about writing and life and God

Surprising heroines? The fisher lassies of Scotland

on September 3, 2012

As planned and promised, I’ll focus on the background to my novel-in-progress Monday through Thursday. It’s a Christian historical: a tale of a family, torn apart by the aftermath of the First World War. It is set amongst the herring fishing communities of Britain’s East Coast, mainly my home town of Wick (far north-east of Scotland) and Great Yarmouth in East Anglia (I live now about an hour away from Yarmouth).

I’ve always loved historical novels. I find the history and the background gripping. I love Regency novels and am a great fan of Georgette Heyer. I’ve even got books about the detailed background research she did. Currently in the UK, we’ve got a trend for First World War stories – most well-known is probably the very popular Downton Abbey. The first series is currently being re-run, and there’s a new series promised.

What I’ve noticed is that such popular books and series seem to focus on the well-to-do in society. Heyer’s novels present the aristocracy, and entry to the aristocracy through marriage, as the ideal. Downton Abbey did include storylines about the staff but the focus is on the titled folk.

The heroines in my story are not aristocrats. (Scotland is a radically egalitarian society, thanks to the Reformation.) My heroines come from that band of hard-working women and girls who kept the herring industry thriving right up to the 1950s.

Herring can be packed in ice and then sold and shipped on but in the period of my book – the 1920s – the most popular type of herring had been gutted and packed in brine in barrels: the Scotch cure. This only works if the herring are really, really fresh – so they had to be gutted and packed the day the fish were landed.

It was  a slick operation:  the boats (steam drifters) went out late afternoon, fished at night and then raced for the harbour to get the best prices on their catch. Lorries loaded with ‘the silver darlings’ as they were called then headed for the nearby curing yards where the fisher lassies waited by the farlins (big table-top troughs) for the herring to to be tipped in – and then it was back-breaking work till all the herring had been processed.

The women worked in crews of three: two gutting, one packing. It was highly skilled work. Gutters could process up to 30 fish a minute! A good crew could produce 30 barrels in a day of ten hours’ work.

They came from the fishing towns all around the coast, following their menfolk’s boats which were following the migration of the herring – from the Western Isles, up to Orkney, down to Wick, and finally for the autumn fishing in Yarmouth and Lowestoft.

I love these lassies – aged from 15 to well into their seventies! They’re lively, adventurous, hard-working, many of them women of strong faith who sang hymns while they worked. More about them tomorrow!


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