Rory Page – The Scotch Lasses

The herring industry in north shields while it lasted, was the most important time of the year for the people associated with it, it was a machine with many parts, without any one of these parts the machine simply would not work. It wasn’t just a case of the fishermen going to sea and catching the herring and it appearing on your plate. From the herring leaving the sea and onto the vessels, it was a race against time to get them; landed ashore, sold, transported to the curer’s yard, cleaned, sorted, salted /cured, packed, checked, and transported to their destinations, a very labour intensive job that involved a great deal of skilled people both male and female, using their skill at every stage of the process. At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, there were four main industries on Tyneside, fishing, coal-mining, agriculture, and heavy engineering, which included ship-building.

Herring gutting was a valuable seasonal source of income and employment for the women and girls of the coastal villages and rural towns across of the whole of British Isles and Eire, who would eventually begin to migrate to different ports up and down the coasts of great Britain following the fleets of fishing vessels, gutting, cleaning and packing the herring that they caught.

Other than nursing, domestic, or craft work there was very little in the way of manual work available to women in the Nineteenth Century, due to the beliefs that women had no place in the industrial workplace, or it was thought immoral and undignified for women to be seen working in such an industry, not to mention the strong religious beliefs of the time, it was thought that a woman could not do the work of  a man; or that women of the time lacked the “required fibre for hard physical labour” or were better suited to a domestic life.

However the sceptics and intellectuals of the time were proven very wrong as there was not yet a market for fresh fish, the herring caught had to be processed and cured quickly to keep it in the best possible condition, due to the high volume of local labour this required, necessitated the reluctant use of female labour within the fishing industry especially as the herring fisheries around the coastline of the British isles were beginning to become established and flourish. By this time the fishery was no longer local to one port or another or seasonal. Boats began to follow the shoals of herring around the coastline, followed by and army of labour. A machine which relied on each individual part to become a whole, curers, coopers, merchants, general hands and of course the scotch lasses who throughout the boom of the herring industry were an integral part of the fisheries landscape in north shields and many other ports.

As the industry grew the ports found that they were still wanting when it came to the amount of labour needed, even the largest of ports did not have enough labour to process the vast amounts of herring landed.

Due to this shortage in labour it was necessary for employers to import experienced external labour from elsewhere. Mainly from the ports whose home herring season had ended, or, would not clash with the season while the lasses were in north shields. These were predominately Scottish women and girls, however there were English and Irish girls who worked alongside them but all went by the same name of scotch lasses.

These lasses worked with the herring fleets moving down the county as the herring shoals and seasons dictated, starting with the Scottish season in the spring, they came to north shields for the summer season, usually ending up in Lowestoft or great Yarmouth for the autumn. These women and girls came from all around the coast, English, Irish, and Scots, they would begin gutting and packing at 15, some travelled through the season from Stornoway to Lerwick, Peterhead, North Shields, Scarborough and as far south as Yarmouth and Lowestoft.

Because the processing of herring is a very labour intensive operation, women became the main source of labour in most jobs on shore to do with the processing of the herring, in 99% of ports became the backbone of herring processing labour, north shields is just one example, where the work involved, gutting, cleaning and packing herring. this was done entirely by the female labour known locally as the “scotch lasses”. Not because all of the women were from Scotland, the truth is they came from every port, from all over the country, English, Irish, and Scottish girls. It is thought that although a good majority of the lasses were indeed Scots They were given the name scotch lasses because they were employed in  scotch curing herring.

Season after season they came to shields, daughters following mothers and grandmothers into the job of gutting herring.

Although the job of gutting herring entailed long hours of very hard work, in unpleasant conditions and far away from home and for a low wage, it was greatly appreciated by the lasses. Because of the camaraderie among the teams and strong friendships and bonds made with lasses or teams from other areas, the girls they always looked forward to their return to canny shields and the opening of the herring season here.

The scotch lasses always worked hard and they cheerfully made a good impression to their employers and were popular with their fellow workers involved in the trade, as well as the townsfolk of north shields.

They travelled down in teams or in gangs from their respective ports or towns, for example there was the “sheltie gang” who came to shields each season from all over the Shetland islands, right up until the second world war.  the “fifie teams” who are often remembered in the town, as are the buckie quines.

