The idea of the women of the Hebrides forming the backbone of the fishing industry may seem strange, the way the industry works today.  But for almost 100 years, from 1850 up to the Second World War up to 3,000 of the islands women employed in the industry as “Herring Girls”. The women, commemorated by two statues on the harbourside in Stornoway, worked locally but also followed the fish through the summer season and travelling from Hull to Lerwick for work.

The work was relatively lucrative, although the women worked left them exposed to the worst of the weather and conditions were harsh. The women crafted home-made bandages from cotton and packaging to offer some protection for their hands from the brine – but cuts and blisters were inevitable. The women were employed in teams of three, with two girls processing the fish and the third (the tallest of the three) packing them into barrels. The girls were paid by piece-work, and could spend the day on the docks waiting for fish which didn’t arrive.  They also had to fund their own apprenticeships on reduced pay as cùibhlearan or coilers

The social nature of the work made the conditions easier to cope with. Waiting for the fish to arrive provided an opportunity for a song, a stroll or some knitting.  Ceilidhs would often be arranged each Saturday, even if they were away from home in an English port.  

The Stornoway women developed a strong reputation for their workmanship in ports across the country. They had to arrange their own transport and accommodation, but that didn’t act as a deterrant.  

The wealth from the herring industry shaped the modern-day town of Stornoway, which was recognised as the principal herring port in Britain, if not Europe.  The harbour would be full with up to 1000 fishing boats the summer season, leading to a trebling of the population.  The peak years for the industry were in the run up to the First World War, which cut off the main markets for the fish in Germany, Russia and The Baltics.  The industry recovered to some degree with the return to peace, but countries started to develop their own fishing industries and mechanisation also played a role. The Second World War finally brought the Stornoway herring industry to an end.

Related

Lews Castle Museum and Archive for the Outer Hebrides
Museums
Lews Castle Museum and Archive for the Outer Hebrides

The Museum and Archive has recently opened at Lews Castle, Stornoway. Exhibitions will give an overview of the islands’ heritage and the Lewis Chessmen are back to delight.