Age, as one may know, has some impact on the memory. I had thought I had written before on both the Guga and the Nairn fishwife, but perhaps not. Both came to mind of late. And a favourite tie came out of the closet.
Donald S Murray, a Stornoway man, wrote his tribute to the Men of Ness and their annual sojourn to Sula Sgeir in The Guga Hunters. I have yet to sample that delicacy, the young gannet from the cliffs of a distant isle. In his latest work, Herring Tales, Murray surpasses the odours of the guga, both in the harvesting and in the cooking, with the odd recipe around the heritage of the herring.
Hailing, as I do, from a long line of Ag-Labs and assorted ne’er-do-wells from the East Neuk of Fife there is occasion where a fishwife may appear in the family tree, historically of course I should add. I had also thought I had presented a picture of the Fishwife Statue from Nairn harbour, but that too is not to be found.
In his herring quest Murray visited many of Scotland’s harbours, and plenty further afield too, for the industry covered pretty much all of the North Sea, and beyond to Iceland and the Baltic, from Netherlands to Norway. And much of the industry mirrored the heritage of our own shores, right up until the time the klondikers anchored in the Minch and notices in cyrillic appeared on Ullapool shop fronts treating the Russians then as we treat our school-children yet – no more than two at any one time.
Much has been written of the humble herring over the years, and sung, and painted. Murray takes us to museums and festivals. We dip into Eyemouth, and the traditions of the Herring Queen. And there I am minded too of another quest, long forgotten.
Legend has it that we lost family in the Eyemouth Disaster. My attempts on the family tree some years ago, when I unearthed those doughty folk of Cellardyke and beyond, failed to find a link to the kin perishing at Eyemouth. October of this year marks the 135th anniversary of that day when the fleet took to the waves and failed to return. Maybe by then I will have found a trail of fishermen following the herring from one port to another, or of those fishwives taking their hardened skills down the coast, and roots being formed.
It might be one for The Genealogist, or perhaps not. If only I could find the notes I once wrote of those that perished at Eyemouth. Peter Aitchison’s Children of the Sea is the place to start, a book to read again. Since I last read that I have added Daniel McIver’s An Old Time Fishing Town – Eyemouth to the collection, the original source of much of Aitchison’s researches. There might be more there for the family quest.
Donald S Murray, in his latest work, brings all this to the fore. He writes of times that only began to wane with the arrival of the fridge and the freezer in every household, the demise of barrels and the salt, before the herring stocks diminished. I’ve never been partial to a bit of roll-mop, or even oatmeal coating, but it is clear that we were not alone in relying on those silver darlings in times past.
So I might read some more, Neil Gunn perhaps, I might eat some more, and I might drink some more. If ever someone offers to open for you a can of surstromming, proclaiming it a rare treat to rival the guga, then run, very far and very fast. Or better still, just read Murray’s description. And the tie? Ah well, that is where the dram comes in, produced as it is by the makers of the Maritime Malt, those good folks of Old Pulteney. Cheers, mine’s a 10 year old.