Lasses associated with the various teams may not have came from that area but joined up from neighbouring towns and villages. It is known that the fifie teams had girls from Arbroath, Montrose Aberdeen and other eastern Scottish ports. And the buckie quines  from most of the northern Scottish ports. The sheltie teams were made up of lasses from the islands of Shetland, Orkney or the Hebridean islands.

Thousands of these scotch lasses travelled to north shields for the start of every season from the 1840s onwards, until the last generations of scotch lasses born between 1920 and 1930 came to shields for their first or “green” season packing and gutting herring when they were aged 13 or 14 years old which was the school leaving age then.

The lasses packed and carried their belongings into a wooden or tin “Kist” and their bedding bundle called a “kart”, These were sometimes shipped up or down to shields by drifter and the girls came by train, sometimes both came here by drifter. In their Kist they had their gum boots their gutting knife, oilskin overskirt, their knitting, clothing and other personal effects.

On arrival at the town, those who hadn’t been here before had to find lodgings, however all of the yards and stations of the town had accommodation huts built or converted for the high volumes of incoming labour. The lasses used to sleep above their place of work in the dorms above the herring sheds and herring houses. Their “Kist” also served as a wardrobe, a seat and even a table in the cramped unfurnished wooden huts that the girls used to live in. The girls generally providing for themselves buying and cooking their own meals in these communal dormitories, in which they were crammed with as many as fifteen or twenty to a room and sometimes three to a cot or bed, many breeding grounds for typhoid and cholera.

From the 1920s and In subsequent seasons as the lasses sought alternatives to the huts, they were removed or re used for other purposes, although nancy’s yard in the low lights was still used by many of the scotch lasses until it was cleared in the late thirties. Some of these huts survived until the 1950s used since they were vacated by the girls by the fishermen as net stores. These huts were said to still have evidence that they had been occupied by the lasses whilst at shields. The lasses began to lodge with the local families of shields, six to a room is some cases, in relative luxury compared to the huts on the cold fish quay,  generating a welcome income for the local residents of shields. Where ever the girls were staying in the town you could tell from their working clothes that stood outside of the houses that they lodged in.

Those of the lasses who were married and had children at home had to arrange for their children to be looked after, usually this was by an elderly family member or by family and friends who did not or could not travel with the herring. These guardians looked after the children whilst the mothers were “awa wi the herrin”, making sure that they went to school and of course attended church. They also received payment for their efforts from the labours of the working mothers.

At any one time in any herring season there could be six to twelve thousand people employed and working on the fish quay in north shields, the majority of which was the influx of the scotch lasses. They were generally a happy lot, but had the reputation of being fearsome and straight talking, some with a tendency to swear.
However every account states that their morality was impeccable at all times with a good percentage of the girls highly religious. They were polite and respectful to the families they lodged with and kept their rooms clean and tidy.

The women for the north shields season were fixed during the winter or early spring seasons at another port. whose herring season was in full swing. The curers would travel to these ports with an estimate on how many teams he would need for an average season. Whilst in the port he could judge how good the fishing was and from that he could select the required amount of lasses for the shields season. They would watch the lasses working and select them, in teams of three.

Many of the lasses were engaged on a forward basis by the same curer year after year, at other times curers got in touch with a former reliable girl employee from the past season and secured her for the start of the next season as the “teamie”.

The teamie was given the discretion to recruit the required number of girls from among her friends, acquaintances or from within crews who had worked for different employers in the previous season who were quick reliable workers, along with reserves to meet any gaps.

Once a girl or a team signed on for a curer a written contract was always sealed with a payment of “Arles” money, in the 1920s this would have been around ten shillings.
Once this “Arles” money was accepted both sides were then fully committed for the coming season, this commitment was always honoured.

Before the end of the summer season curers and merchants would begin to recruit lasses and “teamies” from the shields fishery, preparing for the beginning of the east Anglian fishery.

