Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

aka The Herripedia


On interpreting the herring’s grand migration as a gift from God, the ensuing arguments between nations and the eventual progress of science.


Interest in the behaviour of herrings took a step forward in the C16th, as its full potential for patriotic moral instruction began to be appreciated.

Locally, regular and predictable appearances of the shoals had long been understood as a sign of God’s favour; disappearances His punishment. As fisheries increased in scale, it seemed that licentious behaviour at Herring Fairs had a tendency to upset Him.

But the C16th saw historians begin to extend herring-associated divine providence from the specific shore to the nation state.

I: Whose Providence? The Dutch and the English


In the C16th, the Dutch were locked in a Calvinist struggle with the interchangeable forces of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and the Anti-Christ. 

Like the Children of Israel led out of captivity – and occasionally letting themselves down – the Dutch were intimate with the Hand of God. The collective imagination linked Red and North Seas as twinned playgrounds of a manifest destiny.

The Reformation’s appetite for learning met an appetite for herring in Hadrianus Junius’ national history, Batavia (1588). 

The largest herring shoals – the focus of their Grand Fishery – appeared in the Shetlands and appeared to move south. Scotland’s folk wisdom had them cleverly avoiding capture at various times by burying themselves in the sand.

Hadrianus Junius, on the other hand, traced an epic annual migration towards the nets of his nation’s fishermen. They swam out of the Arctic and down the North Sea. Exactly where the nets were placed on this journey was irrelevant in the context of God’s clearly expressed will.


That the Dutch drew on the whole of the North Sea in their vision of Providence did not go unnoticed. Neither did the fact that the most prolific of the North Sea grounds were off the coasts of Scotland and England. 

’Tis almost incredible what vast gains the Hollanders make by this Fishery on our Coast, wrote the English historian and antiquary William Camden in 1607.

He had originally published Britannia two years before Batavia, but this was the considerably expanded sixth edition and he wanted to make clear, if there was to be any talk of Providence, to which nation it properly belonged:

These herrings (pardon me if I digress a little to shew the goodness of God towards us) which in the former age swarmed only about Norway, now in our time, by the bounty of divine providence, swim in great shoals towards our coasts. About Mid-summer, they draw from the main sea towards the coasts of Scotland, at which time they are immediately sold off, as being then at their best. From thence they next arrive on our coasts; and from the middle of August to November, there is excellent and most plentiful fishing for them all along from Scarborough to the Thames-mouth. Afterwards, by stormy weather they are carried into the British sea, and there caught till Christmas; thence having ranged the coast of Ireland on both sides, and gone round Britain, they convey themselves into the Northern Ocean, where they remain till June; and after they have cast their spawn, return again in great shoals. 

II: The Natural Philosophers – Germany Enters the Game


In his learnedly comic treatise, De Harengo (1643), Paul Neucrantz of Rostock, refers to Camden’s account of the annual migration. At the same time, considering what was eventually recognised as the mixed populations of the Dogger Bank, he raised questions about the grand theory of  migration which underpinned the idea of divinely providential herrings.

But he was writing in Lübeck in the middle of the C17th. God had once directed massive herring shoals towards the southern tip of modern day Sweden, substantially providing Lübeck’s Hanseatic merchants with their original prosperity.

From the second quarter  of the C15th God had been directing them away again, but the fish still emblazoned the city’s coat of arms. Neucrantz was doing his best to celebrate a fish that had clearly fallen from grace, noting, however: It is the especial fish of the German Ocean and the Baltic Sea

Natural Philosophy

The herring’s vast and providential migration swam through the overlapping waters of scientific study and economic benefit. In the first half of the C18th its journey was popularised in Atlas Maritimus et Commercialis or a General View of the World so far as related to Trade and Navigation (1728). 

The German writer Johannes Anderson, in his News from Iceland, Greenland and the Davis Straits (1746), ascribes the herring’s flight south less to God and more to their escape from whales and other predators, but James Solas Dodd, in An Essay Towards a Natural History of the Herring (London, 1752), is firmly back with Providence and particular about the economic benefits:

If the Importance or Dignity of a Subject can warrant the Choice, none can deny but that which I have chose is sufficiently warranted; the Herring-Fishery is an Undertaking that will redound endless Honour to the Promoters here, as well as unspeakable Emolument to the English Nation.

III: Extending the Epic – Britain and America

The Unionist Herring

The Welshman Thomas Pennant was one of the leading natural historians of his day and a great travel writer. His British Zoology (1766) was lavishly illustrated and unprofitably printed in a folio edition.

