The story of a herring port, built with what seemed the best of intentions, but without consideration for the fish’s noted unreliability
On the north shore of Loch Broom in North West Scotland, the town of Ullapool was founded in 1788, the creation of the British Fisheries Society. Intended as a herring port, it was part of a plan for the development of The Highlands.
The herrings were not consulted about their intentions.
The British Fisheries Society
The British Fisheries Society grew out of the work of a House of Commons committee. Whilst making recommendations across the whole of the industry, its overwhelming concern was with Scotland and the lack of an infrastructure to support the growth of a new economic model for the Highlands.
Coigach, where Ullapool was to be built, was one of the estates forfeited after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. There had already been attempts by the Commissioners for the Annexed Estates at encouraging settlement and industry, but they’d come to nothing.
In the 1780s the exiles were returning, but repaying the British government for having taken on their debts didn’t leave them with much to invest. The Society did not have much trouble buying the land from Lord Mcleod.
Population, then as now, was understood as the key to development, but poverty and the Highland Clearances were encouraging emigration. It’s not difficult to see the attractions a diversified economy might have offered to those wishing both to counter emigration and reduce the power of clan chiefs.
Many landowners couldn’t afford the traditional responsibilities that came with their former power anyway – if they hadn’t yet begun their own clearances, modernisation was in the air. The development of herring fishing in the Highlands would also help ease the consciences of the Scottish aristocracy.
Conscience is, of course, a funny thing. Despite William Wilberforce
being a founding director of the Society, the economic case for investment in west coast herring fisheries was underpinned its easier access to the ready market of the Caribbean slave plantations, where concern for quality control, which bedevilled the market for British herring in Europe, presented fewer problems.
The Society was a joint stock company, shareholders in which were probably more driven by charitable concern than any hope of riches. As things turned out this was just as well. It was overwhelmingly Scottish in its make-up, but London-based, which introduced practical difficulties from the start.
Sustainability demanded land for the settlers as well as a harbour and curing stations – the herring are notoriously unreliable. Allocated plots needed to be of a size and quality to supplement the fishing, but only just: too small and/or the soil too poor, the settler starved; too large, too fertile and he might not be bothered to go fishing at all.
Society board member the Duke of Argyll was an enthusiastic advocate of a fishing settlement on his land at a Tobermory in Mull, which was founded shortly after Ullapool. Not remotely interested in a fishery or the fate of the poor, however, he used the Society’s investment to attract a better class of settler, building a successful trading port.
Lochbay (now Stein) in Skye, which was founded in the mid-1790s, was judged to have been too generous with the plots – its settlers largely stuck to cultivation.
Ullapool was the first and, in the terms of the remit, the most successful of the Society’s western settlements. Loch Broom herring shoals had been pursued by the fishermen of the Clyde since the 1560s. Captain John Forbes’ report for the Commission for the Annexed Estates in 1755 had already recommended the building of a settlement – amongst its other virtues, as the herring fishing succeeds so well here, it is probable that numbers of sea-fairing people would resort to it.
The Building of Ullapool
Often described as having been designed by Thomas Telford, the original plan for Ullapool, locating buildings and gardens, was drawn up by David Aitken, the surveyor involved in selecting the site.
Initial building designs – a house for himself, curing and net mending sheds, a smoking house, tradesmen’s shops, a salt and cask store and ten houses for skilled settlers – were developed by Robert Melville, who had experience in the fishery trade and successfully proposed himself as the Society’s agent.
Roderick Morrison, a partner in a fishing station on Tanera, north west of Ullapool, proposed a pier, a warehouse and an inn.
The Society’s architect Robert Mylne amended the proposals and building work began. There were difficulties with Melville. Frustrated by cumbersome payment procedures, he was temperamental and his knowledge of fishing was not matched by engineering skills. The pier was built in the wrong place and ended up larger than planned and there were other problems.
Another survey was commissioned from the young Scottish engineer Thomas Telford, then working in Shrewsbury for Sir William Pulteney, who had recently become a director of the Society. Telford became the Surveyor of Buildings at Ullapool and among other things designed the church, but essentially he improved, rather than effecting any major changes to, the Aitken plan. He developed the plans for Lochbay, as well as for Pulteneytown in the East, by far the most successful of the Society’s settlements.
Those intent on the modernisation of the Scottish Highlands often complained about the Highlander’s character. Crofting mentalities were shaped around sustainable self-reliance with the bad harvest backstop of landowner charity.
The Duke of Argyll had deliberately targeted tradesmen in populating Tobermory. In Ullapool the Society tried to keep true to its intentions, but had difficulties attracting settlers. Quite reasonably suspicious as to what its true intentions were, many crofters still preferred the wild risks and uncertainties of emigration.
In 1788 the Society was told, ‘a colony of experienced Fishers are collected to commence operations.’ Melville had decked boats, but the settler fishermen only had small, openboats. Virtually the whole of Ullapool would turn out when the herring came into the loch, but no one followed the fishing beyond its shores.
They made no use of the curing station further west on Ristol, built by the Society to support more adventurous voyages. Melville seems to have used his larger vessels just for storing and packing the catch, while the smaller boats did the fishing.
Farewell to the Herring
From 1798 the large shoals stopped coming. It was constantly expected that the herring would return in its former numbers, but it didn’t. Fleets from further afield were catching the fish before they entered Loch Broom, but clearly there were changes affecting the supply of plankton on which the herring fed.
A modest revival from 1812 to 1819 was countered by the closure of Ullapool’s customs house in 1813. The tax on salt brought regulations that were difficult to negotiate without one. The Ullapool fishers could catch the herring, but were barely able to do more with it than supply their own needs.
When the herring returned to the West of Scotland in numbers after 1832, the boats and nets of the Ullapool men were too small to benefit much.
Farewell to the Society
The herring’s withdrawal of goodwill was problem enough, but a series of crop failures from 1817 onwards saw Ullapool starving. The settlers petitioned the Society for help and it sent supplies of oatmeal, seed oats and potatoes, but the success of Pulteneytown in the East was drawing attention away from the western settlements.
Having already sold Tobermory and the uncompleted Lochbay, it finally sold Ullapool in 1849.
Ullapool survived. If it never really developed its own fishing industry, it played host to the fishing fleets of others in the C19th and C20th, most recently welcoming the Klondyking factory ships of Eastern Europe between the 1970s and 1990s.
The herring may not always have appreciated it, but it is in a beautiful – and quite useful – location. Telford’s church is now the excellent Ullapool Museum and the town has reinvented itself as a cultural centre.
Most of the above information and much more can be found in Jean Dunlop’s The British Fisheries Society 1786 – 1893, the latter date referring to its final demise.