Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

A work in progress with no end in sight

MUIR, JIM (HERRING INTERVIEW, ACHILTIBUIE)

An interview from 2005 with Jim Muir, who lived on the Coigach Penisula, near Achilitbuie and had been a herring fisherman

MUIR, JIM (HERRING INTERVIEW, ACHILTIBUIE)

I interviewed Jim Muir of Polbain, near Achiltibuie on the Coigach Peninsula, in 2005. Ullapool Museum had put me in contact with him as someone who could talk about the herring fishing. He told a good story: beautiful and humorous; a long view founded in a rich sense of human folly. He talked of drift and ring netting, the coming of trawling, purse seining and the echo sounder; the signs of the herring and superstitions; catch efficiency and overfishing. He died a few years after the interview.

Jim Muir
Jim Muir, a photograph sent by his family

It wasn’t until 2018 that I found the recording again. All it said, scrawled on the tiny label, was Herring Interview, Achiltibuie


The Tale of a Recording

Back in the early days of this herring encyclopaedia, I’d joined Amber Film & Photography Collective in Newcastle upon Tyne and a gallery in Skye wanted to take an exhibition of the American photographer Weegee from the AmberSide Collection. I offered to deliver it, thinking I’d take the opportunity to pop up and see the museum at Ullapool. The drive from Skye took most of the next day, in part because I opted for the prettier of the available pretty routes via lunch at Applecross.

I’d been in touch with the museum, to see if they knew of anybody who could talk about the herring fishing up there. They set up an interview with Jim Muir.

I’d stayed the night in Achiltibuie and was already beginning to think about the drive back to Tyneside and the time it might actually take, but driving on to Polbain was beautiful and Jim Muir was very welcoming. He was also patient as I fiddled on with the tiny controls of the Sony MiniDisc recorder I’d recently bought and which I didn’t really know how to use. Maybe it was all of a piece with his vision of the world.

MiniDiscs had been around since the early 90s, but I thought of them as new technology at the time. Sony killed off the format in 2011.

The trip to Achiltibuie was a beautiful break from the intensities of work at Amber, which kept on increasing from that to when I retired in 2018. Something had to give and the encyclopaedia was put on hold. I kept on with my researches, but I didn’t write much.

The interview went untranscribed. The MiniDisc joined the list of redundant technologies.

In 2021, a friend, John Alder, kindly transferred the audio to an MP3 file. Along with any memories of exactly where the interview had taken place and who I’d interviewed, all the emails from back in 2005 had long since disappeared. I contacted Ullapool Museum, who put me in touch with oral historians who’d worked on the Coigach, who thought it was maybe Ali ‘Beag’ Macleod of Achnahaird, who’d only recently died.

Ali’s widow was very generous. Although she didn’t think he’d been a herring fisherman, the more I have found out about him, the more I wish I had interviewed him, but when she when she managed to listen to the recording, she identified the voice as that of Jim Muir: Ali was very fond of Jim… he loved nothing better than to be listening to Jim’s stories.

JIM MUIR: A Long View from Achiltibuie or Herring Logic from the Coigach

Fishing Methods

Well, the main method was the drift net herring fishing in the olden days… Well, the Fifties, right up until the Sixties, Seventies even, the drift net was the main method of catching the fish.

There used to be steam drifters, sort of hundred foot long boats and then, gradually, there were motor vessels, seventy foot fishing drifters with diesel engines. That was the latest ones and they had about seventy herring nets, which were drift nets. They set this curtain of netting and just drifted with it. That’s why they’re called drift nets and they drifted in the waters: a very static sort of fishing; the herring just swarmed into it.

You got a very, very good quality of fish by drift netting, by catching them like that. When they began trawling, they sort of dragged them through the water and the herring got scaled and soft. The old herring, drift net-caught herring, was very, very superior. It would last longer.

Then, of course there was the ring net herring, which originally was from the Clyde: that was circling the herring. You had two boats and one boat would set his net in a circle and then they would both haul it in. And that was the ring net herring. Again, the quality was not as good as the drift net herring, but they could catch bigger quantities: it was a more active form of fishing.

And then, gradually, they began trawling for herring: mid-water trawls. They’d go with the very sophisticated equipment they’ve got now. You know, they could find the depth the herring were swimming at and they would drop their trawl down to that depth and then just drag through the shoal: again, a very active form of fishing, but poorer quality herring.