This shows the confidence the curers of north shields had in the skill and reliability of the scotch lasses. The teamie was an important role and was mainly filled by a local male employee, but because the female teamie knew and understood the girls better than anyone, in some cases the girls only spoke in Gaelic, or very broad Scots and the teamie acted as an interpreter. It was felt that it would improve relations between the curers and the scotch lasses, to recruit a teamie from within the crews of lasses, and this was proven as the crews of lasses began to work more efficiently under the new female “teamies”. It was unheard of in any other industry to give a position of such power to a “foreign” casual labourer, especially not to a female.

The scotch lasses worked in teams of three girls, two of them gutting and the third usually the tallest of the three was the packer. She could reach the bottom of the barrels into which she arranged, packed and salted the herring that the other two lasses of the team had gutted.

There could be anything between five and twenty five teams in one yard, as there was more than one boats herring bought by the curer.

The lasses worked outside on the open quay a lucky few worked inside a curing shed or house. in the curing yard, they worked with bare arms in all weathers.

Always with their three cornered shawls and head scarves, their leather boots and oilskin overskirt with a bib to keep them dry. Typically, their working clothes would include hand knitted woollen pullovers, woollen skirts, and a head scarf fastened at the back of the head to keep the salt and herring scales out of their hair. Where ever they were working you could always hear them singing, they all sang hymns as they worked, sometimes folk songs some in Gaelic, although most of the lasses didn’t speak much if any Gaelic, however they knew the songs off by heart and could recite them as if they were native Gaelic speakers. The same goes for the various different customs and terminology shared by the lasses who worked here.

The daily routine was for the lasses to be roused at 5am by the curer or by the cooper, over a mug of hot tea the lasses would sit and bind the strips of cotton torn from flour sacks around their thumbs and fingers, locally known as thumb rags. The thumb rags served to protect their hands from the hard herring jaws and the sharp knives used to gut them, an accidental nick from the razor sharp knife would be painful as the salt entered the wound, the cuts often turned septic, sometimes the lass had to stay off work, worse still she would have to return home.

Since the rate of gutting the herring was very fast at the rate of 50 to 60 herring a minute on average and for hour after hour every day, the chances of cutting herself was very high especially if she was distracted by anything.

They started work at around six am and the first task of the day was topping off the barrels from the previous day and getting ready to receive that morning’s fresh catch of herring.

Their breakfast was usually salted porridge or a jam and bread “piece” which they usually ate at around 8.30am as the boats were unloading their catch. The catch was loaded onto hand or horse drawn carts, later Lorries were used, they were taken to the curing yards or herring stations and tipped into large wooden troughs called “farlins”.

The farlane could take many crans of herring and it was around these farlins the gutters stood, the herring in them was sprinkled with salt which enabled the lasses to hold the fish without them slipping whist they were gutting them.

The gutting was done in one quick movement, the lasses grabbed a herring and in a fast movement with the knife the gut and gills were removed the gills and guts were thrown into a “cog” or gut barrel; these were taken by the guano works on the fish quay. Once the herring were gutted they were sorted in size and quality any broken or squashed fish were discarded and sold cheaply or discarded into the “cogs” also bound for the guano works.

The gutters would gut the herring into sizes, different tubs called cogs held the different sizes of herring. There were seven different sizes of herring here at north shields, this was cut to three after world war one. Large fulls, were large herring with milts and roes, not less than eleven and a quarter inches long.

Fulls, were fish with milt and roe, not less than ten and a half inches long.

Fillings, were maturing fish that had not yet developed roes and milts, no less than ten and a quarter inches long.

Large spents, were large herring that had spawned and had no milt or roe, no less than ten inches long.

Mediums, were fish no less than nine and a half inches long.

Matties,  were young maturing fish, no less than nine inches long.

Fish below this size were known collectively as scran. And were sold cheaply to the public, or to the hospital and infirmary and as a last resort sent to the guano works as fishmeal.

The cogs of gutted and graded herring were taken from the gutters; sometimes the two gutters brought the cogs to their packing partner, Once the tubs of gutted sorted herring were filled  here the packers took over, firstly they tipped the herring into a “rousing” tub they were washed, salt was added and the fish and brine were “roused” or mixed together then they were picked out and packed into the waiting barrels. This is where the skill of the packer was needed as the herring had to be “tiered” In a certain way, the most common was the rosette tier, The packer setting to work by grabbing a handful of herring and arranging them in the rosette fashion, the silver bellies of the herring facing uppermost heads out for the fist layer with the fish arranged so that the heads of the herring are following the shape of the barrel, sometimes two rows were heads out the same layer until the bottom of the barrel is covered and resembling a rosette.

