In the early 19th Century, the British Government gave a bounty of £3.00 per ton to owners of herring boats larger than 60 tons, plus a bounty on all herring sold abroad. This, coupled with the coming of the railways as a means of more rapid transport, gave an opportunity to fishermen and agents to deliver their catches to markets much more quickly than in the past.
Fraserburgh Harbour in the 1880s
Herring was a delicacy on the Continent and was caught relatively easily off the Coast of Scotland - off the East Coast during winter and spring, off the North Coast of Scotland and Shetland during the summer months and, in the autumn, off the Coast of East Anglia. At this time, there were as many as 30,000 vessels involved in herring fishing the East Coast, not to mention others in the Irish Sea. As the century progressed, the numbers continued to grow until the Scottish fishing industry became the largest in Europe.
Because herring was a fatty fish, it had to be cured as quickly as possible to prevent it rotting. At the peak of the Herring Boom in 1907, 2,500,000 barrels of fish (250,000 tons) were cured and exported, the main markets being Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia. In 1913 there were over 10,000 boats involved in the Scottish Herring Industry.
Herring gutters and packers
By this time the herring industry was no longer local or seasonal since the boats followed the shoals around the coast of Britain and, along with them there followed an army of curers, merchants, general hands - and the herring lasses. Throughout the boom, the Scots fisher lasses were an integral part of the fisheries landscape at any port where herring was landed. The girls came from fishing villages all around the Coast of Scotland. They began gutting and packing the silver darlings at the age of 15, and travelled throughout the season from Stornoway to Lerwick, to Peterhead, and as far south as Yarmouth.
The First World War interrupted the growth of the industry when fishermen, with their unique knowledge of the seas, became the backbone of the Royal Naval Reserve. They returned to a declining industry which was further interrupted by the Second World War in 1939. After 1945 much of the effort became concentrated on whitefish with an additional sector exploiting shellfish. Technical developments concentrated fishing in the hands of increasingly fewer fishermen operating ever more efficient vessels and, although the annual value of catches continued to rise, the number of people working in the industry fell.