Sunday, July 26, 2015

In A World A Wir Ane - Susan Telford

 Still on a Shetland theme, this is a herring girl's story. Shetland has an excellent main museum and some very good heritage centres, and archeological sites dotted around the islands. (Unst is particularly good with the boat haven - where retired boats live - and a heritage centre that has some very fine knitwear along with other treasures) but there are some stories that could be better told. 

One of these is the story of the herring gutters who followed the fish from Shetland in the spring down to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft towards the end of the year. The girls came from all around the Scottish coast, worked in crews of 3, 2 gutters and a packer, and worked extraordinarily hard. There is just enough information about them to be found in various displays, archive photos, and fishing station remains to be intriguing but not quite enough to really satisfy curiosity. Maybe it's because this was a way of life that's still just about within living memory, as well as not being a terribly glamorous occupation, that it's not as celebrated (though that's not quite the word I want) as it could be. 

Girls would start to follow the fleet from as young as 15, they could gut up to 60 herring a minute - that's upwards of 3000 an hour if they could maintain that rate - and they had to be that fast because it was essentially piece work. They were paid a basic wage which just covered accommodation and food, a wage so basic that it not only failed to keep pace with inflation but actually went down to the point that in the 1930's they had to strike for more. At the end of the season they were then paid 1 shilling a crew for every barrel filled, that covered any outstanding bills and had to cover them for the rest of the winter. A barrel contained between 700-1000 fish. The barrels would be randomly checked by prospective purchasers, if any fish gut remained the barrel was rejected and no money paid for it. The girls were also grading fish according to size as they went (there were 5 different barrels to separate them into) which quickly became a matter of instinct - they didn't have time to look. 

All of this was done out in the open, fingers bound in linen to try and avoid salt sores and protect against cuts, and working for up to 14 hours a day depending on how many fish were coming in. Time off was spent knitting.

'In A World A Wir Ane' Susan Telford gives her grandmothers account of her early life in Lerwick, and then her years following the herring fleet before the war. It's a short book - only about 30 pages, but it gives a vivid picture both of life for a poor family in Lerwick from around the time of First World War, and what it was like following the fleet. It sounds like back breaking hard work, but with an element of fun in it too. The women - and some did this work into their 70's - were obviously a close knit community. Christina seems to have enjoyed the life, memories of hanging out in pubs persuading men to buy them the odd port and lemon, or finding someone to pay them into dances on a Friday night (sixpence, which the girls didn't have spare) show that there was time for fun, even if they were still picking the herring scales off their arms on the way out. 

I keep wondering about what sort of women not only survived this work (think about how many fish they would each have processed in a day - it runs to tens of thousands) but thrived in it, and what the relative independence not only of an income but also being away from home meant to them. 

There are some great pictures in this book which really help bring it to life - all that's (thankfully) missing is the smell, and maybe the noise. It's also worth noting that it's written in Shetland dialect, not impossible to follow if you're unfamiliar with it but not necessarily easy either. I found it through a post on Ella Gordon's blog Here, the Shetland museums picture archive is available online Here and is an excellent resource. 


  1. 60 herrings a minute - astonishing. A remarkable story (I don't think I'm up to dialect though).

    1. It is an astonishing statistic. They must have been formidable women.