"The North Herring Fishing" Ring-net Fishermen in the Minches

AUTHOR: Angus Martin
ISBN: 1 896219 80 X
PRICE: £n/a
PAGES: 192; 8pp maps & photographs


The oral history of forays to the Minches by fishermen of Ayrshire and Kintyre - to what they called "the north". It is presented through the men's memories and traditions as recorded and edited by their friend and historian, Angus Martin. As such it contains intimate details of the skills, courage and humour of these sea-going hunters, rather than detailed descriptions of the techniques involved. However, the book does explore "appearances" or the fishermen's uncanny ability to interpret natural phenomena and to see, smell, hear and feel the very presence of the herring beneath the surface.


"The North, for the purposes of this work, may be defined broadly as two fishing areas. There was the "West Side", which extended from Barra Head - the southernmost tip of the Outer Hebrides - to the Butt of Lewis in the north. But that long, indented coastline can itself be divided into two parts at the Sound of Harris, south of which most of the fishing effort was concentrated.

The "West Side" was the west side of the Minch, but the east side of the Outer Hebrides. The ring-net fishermen very seldom ventured out into the Atlantic to west or south. The waters north of the Sound of Harris were considered a rather hostile area until after the Second World War, because the native and East-Coast drift-net fishermen encountered there had no liking for ring-netting and were known to vent their opposition in threats and acts of violence.

On the east side of the Minch, the main fishing grounds - chiefly in summer - were around Canna, the Heisgeir and in the Skye lochs, with later forays into the Mull lochs. The main markets overall were at Mallaig, Oban and Gairloch.

Clyde herring-fishermen have gone to the Minches since the 18th century, and perhaps earlier. They went before the buss experiment in Government subsidisation of the catching and curing industry began in 1750. After the end of the buss fishery, Clyde fishermen worked the Minches in smacks. As with the buss fishery, the actual fishing was done from open boats, with the crews living in the larger boat. When the smacks were discarded in the late 19th century, and the Loch Fyne Skiff, on the Argyll side of the Firth, and the Nabby, on the Ayrshire side, became virtually the universal style of fishing craft on the Clyde, the fishermen went to the Minches in these. Some were little more than 30 feet long, but were sailed north to the winter drift-net fisheries in Loch Broom, Loch Hourn, Loch Seaforth and elsewhere.

It is arguable whether the seamanship of these skiff fishermen exceeded that of the later ring-net fishermen who ploughed the winter waters of the Minches in 50- and 60-foot motor boats, regularly crossing loaded to the mainland markets from the Outer Isles in gales of wind.

Certainly, the winter herring-fishery in the North challenged all who participated in it. Not only was weather a big factor, but also the fishing operation itself, which was often conducted in darkness along shores perilous with rocks and tide. It is remarkable - and a tribute to both boats and men - that nobody was killed and only one boat was lost - Willie McCaffer's Golden Gleam of Tarbert, at the Cailleach, Mull, on 26 October 1954 - in all the years the Clyde men worked ring-nets in the North...."

APPENDIX I Biographical Notes on Contributors

APPENDIX II The Little Places

Notes, Bibliography, Glossary, Index etc.

Maps and Illustrations

SORRY - currently out-of-print

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