Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

A work in progress with no end in sight

SHOALS OF HERRING, THE

Written for the BBC’s Radio Ballads, a song by Ewan McColl which has entered the traditional music repertoire and is sung by many

SHOALS OF HERRING, THE

The Shoals of Herring is song written by Ewan McColl in the voice of fisherman remembering his youth and his becoming a man on the Scottish sailing luggers that followed the herring in the heydays before the First World War.

He wrote it for Singing the Fishing (1960), the third of the pioneering musical documentaries, The Radio Ballads (1958 – 64), which he developed for the BBC with Charles Parker and Peggy Seeger.

Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger

Singing the Fishing is shaped around the Norfolk voices of Sam Larner and Ronnie Balls. McColl, born James Miller in Salford and working mostly in London and the North of England, identified strongly with his parents’ Scottishness and changed his name in the 1940s to assert this.

A believer in authenticity for the singing voice, the choice of a Scottish narrator gave him a way into this song and others in the programme, whilst celebrating the massive presence of the Scottish fleet in the Yarmouth fishery and the onshore curing works.

Quite apart from the fishermen, the singing of the Scottish herring girls was a familiar texture on the streets and quays of Yarmouth – there would have been no jarring for Larner, Balls or any of the people whose lives were being documented.

The Shoals of Herring

With our nets and gear we’re faring
On the wild and wasteful ocean.
It’s there that we hunt and we earn our bread
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.

O the work was hard and the hours long
And the treatment, sure it took some bearing.
There was little kindness and the kicks were many
As we hunted for the shoals of herring.

O we fished the Swarth and the Broken Bank
I was cook and I’d a quarter sharing
And I used to sleep standing on my feet
And I’d dream about the shoals of herring.

O we left the homegrounds in the month of June
And to Canny Shiels we soon were bearing
With a hundred cran of silver darlings
That we’d taken from the shoals of herring.

Now you’re up on deck, you’re a fisherman
You can swear and show a manly bearing
Take your turn on watch with the other fellows
While you’re searching for the shoals of herring.

In the stormy seas and the living gales
Just to earn your daily bread you’re daring
From the Dover Straits to the Faroe Islands
As you’re following the shoals of herring.

O I earned my keep and I paid my way
And I earned the gear that I was wearing
Sailed a million miles, caught ten million fishes
We were sailing after shoals of herring.