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Highland Fisheries

Traditionally, in the eighteenth century and earlier, fishing by the coastal dwellers of the north-west Highlands and Islands was for subsistence, to eke out the food grown on the smallholdings which provided the basic occupation. Tiny boats, owned in shares by the mass of the population, were used to catch a variety of fish, such as cod, ling, skate and saithe, by hand line and herring by drift net. While the appearance of herring shoals within the narrow waters of the lochs (the main areas for fishing) was uncertain, most families had the security of a barrel of salt herring kept for consumption through the year.

Exceptionally, the great-line fishing for cod and ling, pursued offshore, also provided a saleable product and the assurance of a small income for a few communities from which there was access to the main cod banks. Herring, sometimes caught much in excess of local food needs, might on occasion be sold to curers arriving from the south with the needed stores or to the greater vessels which were fitted out in the Clyde region for long sojourns at sea and had facilities for curing on shipboard.

The nineteenth century saw the advance of commercial fishing and the involvement of the people of the north-west in the struggle to earn money by fishing, both because of increased need and because of widening opportunity. In Caithness profitable and fairly dependable herring fishing, of which the output was cured and largely exported, was growing decade by decade, and soon many of the east coast ports were turned over to this fishing in the summer. This essentially east coast fishing had great effects on the west. Hundreds, ultimately thousands, of men moved seasonally to the east coast ports to engage as hired hands, an important form of employment that was to last until 1914.

Further, a handful of crews round the north-west corner were able to acquire the larger boats that allowed them to participate directly in the east coast fishing and to bring home unprecedentedly high incomes.

The most influential development, however, was the establishment in the 1840s of a deep-water herring fishing in the Minch, starting annually in May. This fishing was based on the stations established by curers at several points along the east coast of Lewis and latterly in Barra. About a hundred herring boats of local origin found employment in this form of fishing. The home locations of these necessarily large boats and crews now shifted from the mainland coasts to Lewis and Barra, and there, by 1900, were to be found communities of farmer-fishermen able to make increasing incomes from a herring fishing that extended from May to September. Between 1900 and 1914 they reached the height of their prosperity, but the men never lost their hold on the land.

The higher incomes being earned along the eastern side of the Long Island were not matched in the widespread loch fishings of the mainland. Here the fishings continued to be utterly unreliable; while a few crews were able to improve their prospects after 1900 by fitting paraffin engines to their boats to give them greater mobility, and while marketing was made somewhat easier by the use of steam vessels for transport, fishing became increasingly an activity pursued by a minority clustered around the main marketing centres of Lochalsh and Mallaig. They made higher incomes than in the past, but there were many fewer of them. The inter-war years brought all-round decline. ( packing herring )

Herring fishing generally was perplexed by the loss of the main markets in the Baltic, and the Long Island fishermen, equipped mainly with sailing boats dating from before 1910, remained herring fishermen only because of the low running costs of such boats as compared with those of the more efficient steam drifters, of which very few were owned by west coast crews. Even this precarious activity ran down in the 1930s, when the boats reached the end of their useful lives; without funds for replacement, the fleet and the number of men with any true dependence on fishing shrank markedly. So it was, too, on the main­land, where the best yield of the sea was found to be lobsters, caught with tiny boats and on a part-time basis.

In recent times, fishing, which was once the almost universal mainstay of the coastal communities of the west coast, has become restricted to the few communities which have been able to equip themselves with the boats and gear needed fully to exploit the fewer and fewer resources of the Minch.

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