And the purse netting was the latest and the most effective method, where they set up big nets. The word purse net came from a purse string, with which you could close the bottom of the net: this circle with big rings and ropes through them and you just heaved it in on the winches and closed the bottom, so you had this whole area of herring trapped. Then they just threw big suction hoses in and sucked them into their holds.

They had refrigerated salt water in the holds and the herring were kept in that refrigerated salt water and could be landed in Norway or Denmark or wherever the price was best. Again: a poorer quality herring, softer and scaled and not as good.

They never did improve on drift netting.

In the sea lochs, they anchored the nets instead of drifting them, because of the confined waters. You couldn’t drift on it, because you’d end up on the beach. The winter herring fishing in the lochs of the West of Scotland was all done by anchor nets. In The Minches, between the Outer Hebrides and the mainland, that was all drift netting.

Finding the Herring

A Gannet or Solan Goose
The herring fishing Solan Goose or Northern Gannet (image: Needpix)

Echo sounders were the biggest thing that came, regarding catching herring, because you could actually see the shoals. But before that, when I was doing it myself, you’d just see birds, solan geese diving, birds sitting in the water and a certain oiliness in the water: signs of herring as they called them.

And then you’d set this long curtain of netting – say sixty nets. And then you’d just lay there in the hours of darkness, because the herring rose in the dark.

After maybe a couple of hours, you’d haul and see if there was anything doing. Sometimes you could haul seventy nets and there was nothing in them, because it was dependent on your skill at finding the fish.

With the advent of the echo sounder, it was just that you would find the fish. People got used to it. They’d get a mark of herring and they would set only a quarter of their drift and drift through that and haul it and then set it again with another squad of herring, but it was still good quality herring that you got.

Herrings and Markets

The herring fishery was not a terribly reliable fishery. Whether it went in cycles or whether it was tide movements or whatever, nobody seems to know.

Loch Broom, for instance, was a very, very important herring fishery. You had a herring curing station at Isle Martin, there was another herring curing station at the Isle of Tanera. I think it was people from Manchester set up the Tanera one. It was a big business. And then, after maybe, I don’t know exactly what timespan, but a hundred years or something, the herring didn’t come into Loch Broom anymore. They would come into some other loch. And they’d set up a fishery and would go there.

It was like that all over. I mean Wick and all these places – all the Orkneys and that – herring fishery was going there for a long time… Then, suddenly, it would move on somewhere else. It might have been tidal movements or some sort of thing that people didn’t realise or they weren’t aware of.

There was a big boom in Ullapool with the Second World War. The boats were being attacked by aircraft on the East Coast, so all the drifters came to the West Coast, here, because they weren’t being harrassed by the enemy. The herring fishing was safer here. There were plenty of herring in the North Sea, but they came across to the West Coast. Normally they would have stayed at their own home ports.

A lot of money had been made, herring fishing, prior to the First World War. I used to hear the old fishermen talking about the money they would get. Klondykers would come in from Russia and that and the fishermen would get big money for their herring.

But they lost the Russian market after the First World War with the takeover of Communism. The Russian market, which was one of our biggest markets for herring, the cured herring, the salted herring: that market was lost. That was why there was such a decline in the herring fishing. There was plenty of herring, but there was no market for them.

You got areas of the West Coast where it had been a very profitable thing prior to the First World War. People could make a good living fishing herring then. When the market went, it just wasn’t profitable and people went off doing other things; moved off south. That’s what happened on the West Coast.

The East Coast fisheries stuck to it, although they weren’t making so much money, they still stuck to it and were herring fishing all the time. In the twenties and the thirties it was a very, very dead time.

It was the Russian Market: the loss of it was the biggest thing. They never got it back again.

Harassing the Herring

The 70s was the advent of the purse netter.

Now, I myself have seen this. I keep telling people this, the Yanks and that: I’ve seen the Scottish herring fleet here during the war: 70 drifters, 10 men on every boat, that’s 700 men and a big fishing would be 4,000 crans of herring. I’ve seen two purse net boats with 20 men landing that same quantity. 20 men as opposed to 700 men.

The efficiency of the catching was phenomenal with the advent of the echo sounder and all these various things, you know, sensors and things they have. It’s just an efficient method, which is to the detriment of the herring, obviously.

