, a beautifully produced and silky little paperback, Murray unleashes himself in disciplined, at times seething verse about that island world he remembers and which has largely gone – some very funny, most hard and thoughtful, much about love.
Small boats in the harbour.
bow and keel lashed together, steel
fastened against steel
so no matter how much either wind or
wave might reel,
they can withstand the season’s clamour,
their place of safety sealed
by knots hands tied around a bollard,
the tight loop of an iron hawser.
And you and I must be like that,
mimicking the buoyancy of boats
that come together in the shelter of this
bound together not by steel or
but by a bond much stronger far than
the tie of love that keeps the human heart
the loop that brings us both together in a
Here is serious talent; here are two sparkling, most masculine books.
Herring Tales: How the Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste and History
Donald S Murray
Bloomsbury, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1472912169
SY StorY: A Portrait of Stornoway Harbour
Donald S Murray
Birlinn Ltd, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1906270018, PP240