Resource exploitation – Fishing

Scotland’s long coastline is rich in fish, and there is evidence of the consumption of sea-fish from the Mesolithic, though research on prehistoric fish catching and consumption has been mainly concentrated on the Northern and Western Isles (e.g. Cerón-Carrasco 2005). Current work by Ruby Cerón-Carrasco and Claire Ingrem is finding similar patterns of exploitation from the Norse period. and research developed by James Barrett has demonstrated the importance of fishing in the medieval period (e.g. Barrett et al. 1999). However, at some later periods economic exploitation of the resource seems to have proved difficult. This prompted a variety of schemes to encourage fishing both as a source of food and as a way of ensuring a supply of experienced seamen for the navy.

(left) St Abb’s Fishery (late 19th century) and (right) Aberdeen harbour (late 20th century). The juxtaposition of these two images demonstrates the huge changes that have taken place in our interaction with the sea. These two locations each present challenges that the archaeologist has to overcome in order to survey, record, interpret and research these complex remains in the landscape. ©RCAHMS

Fishing is a wide topic, some aspects of which are not well studied. The first division is between commercial fishing, which engenders historical records and has been studied to some extent, and subsistence fishing, which produces very few records. Whaling is a minor but perhaps better-documented fishery. Another division is between coastal and pelagic (offshore) fishing. In general terms demersal (white) fish can be caught all year round, but some coastal species are seasonal—the best-known being herring and salmon. Most fishing was done within a few miles of the coast, particularly during the winter. Boats and lines/nets are expensive, and shorter-lasting than many other occupational tools. Until the second half of the 19th century, fishing for white fish with lines, and herring with nets, needed different boats, making commercial fishing even more capital-intensive. As boats got larger during the 19th century, and could no longer be beached, provision of safe harbours was another drain on local capital, and bankrupted some small coastal towns. 

Until the coming of the railways, it was harder to supply fish to market quickly and some form of processing would be required if resources were to be transported beyond the local area. Most estates, villages and towns had enough fishermen to supply the immediate area, but few places had an economy based on fishing. However, seasonal fishing was encouraged by some landlords, such as the long line industry centred on the fishing stations of Shetland (Dawson 2011). Fish could be preserved in the short term by the use of ice (from the mid-eighteenth century), and many ice-houses still survive. Longer-term preservation required drying, smoking or salting. Salting works best with oily fish, and a major problem was that between 1713 and 1825 salt was a customable commodity, and it was not worth establishing salt warehouses in remote places where demand might be low or erratic. Both drying and smoking can preserve all types of fish. There is evidence for drying fish from the Norse period in the Northern Isles, and ethnographic evidence from the East coast. Oily fish such as herring, mackerel and salmon have traditionally been smoked, and from the 18th century white fish as well.

Only with the development of refrigeration and canning in the later 19th century was the preservation of fish made more reliable, though the early 20th century saw the collapse of the market for Scottish salt herring in northern Europe. Fluctuation in fish stocks has long been a problem, exacerbated by over-fishing. Today the commercial fishing industry is in decline, concentrated in fewer, larger vessels, and striving to find new catches and new markets to keep going.

The exploitation of maritime food resources is wider than fish. Sea mammals were eaten, their fat rendered down for oil, sealskin used for clothes and shoes, and whalebone (baleen) was exploited for its strength and flexibility. Shellfish was important, both directly as food, and as bait for fishing, from prehistory to the present. Shellfish are amongst the easiest of marine foods to gather and were exploited in great numbers in the past. Shell survives well in some environments, and it is not unusual to find shell middens around the coast. Partly due to their high visibility, they have played a key role in understanding the development of occupation in Scotland (for example, the Scotland’s First Settlers Project, Hardy and Wickham-Jones, 2002). Their presence indicates that occupation sites probably lie in close proximity, and excavation has led to the discovery of artefacts, features and structures which might not otherwise have been located (Melton and Nicholson 2007). The present day location of shell middens in relation to the coast has also helped demonstrate how the coast itself has changed since the last Ice Age.

In the past, fish-traps have been analysed in isolation (Bathgate 1948-9), as a suite of landscape features (Dawson 2004), and in some cases accompanied by documentary research to illustrate the practical issues associated with supplying timbers for the structure, and illustrative of the manner in which these ephemeral structures were part of a wider community and were managed by estates for commercial purposes (Hale 2005). The RCAHMS database contains 195 records of fish-traps around Scotland. However, the data from just one Historic Scotland CZAS, that has been incorporated in to the RCAHMS database, contained 62 individual fish-traps. This suggests that there is evidence of many more fish-traps than are recorded in the RCAHMS database, and that targeted survey of intertidal areas will reveal more sites (see the image in the Fish Trap Case Study).

Figure 16: Aerial photograph of a double yair, on the south side of the Beauly Firth, near Inverness. Whether the different forms of trap are indicative of different phase of use, as a result of tidal regime changes or fishing by different methods remains unclear ©RCAHMS SC700317

Aerial photograph of a double yair, on the south side of the Beauly Firth, near Inverness. Whether the different forms of trap are indicative of different phase of use, as a result of tidal regime changes or fishing by different methods remains unclear ©RCAHMS SC700317

See also the ScARF Case Study Intertidal Fish Traps in the Inner Moray Firth

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