You got this terrific boom. Some of these chaps, who were drift net herring fishermen before the days of echo sounders, they moved. I mean, all credit to them, they moved and got their new equipment and got a new boat and made fortunes, you know, made millions. There was a boom and then… I think, the herring, they’d probably caught most of them…

The klondykers, who came then, were mainly on the mackerel. I mean mackerel was a thing people didn’t eat here. They wouldn’t even take them in. You didn’t want mackerel. You wanted the herring. But then, with the decline of the herring, the mackerel took over. And the Russians would mostly buy mackerel.

You’d need to see a marine scientist to get the proper figures of it regarding the quantity, but we always got herring, we always used to set nets for herring, here, for the household. You won’t get herring now. They’re not around.

I think they caught such a lot, they broke up the shoals.

This is all what the old drift net herring men said: they didn’t like the ring net boats, because they reckoned they broke the shoals up. Whether that’s right or not, I don’t know. And then the shoals scattered and didn’t reform, sort of got harassed. Well, if that was so, they were even more harassed by the purse nets.

Governments and Herring

Mind you, I do know the Icelandic government restricted their purse netters in the 70s. And our government… There was a thing called the Herring Industry Board set up and, in its wisdom, it gave grants to the fishermen to go and buy these boats that the Icelandic government had restricted. And this caused a boom in the purse net fishing.

The Icelandics have a good herring fishery yet. We don’t.

It was one of their main industries in Iceland. Fishing was always very much a Cinderella industry, the way it was regarded in Britain. It was a long way from Whitehall and they didn’t know much about it. You never saw a fisherman MP – plenty of farmer MPs, no fishermen MPs.

The government didn’t know anything about it. They didn’t want to know anything about it. It was very much a forgotten industry. We had our heavy industries, engineering, all that sort of thing. Herring fishing was a very small part of it, a very rural kind of thing up to the North of Scotland.

And herring was a cheap food in Britain. It’s only recently it’s become one of the better foods. It was never considered so. Herring is very, very cheap. It was never a very highly thought of food. You fed prisoners on herring. And the slaves… That was one of the biggest markets we had. As well as the Russian market, there was the slave plantation market in the West Indies.

Overfishing in the Minches

I do know, in the olden days, when you were fishing with a static drift net, you tended to get regular sized herring, all of them practically the same size – same length, same weight and whatnot. Now, if you see these purse net herring or the trawled herring, they’re all kinds of sizes – big and small, mixed up – which would suggest the shoals do get broken up.

They’ve certainly overfished everything.

When the purse netters were fishing the Minches – which is now pretty empty of herring now… This is only two boats: they would go along about half a mile apart with the sonar going between them. So they would go down that lane and if they saw a shoal of fish and that, if it was big enough for them to do, they would just ring it, take it aboard and carry on down the Minch with their sonars. And then, when they reached the other end, they would come back.

And that was only two boats. There’d be maybe twenty, thirty maybe doing the same thing. It was a very, very efficient catching system. I think the herring they do get now are way up off the Shetlands and that. And they can land them anywhere they like. But, as far as I know, there’s no herring fishing In the Minch.

The purse net boats were mostly all from the East Coast.

The Ring Netters

The Mallaig boats, the ring net boats there, they were quite active.

Ring netting was a West Coast method of fishing: it was for fishing the sea lochs. Most of the herring that were caught on the West Coast lochs were ring net caught, you know, with two boats. They got very good at it. And when they got their echo sounders it was even better.

Prior to having echo sounders, the ring net boats used to have a piano wire. They would drop the piano wire with a lead weight at the bottom and there would be a chap sitting in the stern of the boat. The boat’d go ahead, slow ahead, and you’d be sitting there holding this wire and they would feel the herring hitting the wire. And they got very good at it.

There were some people had a gift for it and they could actually tell how thick the shoal was. Some fellas could actually give a fairly good guess at the depth they’d be at and then they would go through this shoal, the chap using the herring hitting the wire. And then they would put the ring net round it.

That’s what they did before they got the echo sounders. They were very skillful at it. Some were better than others. You’d see these boats kind of creeping along with this chap sitting in the stern, holding the piano wire.