Next a good layer of salt is added to prevent the two layers from touching, here again good judgement is needed, the next layer is laid heads in where heads lay over the tail of the one below then a layer of salt, heads out, a layer of salt heads in and so on until the barrel is full to the brim or “rimmed” and topped off with salt.
This was done under the ever watchful and competent eye of the cooper. It was the coopers first job each morning to examine every barrel packed on the previous day to ensure that none of the pickle had leaked away, if so the herring had to be re packed into a different barrel to ensure that all the barrels were in the best possible condition and reached the customer in top quality. A team of three could gut and pack up to 30 barrels, during their ten hour day.

For every 100 cran of herring packed the lasses used up to six tons of salt.

Once filled the barrels were left to stand or “pine” for 10 days. during the pining, a chemical change occurs between the juices of the herring and the salt that is between each layer, this chemical change causes the herring to shrink, as they release their blood and juices, the resultant juices in the barrel are called “blood pickle”, the juices and the salt making brine that will help to preserve the herring whilst in the barrel for transportation. After this “first pining” the barrels are laid on their sides and the bung removed the resulting blood pickle is then drained off into a container. Once all of the blood pickle has been “run off”, the barrel is then refilled or “topped” with herring and arranged again in the rosette style so that the barrel looks neat. The bung replaced and the blood pickle is poured back into the barrel over the top tiers. The cooper to fits the permanent lid or “closer” as it was sometimes called, the barrel was again laid on its side and the bung removed and the remainder of the blood pickle poured in through the bung hole, and the bung driven in tight. The barrel was now known now as being “bung packed or bunged up” they now “stood” or matured for another 10 days before they could be branded ready for export.

Once the barrels are “stood” they are inspected daily by the cooper, who checks for leaks, if any barrels are found to be leaking they must be re packed. If all is to his agreement after the ten days have elapsed he gives the barrel his stamp as passed, then and only then are they ready for shipment to their destinations.

When there were good shots of herring landed in shields the girls worked long hours from 6am sometimes until  the next morning if there was a glut of herring. The payment they received sometimes hardly matched the hard labour that was expected from these lasses. There were occasions where they were only paid enough money to enable them to travel home once their expenses had been paid. The average take home pay for a whole season could range from £9 up to £12 at the beginning of the 20th Century.

There were occasions where these easy going lasses had to fight for better working conditions and pay and participated in strikes, One of these strikes took place in great Yarmouth where the girls demonstrated their solidarity by striking for a rise of two pennies per barrel. which would bring them to in line with shields and the Scottish ports who were paying one shilling per barrel. Some of the older women were reluctant to join in the strike fearing for their jobs and the loss of the much needed income, the young girls tried to encourage and reassure these women that their jobs would be safe and to support the strike. The women still would not hear of it, the young strikers wasted no more time reasoning with them and turned the powerful sea water hoses on the reluctant women who soon turned in favour of the strike.

Because the strike was disastrous for the whole of the Yarmouth herring fishery and the curers and merchants were losing money by the hour, and the fish was being spoiled, mounted police were brought up to frighten the girls into calling off their strike and to return to work. The lasses stood firm in their usual good humoured bantering, singing and laughing. After a few days of the strike the crippled fish merchants and curers succumbed to their demands and granted them an extra 2d per barrel bringing them equal to the other ports, paying one shilling per barrel filled.

Although the work of gutting herring involved long hours of hard and dirty work in poor conditions, the lasses looked forward to returning to shields each year for the start of the herring season here.

