10.5.8 Commercial Fishing

While fishing was a major source of local food (see 10.4), in many areas large-scale commercial sea fishing became an important Highland industry on both east and west coasts, particularly to take advantage of the herring (Smylie 2011). Information about commercial fishing in the Highlands is scattered in a number of sources including Gray 1978; Munro 1978; 1986; Maudlin 2007 and Smylie 2011 with regional studies including Mowat 1981, Munro, J 1994; Alston 1999; Coull 1996; 2002; Poole 2010. Newspapers, government reports, fishery officer correspondence and estate papers all provide detailed sources for this important industry.

Various initiatives were fostered by local landlords from at least the 17th century (Mowat 1981, 47ff; Alston 1999, 74ff; Case Study Sarclet Fishing Village), though often dominated by merchants (Bangor-Jones 2000, 68). The British Fisheries Society, formed and backed by Highland landowners in 1786, helped to promote the industry, building harbours, piers and even towns to take advantage of fishing (Munro 1978; Maudlin 2007; Case Study Loch Hourn Survey).

Commercial scale fishing required ways to preserve the fish. This was usually foreign salt (Harris 2000), but the Brora saltworks (chapter 10.5.3) were also used. In some areas kilns were also used for smoking, eg Thurso (MHG1473) and Lybster (MHG36602). In recent years more attention has been focussed on some Highland fishing stations, with well-preserved remains of fishing towns at Pultneytown (Wick), Ullapool and Helmsdale and fishing stations such as at Torridon, Isle Martin, Tanera in Wester Ross and Lochinver, northwest Sutherland.

Fish smoking kiln at Lybster. ©The Highland Council

For example, a project by NoSAS investigated the station at Torridon. In 1785 the Torridon Fishery Company was set up by the local landowner Kenneth Mackenzie of Torridon who erected a curing house modelled on North American structures, said to have been the first of its kind in Scotland (Knox 1787). The Company was beset by difficulties but herring catches continued in Loch Torridon and are mentioned in the 1840s, the buildings being in use until the end of the 19th century. A limited number of sites connected with the fishing industry were identified including the footings of a stone built curing house (MHG49629) and a possible salt pan (MHG28569), several cleared beaches, jetties and shoreline bothies (NoSAS nd). NoSAS also surveyed sites on Loch Hourn, uncovering a large number of sites related to fishing (Case Study Loch Hourn survey).

The fishing industry required barrels and baskets, which required access to wood, and presumably managed woodlands, and specialised craftspeople. Interestingly, when Isabell Burton MacKenzie, organiser for Highland Home Industries, went to Skye in 1912, she visited a local industry making baskets for the herring industry, but they could not source enough local willow, and were importing willow from Holland and Germany (Jones 2020, 77–78).

A community project involving historical research and excavation is investigating the fishing station on Isle Martin, Wester Ross (established in the 1770s), and when combined with research into nearby Tanera Mor (established in the 1780s), will provide insights into the set up and running of these structures (Cathy Dagg pers comm). Research is now showing that herring caught in the Highlands, including Wester Ross, was part of a large scale trade exporting ‘white’ salt-cured herring and ‘red’ smoked herring to overseas markets including West Indian slave plantations (Alston 1999, 225).

Herring was unpredictable, but immensely profitable and important to many coastal communities (Case Study Sarclet Fishing Village). Wick in particular was the major centre on the east coast but other ports such as Helmsdale had periods marked by intense activity. Catches were reported in local newspapers, even into the 20th century. In the 19th century there was a short but economically important seasonal migration of fishermen and women from the west coast to participate in the east coast herring fishing. Women and girls were employed to gut and salt fish, and in due course they came to follow the catches from Scotland to eastern England. In Cromarty alone in 1826 there were at least 200 women involved (Alston 1999, 75).

Wick Harbour in herring season. ©University of St Andrews
Herring gutters at Ullapool, Ross-shire, c.1900. ©National Museums Scotland

On the east coast, various fishing villages have been identified, both from documentary evidence and remains (see eg Alston 1999, 76-77). Some such as Avoch on the Black Isle still retain their closeknit identity and maritime focus (Mowat 1981, 48ff). The old fishertoun at Nairn is well preserved, with the local museum providing much detailed evidence of its local importance (Dennison and Coleman 1999). More work and indeed excavation of abandoned fishertouns could provide more information about this type of settlement in the Highlands.

Inshore fishing was also important, carrying on from the Medieval period (see Chapter 9.5). The salmon fishing industry in particular was very important (Martin 1995; Bangor-Jones 2000, 67), and the study of a PhD in progress by Jane Thomas on salmon fishing in the inner Moray Firth c. 1500 – c. 1800. From about the 1820s salmon bag-net fishing took off. It was eventually banned from estuaries and located on the open coasts where salmon bothies may be found, sometimes in association with icehouses. The evidence for fishing on inland waterways is grossly under-researched in all of Scotland, but in the Highlands especially.  

An unusually large icehouse to the east of Castlehill Harbour used for storing ice for preserving salmon during shipment to the London market. Icehouses like these had rectangular vaulted chambers, and were usually covered with earth for insulation. ©HES (John Hume Collection)

Tidal fish traps (yairs) can be seen along much of Highland’s coastline. These simple structures were remarkably effective, used for salmon and other inshore fish, though the traps caught fry as well as mature fish. Constructed of foundations with wooden stakes and branches or wattle superstructure, the curved outline of many yairs can still be seen outlined in seaweed. Documentary sources show some date from at least the 17th century. A large number of yairs were erected. Most remains on the west coast would appear to date from the 1820s and 1830s (M Bangor-Jones pers comm). In a study area of the Inner Moray Firth (the Beauly and Cromarty Firths) 62 fish traps were recorded (ScARF Marine & Maritime Case Study: Intertidal fish-traps in the inner Moray Firth). A PhD in progress by Alistair Stenhouse is investigating the archaeological remains of fish traps in the Highlands.

Fish trap at Ardersier, exposed after storms in 2000. ©The Highland Council

Stake nets were also employed from the first half of the 19th century, and again caught young fish, impacting on river fishing. As a result such fixed practices were banned in legislation by the mid 19th century, and effectively prohibited within the estuary limits set under authority of the Salmon Fisheries (Scotland) Act of 1862 (Alston 1999, 71ff). Remains of stone dykes into which cruive traps were inserted may still be found in some locations.

The use of yairs and nets had resource implications as well, with work needed to investigate materials used and types of wood chosen, again with attention to managed woodlands. Their use also affected daily life, requiring frequent tending to avoid predators taking the fish, and time to maintain and repair (Grant 2018, 276–277).

Landowners wishing to export the salmon relied initially on salt, but George Dempster of Skibo Castle began using ice to export locally caught salmon to London (Alston 1999, 73), some parboiled first in boiling houses, such as at Invershin, Sutherland (MHG12890; Hume 1977, 36). A kiln recorded on a 1788 map of Tarradale, Easter Ross, may have been for smoking salmon (Eric Grant, pers comm).  A number of icehouses survive on the Highland coasts, used for the fishing industry, many in poor repair.


Case Study: Sarclet Fishing Village

Case Study: Loch Hourn Survey

ScARF Marine & Maritime Case Study: Intertidal fish-traps in the inner Moray Firth

Leave a Reply