The Signs of Herring

In the September, the back end of the summer, in the sea lochs, you’d go along with your chap up for’ard with a chain. He’d give the chain a rattle and you’d see the shoal would move. They’d rattle the chain to make a noise: it has to make a noise.  And you’d see this, what they called, fire in the water. It was phosphorous, as the herring darted about or rose. It depended on the movement in the water for the phosphorous breaking. You could actually see a glow in the water with a big shoal of herring.

It was quite effective and quite spectacular. You could tell the mackerel: they would shoot off very fast. The herring, they were slower. The whole shoal would move, not individual fish. You could see the sort of glow coming and the big batch of herring. You don’t see that at all now. You don’t have the shoals.

Fire in the water… Fishing with fire in the water, that’s what they called it.

In the summer fishing, the solan gooses diving, that was a sure sign: solan geese diving.

When the solan goose dived at a 45° angle into the water, they reckoned that was mackerel it was diving on. And when the solan goose went straight down, they reckoned that was herring. Now, I’m not very sure exactly how accurate that was, but that was always the accepted theory. And they didn’t want mackerel, they only wanted the herring. So you’d see the solan goose going straight down and it was a sign of herring.

Then you would come up here in the evening, before you set your herring nets, you’d come to an area where you’d see birds around, all kinds of seagulls.

With the boat, you’d see a gannet sitting in the water, or maybe one or two gannets sitting and you would chase one. Of course the gannets, they would vomit prior to taking off, because they couldn’t take off, because they were so heavy, so full. So you’d got him. You chased him with the boat and the gannet would vomit and then you’d see whether it was herring or mackerel he vomited. That was another method.

These were the older methods.

The Echo Sounder

Echo sounder advert
During WWII many fishermen actually became familiar with echo sounders and their shoal detection capacities on the drifters commandeered by the Royal Navy for mine detection

Latterly it was the echo sounder, which could tell the difference between the herring shoals and the mackerel shoals.

The echo sounder came in after the second world war. In the fifties they started coming out. They were very, very expensive, you know, horrendously expensive. You could buy a fifty foot boat for, say, two thousand pounds in those days. An echo sounder would cost you about a thousand pounds. So if you compare that to today’s prices, it was pretty pricey, but then electronics were. They had valves and things in them. Of course they got cheaper and cheaper as time went on.

It came out of the ASDIC and that kind of thing, the echo meter.

Of course, if one bought the echo sounder, you had a tail of another half the fleet following it. This chap would have invested heavily in the echo sounder and everybody else would be following him. If he set his herring nets, there’d be a hundred others setting their nets as well.

Superstition

Another really important thing as regards the West Coast was the superstition.

If somebody committed suicide, there were places in the mountains that they had specifically earmarked, so that the suicide would be buried out of sight of the sun: where the sun never shone.

And if this suicide was buried in sight of the sea, the herring would not come back anymore.

Now there have been cases… not in this actual part, but in the West here… probably the last time, it would have been after the First World War, in the 20s, that it happened… but I think I know some of the relatives of those people… A man committing suicide and buried in a normal cemetery was dug up that night and taken to that place and buried out of sight of the sea.

It was very important to the people, of course, that the herring fishing wouldn’t disappear. That was just a superstition they had, which they took literally, to the extent that they would dig somebody up. The relatives wouldn’t be aware of it. The fishermen would do it at night and he’d be buried up there. Headstones would be put in the cemetery, but the body wasn’t there.

The superstitions of the herring fishermen were legion. You had many. There were taboo words: minister was one, salmon was another. What else? Rabbit, oh you didn’t mention rabbit. They called a rabbit a furry codling. What else? What were the other words? Nobody cares about these things now, but some of the fishermen were very, very superstitious. Pig was another you didn’t dare mention.

There were men from the East Coast of Scotland and you daren’t ask – on a Monday morning you wouldn’t dare ask a man for a light or a match or anything like that, because if he’d give you a match or give you a light for a fag, you had his luck then for that week. You would steal their luck. They were very superstitious, much more in the olden days than latterly, because once it became electronic, they depended more on that.

Minister, salmon, pig, rabbit. Women were a bit chancy. If you met certain women on a Monday morning, it wasn’t very good. Certain ones, by habit and repute they became unlucky. Not for any particular reason, but somebody met them once and something happened and they’d keep away from them. I think the herring fishery was more prone to superstition than the other fisheries…

You’d set your nets and hope for the best.