Of course there were days when there were few herrings landed or periods of bad weather when the boats could not get to sea. At such times the lasses would go around the quay for a walk, arm in arm singing songs and or knitting, some of the lasses would be on the lookout for their husbands or sweethearts who were working as skippers or deckhands on the drifters and trawlers that packed the gut and lined union quay, or the boats and men folk from their respective towns and home ports. Usually they were seen in groups singing whilst knitting. These lasses were famous for their knitting which was said to be seamless they used to knit socks etc but mainly they would be seen knitting a fisherman’s pullover called a “gansey”. The name gansey is thought to come from a garment that was made in the channel island of Guernsey, avoiding Confusion with the jersey perhaps, naming it after another channel island, perhaps jersey has been changed to gansey during translation through towns and villages across the country. Each community of fishermen wore a particular pattern of gansey and men were recognised as belonging to a certain community by the gansey pattern he wore. In times of disaster these were used to identify the port, or area the bodies of the poor souls who washed ashore or were dragged from the sea came from.

It was common for the lasses to knit their sweetheart a gansey to the pattern of his home port, the patterns were passed on orally from person to person mother to daughter etc. Sometimes if buckie lass were knitting a gansey for a Yarmouth lad she would get the pattern from a Yarmouth lass and vice versa. The fishermen usually had two working ganseys and a Sunday best, knitted by their wives or sweethearts whilst they were working gutting and packing herring as scotch lass. If they were knitting a gansey for their husband or sweetheart they would knit some of their own hair into it, as this was believed to bind them to you. They would never knit their famous woollen socks for their husbands or sweethearts. Superstition supposed that this would make their men walk away from them.

Saturday night was the highlight of their week when all of the boats were in the harbour and the lads who worked them attended the local dance or “ceilidh” which would mainly take place in the open air, here the quick witted and good humoured lasses bantered and danced with the coopers and fishermen. The Sabbath was always strictly observed and the dancing and music was stopped at 10pm on a Saturday.

Many of these lasses met their future husbands whilst they were in shields through work or at one of the ceilidhs. Romances blossomed and marriages took place here before they returned home. Usually the lasses matched up with lads from their own home ports but love stuck anywhere and lads fell for lasses and vice versa regardless of their home town or port or weather they were English or Scottish. If you look at your grandparents or great grandparents marriage certificate you may find that they were married in north shields or another port different to their own, all due to the herring fishery.

On occasion, as in my case, on my mothers side my great grand parents met and married in Shields, settling here and raising their family. And on my fathers side my great, great grandmother who came from Stirling, married a Yarmouth lad whilst she was down for the herring season in gorleston, moving up to north shields and raising their family.

Whilst they were herein Shields the lasses generated a good deal of trade for the town, buying great quantities of goods to use during their stay in the town as well as goods they sent or took home such as toys for their children or cloth for dresses, for this reason the shops of the town used to stay open to accommodate the needs of these lasses as they worked long hours, sometimes the shopkeepers would remain open until the ungodly hour of 11pm.

Many of the lasses would pine for their return to Shields to be among their friends and the familiar surroundings and the canny folk around the town.

World War Two saw an end to this way of life for many of the lasses as well as the mechanisation and canning of herring in places such as the Tyne Brand on the fish quay,  the general slow down of the industry meant that the numbers required of previous seasons were no longer needed. A good few women still travelled here through the 50s and early 60s and by the 1970s there were none. There were however a good deal who lived in the town, these elderly women as they are now settled in the town in their youth, marrying and raising their families in the town of north shields. Sadly little is written about these marvellous women and their working lives here. They are mostly forgotten echoes of the past; or memories in the minds of those few who remain. There are only fragmented accounts in existence of the scotch lasses ever being here in North Shields. This totalled two paragraphs, of any worth, and captions on postcards and photographs, which is sad.

There were no mentions of their living conditions, working lives or routines, these I gleaned from the last of the scotch lasses who I had the pleasure of knowing and speaking to.

I consider myself to be extremely lucky to have met and talked with some of these fabulous women before they departed this earth. I feel that I owe it to them to have preserved an account of their time in the port of north shields. They played a major role in putting north shields on the map as a major curing station on the east coast of the British Isles. This is by no means a full account of the lasses time in north shields and I have endeavoured to piece together the snippets of information gleaned over the years from various stories, and conversations. I sincerely hope that a fuller account can be written for future generations. Not just of those women that travelled to north shields but for the entire herring fishery.