Friday, 27 November 2009

The Fishing Tradition

While the novels of Lowlander Scott were responsible
for popularizing the historical romance of be-tartaned
Highlanders, the  Gaelic-speakers of the North had
moved on from previous  jacobite aspirations. In many
areas bankrupt clan chieftains had sold their lands.
In others, they had turned to sheep—rearing. The
resulting Clearances in the nineteenth century marked the end of
the communal clan system where the produce of land and sea had
been a common asset. The system of grazing domestic animals on
the hills during the summer became less and less practical, and
salmon, deer and grouse became sport for the new landowners.

While in the remoter areas of the Highlands and Islands sea
Fishing continued to be an important part of the peasant-crofters
economy, from the 1840s to the 1880s the fishing industry on the
East Coast was particularly prosperous. Three men would work
in one yawl. Sailing to the fishing grounds, they took with them a
keg of water and enough oatcakes and cheese in their 'pocken mor'
(canvas bag with a drawstring) to keep them going for
twenty—four hours. The  baited line was cast and left
for half an hour before being pulled in, hopefully
full of cod, haddock, mackerel, whiting,cuddies
(young coalfish), soles, flounders, skate and dogfish.
As one man rowed another pulled in the line while a
third removed the fish as they came into the boat.

Back on the shore, the catch was laid out on the beach
and the three men distributed piles of fish evenly
between them. Their wives took on the job of
packing the fish into creels which they then
put onto their backs to go off
selling around the country.

Not all the fish, however, was sold fresh. Each fishwife was also
an expert smoker, owning a wooden smoking shed with an
earthen floor and a hollow centre where the fire was laid. There
was no chimney, so as the fire burned, the shed filled with smoke.
Along with her collection of hard woods, she used fir cones to
make the cool smoke which preserved the fish. Firstly, however,
the fish had to be gutted, split and their heads removed. Haddock
was most commonly smoked by this method. Then they had to be
scrubbed clean of blood and put into a tub with salt to preserve
them. Finally they were hung up on spits and put into the
smoking shed. The process took the best part of the day. The fish-
wife smoked for two days of the week and for the other four, went
to the country selling fish. On Sunday she went to church.

This method of smoking fish by splitting open was common
practice in most East Coast fishing communities, eventually
taking its name Finnan (haddie) from the Aberdeenshire fishing
village of Findon, colloquially known as Finnan. Further south, a
‘closed’ unsplit cure also developed at Auchmithie, a small
fishing village just north of Arbroath. Here, the fish became
known as a Smokie, not smoked in a tall shed with cool smoke but
over a hotter fire in a half whisky barrel covered with layers of
hessian sacking.

Gutted and salted, a pair of fish, their tails tied together, were
hung over wooden rods. Layers of sacking were laid on top. The
smoking process took about forty minutes, which cooked the fish
to a coppery brown on the outside, flavouring the flesh with a
mild smokiness. Both finnans and smokies (which were later
smoked also in Arbroath and became known as Arbroath smokies)
joined the collection of wet fish in the fishwife’s creel.

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