There is no disputing the important role of fishermen in the history of The Banffshire Coast, but it should not be forgotten that women were pillars of fishing communities too. They were a hardy breed of folk with a steely determination to support their men and make the best possible life for their families, and their story is as fascinating as it is inspiring.
While the men were at sea, their wives, mothers and daughters were on land gutting and selling the fish and running the business as well as the home. Women would walk miles every day into the rural hinterland, carrying heavy creels on their back, to visit farms and barter fish for agricultural produce. Even with the advent of motorised transport, women all over the North-east were still doing this in the 1950s.
At the peak of the herring boom in the late 19th century, 10,000 boats from Scotland were sailing around the coast of the UK to fulfil the demand for the fish in foreign markets. Women, some of them as young as 15, would follow the fleet from port to port. Working in crews of three, two would gut and one would pack the fish with salt into wooden barrels. Known as the herring quines – or gutting quines - these young women would endure long hours on their feet and return to their lodgings at the end of the day, cold, wet and covered in fish guts. It is said that some herring quines could gut one fish every second – 60 in a minute.
Some of Portsoy’s last remaining herring quines – Nessie, Mary and Jessie - have shared their memories about travelling the herring fleet in the late 1940s, and fondly recall their time chasing the Silver Darlings.
Jessie says, “We started work at 6am and kept working until we were finished, even if it was midnight. It was hard work and the days were long, but we were young at the time and we didn’t know what tired was. I doubt the young girls today would want to do it – it was too hard and too dirty – but to us it wasn’t just a job, it was a way of life.
“I was a gutter and I remember getting some terrible cuts. We used a small knife about the size of a tattie knife, but much sharper. Every morning we tied our fingers with strips of cotton and wool – they were called clooties – to try and protect our fingers, but we would still get cut. The worst thing was when the salt got into the cuts – the pain was just terrible. We used to chew up a bit of loaf and stuff it into the holes in the clooties so that it would absorb the salt. That helped, but it still nipped.”
The herring quines received a one-off ‘signing on’ fee with fish merchants when they joined, but were paid according to how many barrels they filled. Jessie adds, “I can’t remember how much we were paid, but I remember it wasn’t muckle. The herring was coming to an end just as we started, so the amount of boats became less and less.”
Home was either a wooden hut with three bunk beds as was common in Lerwick, or in Yarmouth the quines had the luxury of digs – often with carpets taken up as the landlady would not want the smell of fish to linger after the season had finished and the influx of gutters had left. Mary recalls, “Once we were finished we would all run home – nobody wanted to be the last to get washed because by that time the water was cold. You would just have to get on with it because the gutting skites would be all over your face and your hair.
“Every night there would be dances up at the rest, so we would all get changed to go out. We had a great social life and even though the work was really hard, we were all very happy and nobody complained. I remember everyone was always singing when they were at work, usually Sankey hymns. It would help the day go quick.”
Nessie was just 16 years old when she entered the industry, travelling to Lerwick, the Isle of Man and Yarmouth throughout the year. She worked as a packer, but discovered it was back-breaking work because she was short and the barrels were high. “I tried the gutting, but just wasn’t any good at it,” she says. “I was young when I went away with my granny, and depending how long the season was, we could be away for months at a time. I missed my pals and I thought I was missing out by not getting to the dances at home on a Saturday night, but we had the best of times when we were away.
“When we went away, all that we had was a kist with all our belongings in it. If you were going to Lerwick and staying in one of the huts, you had to take your own bed too. Your mattress was a hessian bag filled with straw and that would be wrapped around the kist to save it getting knocked about on the boat. At the end of the trip, you would teem the straw out at the end of the pier.”