It contains the most beautifully imagined of all the accounts of herring migration, the shoals separating into East and West brigades:

This mighty army begins to put itself in motion in the spring. We distinguish this vast body by that name; for the word Herring is derived from the German Heer – an army, to express their numbers. They begin to appear off the Shetland Islands in April and May. This is the first check this army meets with in its march southward. Here it is divided into two parts: one wing of those destined to visit our coasts takes to the east, the other to the western shores of Great Britain, and fill every bay and creek with their numbers; others proceed towards Yarmouth, the great and ancient mart of Herrings; they then pass through the British Channel, and after that in a manner disappear. Those which take to the west, after offering themselves to the Hebrides, where the great stationary fishery is, proceed towards the north of Ireland, where they meet with a second interruption, and are obliged to make a second division: the one takes to the western side and is scarcely perceived, being soon lost in the immensity of the Atlantic; but the other, which passes into the Irish Sea, rejoices and feeds the inhabitants of most of the coasts that border on it. These brigades, as we may call them, which are thus separated from the greater columns, are often capricious in their motions, and do not show an invariable attachment to their haunts.

The etymological root, heer, is disputed, but the military metaphor worked for Pennant, who clearly saw his herrings in red coats. In A Tour in Scotland and a Voyage to the Hebrides, published a few years later, Pennant expressed a keen interest in Scotland’s economic recovery after the disasters of the early part of the C18th.

His picture of an army of herrings, bringing a unifying peace and plenty to the islands of a United Kingdom, resonates with the unease of the national settlement in the aftermath of the Act of Union and the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745.

Whilst adopting a loftily scientific detachment, he is happy to allow more than a hint of God’s favour upon a nation brought together by herrings:

Were we inclined to consider this partial migration of the herring in a moral light we might reflect with veneration and awe on the mighty Power which originally impressed on this most useful body of His creatures, the instinct that directs and points out the course that blesses and enriches these islands, which causes them at certain and invariable times to quit the vast Polar deeps and offer themselves to our expecting fleets.

American Independence

Herring migration theory achieved its grandest proposition in the newly independent colonies in the Americas. Determined that Providence should not be seen as exclusively European and certainly not exclusively British, John Gilpin was inspired to one last all-encompassing vision in his Observations on the Annual Passage of Herrings (1786):

By August, the shoals, having come down from the Arctic along the east and west coasts of the British Isles, assemble in the Channel. From there, they cross the Atlantic, travelling westerly in November, a little more northerly in December, arriving off the coasts of Georgia and Carolina in January. In February they reach Virginia, where in the bays and estuaries they spawn in March and April.

He explained the presence of shoals in the Baltic by a group of the smaller herrings turning left at the Skagerrak for an annual (or biennial) excursion.

IV: The End of a Dream


Gilpin didn’t know it, but the theory of providential migration was already dead in the water. Three years before he published his speculations in Philadelphia, the restless mind of the German ichthyologist ME Bloch had already taken the argument apart in his Economic Natural History of Germany’s Fish.

Bloch wanted to know why the herring was found in many places throughout the year. He wanted to know why it was that the smaller herring chose the Baltic, while the larger ones stuck with the North Sea. He wanted to know why, if it was on their route anyway, the shoals visited the coast of Iceland some years and not others.

It would be impossible, he argued, for the herring to perform such an epic journey in so short a time. Taking up cudgels with his fellow German, Anderson, he wanted to know why, if their flight was an escape from whales, they felt the need to travel so many hundreds of miles further than necessary.

And if they originated in the Arctic and travelled South from the Spring onwards, why were there such large shoals throughout the Summer off the coast of Norway? Why had their return to the Arctic never been witnessed?

If it was lack of food driving them South (he was considering every option), why did these migrations always take place at the same time? And if whales were responsible for driving the herring shoals together into the bays, the estuaries and the fjords, how was it that such large shoals were found where whales were hardly ever seen?

These were fair questions. A judicious use of the Almighty can be made to explain most things, but Bloch knew he had the migrationists on the ropes and he went further. Such migrations as did exist, he suggested, came about from the herring’s desire to find suitable banks upon which to spawn.

The spawning season, he thought, was most likely to be dependent upon the weather and the temperature of the water.

Grand migration theory continued to enjoy popular currency long after Bloch had been forgotten. Occasionally people will still explain the fisheries to you in this way – particularly in relation to story of the Scottish women who once followed the seasons, gutting their way down to Yarmouth.

Good stories have a life of their own. Some people would still make a case for trickle-down economics. The herring’s migrations are not without interest, but it is an epic traveller no more.


The Herring and the Herring Fishery by JW de Caux, London, 1881

The History of the Dutch Sea Fisheries by A Beaujon, London, 1884

The Herring; its Effect on the History of Britain by Arthur Michael Samuel, London, 1918

The Herring and the Herring Fisheries by James Travis Jenkins, London, 1927