View Full Version : Inisght into the herring gutters

28-Mar-11, 16:38
The herring gutters of yesteryear were surely worth their salt

I DARESAY that some of us senior citizens have watched the younger generation roll their eyes upward when they impart that age old homily to juniors complaining about their lot, and rebuke them with the comment-“Ye dawn’t know yur livan’”
Well, so far as employment conditions are concerned, juniors could do a lot worse than making their way down to the Wick Heritage Centre, where they would get an illuminating insight into the engine room of Wick’s herring industry, the herring gutters.
This was certainly no job for a nine stone weakling...a hard, demanding, uncompromising, physical task with long hours and not all that much to show for it, in financial terms. They were definitely worth their salt. My late grandfather, James Donaldson, was in business as a herring curer, with his brother partner, George, so I have a certain affinity with that era. The latter brother was called up, for military service, but James got a dispensation being a food producer.
Harry Gray has a marvellous way of bring his subject to life, conveying the informative interspersed with the humorous, and I was fortunate enough to catch his second talk on the herring gutters, having arrived to find the first one attracting a capacity audience and a notice on the door saying-“Sorry, full up.” Harry is exceptionally well qualified to talk on his subject, as his mother, grandmother and an aunt were all employed as gutters.
As if the job of gutting wasn’t demanding enough, the crews of three, two gutters and a packer, were not based in Wick the whole time, as the summer season was a short one
The gutters and the barrel-making coopers, followed the shoals of the silver darlings, as they were affectionately known, as far afield as Yarmouth and Lowestoft. My grandad met his future wife in Lowestoft.
Anyway, the women had to pack all their things in a kist and travel south by rail, packed, well not quite as tight as herring in a barrel, but not that far away. At a stop further down the line, one of their company was deputed to dash to a chippie and return with energy inducing suppers.
Their bunk bed accommodation at the other end, was fairly frugal and was heated by a solid fuel fire, the allowance being one bag a week. Then it was down to the real business....the frenetic job of gutting the herring on the production line, long open troughs, at the rate of 40-a-minute. Cloots were much in evidence to prevent salt getting into cuts and sores which inevitably occurred, given the speed of the operation, 40 fish a minute. Harry helped bring his subject to life with black and white still photos. The barrels had to be packed tight, containing up to a thousand herring. But tight was the watch word. When gutting at, home some woman who were small in stature, found it difficult to start the packing at the bottom of the barrel and would take a tall son along, to begin the process to a height, mother was comfortable with. Of course now and again, someone would attempt to take a shortcut and throw in herring at random, halfway up the barrel and then resume proper packing. But if an eagle-eyed curer caught them at it, the whole barrel would have to be repacked. I recall a yarn from a guy whose mum gutted for the Donaldsons.
The operation was on the move to Yarmouth or Lowestoft, but one of his coopers had hurt himself. It wasn’t serious, but bad enough to prevent him travelling. It was decided that he would stay at home and keep himself gainfully employed by making barrels. When the cat’s away, of course, it has been known for the mice to play and this guy devised a cunning plan, as Baldrick would say, to reduce his work load. He just made the barrel lids which were set up on some sort of a gantry giving the appearance that whole barrels had been manufactured. There is nearly always a day of reckoning, in these deceptions, and when James Donaldson and his crew returned home, the crafty customer’s ruse was discovered. James made him make a barrel for every lid and then sacked him.
Harry recalled one occasion when Wick was hit by a day of thunder and lightning, accompanied by incessant rain. It was business as usual, however, because herring was a perishable commodity, and it wasn’t long before the gutters were soaked to the skin.
There was no union as such, merely an unconstituted sisterhood amongst the girls. One occasion, they got wind that gutters in Shetland were getting two pence more than them. So they all downed tools and marched to have it out with their bosses, and won parity with the one-shilling- a barrel island gutters.
On another occasion gutters seeking more money waited until they saw a drifter approaching and downed tools, acutely aware that herring and the curers would suffer, if the catch was not processed with the customary speed and efficiency. It didn’t require all the squads to come ‘out’ because if one group got the inevitable rise, all would receive it.
Once the season was over, the girls returned home. Harry tell a wonderful story which occurred after the demise of the silver darlings. A herring oil factory was opened, as an outlet, at Shaltigoe, the refined oil being used in toiletries and cosmetics which smelled a great deal sweeter than the production of the raw material. An employee who was looking forward to a hot date. He sped home after work, had a bath before tea and another, afterward and, suitably spruced up, took the girl to the Pavilion. The couple were ensconced in the balcony when a patron came in to a seat in a row behind them. He had hardly sat down when he exclaimed-“It smells like the oil factory, here.”