Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Following the herring

When ten Central and Eastern European countries joined the European Union in 2004, young men and women from those countries came to the UK to work. Such migration for work is nothing new. In the 19th century young Scottish men sailed to Greenland to hunt whales, while young women travelled along the Northeast coast to Yarmouth to gut herring. Both Scottish traditions of migration for work live on in traditional songs and tale.

‘Come, a’ ye fisher lassies, aye, it’s come awa’ wi’ me,
Fae Cairnbulg and Gamrie and fae Inverallochie,
Fae Buckie and fae Aberdeen and a’ the country roon,
We’re awa’ tae gut the herrin’, we’re awa’ tae Yarmouth toon.’
(The Song of the Fish Gutters)

The Song of the Fish Gutters (you can listen at the melody at the bottom of this blog) tells the story of so-called herring girls, young women from highland and lowland Scotland who travelled from Stornoway, Wick, the fishing towns along the Northeast coast of Scotland to Yarmouth to cure herring. As the fish migrated from the Norwegian waters into the North Sea, these women started curing fish in the North of Scotland during the summer and arrived in England in the autumn. To gut and pack the large quantities of fish caught, up to several thousand fish gutters could work alongside each other on the quay of Yarmouth. Leaving home for work in the herring industry, the girls often stayed in wooden lodgings along the quay.

We’ve gutted fish in Lerwick and in Stornoway and Shields,
Warked along the Humber ‘mongst the barrels and the creels,
Whitby, Grimsby, we’ve traivelled up and doon,
But the place to gut the herrin’ is the quay at Yarmouth toon.’
(The Song of the Fish Gutters)

Herring girls worked in crews of three, one packer and two gutters. A barrel of 700 fish took around 10 minutes to gut and pack, and a crew could manage up to 30 barrels a day. As they were paid per barrel, speed was important. Working conditions were challenging as salt would aggravate any cuts from the sharp gutting knives. Girls therefore tied strips of rag round their fingers to save them from getting cuts.

‘It’s early in the morning and it’s late into the nicht,
Your hands a’ cut and chappit and they look an unco sicht;
And you greet like a wean when you put them in the bree,
And you wish you were a thousand mile awa’ frae Yarmouth quay.’
(The Song of the Fish Gutters)

There are striking similarities between the circumstances described in The Song of the Fish Gutters and the stories we hear about migrant workers nowadays. Many men and women from Central and Eastern Europe have found work in the Scottish fish processing industry as employers are said to find it hard to attract a local staff for the the kind of work, low pay, and seasonal work they have on offer.

To listen to a recording of The Song of the Fish Gutters, see Singing The Fishing.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

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