A Herring Girl from Crowlista

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An account, from the Gaelic, by Christina MacDonald, 25 Crowlista, of her memories of packing the barrels at the herring industry.  The picture above is of unidentified Lewis girls at the herring in an unknown port.

See the original Gaelic version here.

When you went to the herring for the first time, you had to be signed on with a curer. The curer would give us one pound to secure our services that was called a pledge. The first place I went was the Island of Baltey in Shetland, across the Balta Sound.

That first year I left Stornoway on the steamship for Lerwick, then a little steamboat from Lerwick to Baltey. We were lying down with seasickness. I would be lying down on the train [?] and on the steamer. Most of the other girls would be sick too – we would recognise the Shiant Isles when we reached them – every girl would then begin to vomit.

They would only give us until the morning after we arrived before they would put us to work – that being if the herring arrived. We would be setting the house in order and the dishes – our trunks would not arrive as fast as we would. We would take with us in the summer, bed clothes, a blanket, and clothes which we would wear. All of our clothes and shoes would have to be in the case. We would take things from the shops in Stornoway that would do us until we returned. It was ourselves that bought the oilskins and the shoes which we had on and leaving our names with them. Even the cloth we would put on our fingers – the strange “yellow calico” – we would bring with us.

We would stay in a wooden shed, which had a small type of stove, that’s all that was there when we arrived until they gave us things, in accordance with what they had. If it was three that was going to be in the room that was all that they would be given – maybe then we would be given a table, but we would sit on our trunks which were kept up by the end of the bed.

There were two beds in the sheds against each other. We would get coal from the master. The girls took turn about washing the dishes and preparing the food. We would buy the dishes, a mirror and a lamp when we would reach over. We would buy everything which the house needed and we’d divide it out amongst ourselves and anything that came was by luck. There was a ballot taken and if you got the dishes you had to do them.

Now, when we began working it was the boys that would take up the herring in the baskets to us and they would put them in a large box. The boys would call it “farlair”. They would fill this box with herring and one of the coopers would put salt into it as they were coming out of the barrels. When we were in England there were a type of basket – they called them swells, they made big barrels for them – they had big wide mouths on them. Two baskets went into each barrel. There was nothing on them to lift them. They went on to the trailer on the horse. There were no cars.

We were not sorting the herring but just as they came out. They were putting salt on them as they came in – no more was put onto them in the box as they took them out one by one. I was not as good at gutting as the rest that was why I became a packer. There were three of us in the crew two gutters and me packing. We would take out the guts and throw them in a box and we would put the herring aside big ones, middlesize ones and small ones- it was in the summer that we would do this. There was a herring brand in the summer the brand was going on them so that the masters would make more money on them, but there was a time of year when there was something on the herring which was making a mess of it unless they took it out. The name was “black bag” – a bulge like the sheep pile.

We would work until the herring ended supposing it was twelve o’clock. But we would stop at nine o’clock for our breakfast and again at one o’clock for our lunch – depending on how the herring was. We could not leave the herring if it were an open yard and especially in the summer as the seagulls would go away with them. We would have to show the bottom tier to the masters and this would hold us back sometimes if we were at the bottom end of the crowd. We would shout “bottom tier!”” and he would need to see this tier to be sure that the entrails were all up- it was the stomach side of the herring which was going up. Each row went against the row that was beneath them. Many’s a time I got “these big paws of yours”.

It was tubs that were with herring in them that they were putting out with ropes on each side of them. Three of us would be lifting the two tubs- someone in the middle and someone on each side of the two tubs and pouring them into the big tub – that tub was very heavy. Sometimes if the herring was ready and was mixed the packer would have plenty of time. But if there were only a few kinds, a small selection the packer would be almost killed as with too much in each tub before they could get down a bit. Packers were scarce as the work was so hard, but it was as I was not so good at gutting as the others that I went there. I did not have the art, which I saw others have and I would not have liked to have stayed at it. They never said if I was good or not as a packer, though long they saw me.

We had to shout “barrel” when that one was ready and they would put the date and my number on the bottom of the barrel and give me another one. The coopers took put the top on the barrels at the first filling and put them on there side- then tiered them on top of each other for me for days. They would then open them lift them up and make a hole in the side of them to let the pickle out of them. They would then refill the barrel with the pickle. Its the pickle which they took out that they would put back into the barrels as long as it would last. The ones that were filling the barrels would then put it back on its side and they could tell with a bang of the hammer if it was good enough. They would turn them twice before they would put them on the steamer. That was what they called the next filling and the third filling. They would then stand on the lid of it with their feet until they would get it down to the mark which was on the barrel. Down to the cut. They would then seal it and a cloth with blacking – as we called it was put on it with a brand on the end of the barrel. There was an iron thing with a hole in it and a trademark on that.

Ourselves and the coopers would stack them up. I would be at one end and another girl on the other side and two coopers in the middle where the yard was so small that it was not possible to spread them. Not everyone got involved in it, but we got no thank you for doing it. They were pretending we weren’t there.

We got nine pence for filling a barrel between the three of us and three pence an hour. When I would be out all day from six to six I would get a half crown I got. That’s the pay it was as long as I was going to it. I would prefer a crown an hour then to a pound an hour now. If I would make thirty pounds during the two seasons between Shetland and England and the Summer I would say that I was very well – if I would get ten pounds to myself after going home and dividing the money. We would get ten shillings a week for our food from our master. We never got a tip ever unless we got two or three herring out of the box for cooking. We could take any herring with us from the coopers who were very good to us.

We would be tired sometimes but despite that it would not take long going when we would sleep. We would go the Church on the Sabbath day and there was a missionary from Carloway there for us. When I was in Stronsay the coopers called him the ” Whitag minister”.