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Mr. Stevenson was ever an intelligent and anxious observer of the habits and industry of the people of those remote and isolated parts of the country which he so often visited. He was specially interested in the fisheries from which they mainly derive their support, as testified by frequent allusions to them in his journals and notes.

The following notice regarding the state of the Scottish fisheries, made in 1819, to the editor of the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal,11 will be read with interest:—

“Having been for many years conversant with the navigation of the Scottish seas, I have, prior to the war with Holland, seen fleets of Dutch ‘busses’ engaged in the herring fishery off the northern parts of our coast. For a long time past, however, those industrious fishermen had not ventured to approach these shores; and they are now only beginning to reappear.

“In the early part of August last, while sailing along the shores of Kincardineshire, about ten miles off Dunnottar Castle, the watch upon deck, at midnight, called out ‘Lights ahead.’ Upon a nearer approach these lights were found to belong to a small fleet of Dutch fishermen185 employed in the deep sea fishing, each vessel having a lantern at her mast head. What success these plodding people had met with our crew had no opportunity of inquiring; but upon arriving the next morning at Fraserburgh,—the great fishing station on the coast of Aberdeen—we found that about 120 boats, containing five men each, had commenced the fishing season here six weeks before, and had that night caught no fewer than about 1500 barrels of herrings, which in a general way, when there is a demand for fish, may be valued at £1 sterling per barrel to the fishermen, and may be regarded as adding to the wealth of the country perhaps not less than £3000. In coasting along between Fraserburgh and the Orkney Islands, another fleet of Dutch fishermen was seen at a distance. The harbour and bay of Wick were crowded with fishing boats and busses of all descriptions, collected from the Firth of Forth and southward even as far as Yarmouth and Lowestoft. The Caithness fishing was said to have been pretty successful, though not equal to what it has been in former years.

“In the Orkney and Shetland Islands one would naturally look for extensive fishing establishments, both in herrings, and what are termed white fish (cod, ling, and tusk); but it is a curious fact, that while the Dutch have long come from their own coast to these islands to fish herrings, it is only within a very few years that the people of Orkney, chiefly by the spirited and praiseworthy exertions of Samuel Laing, Esq., have given any attention to this important source of wealth. It has long been a practice with the great fishmongers of London to send186 their welled smacks to fish for cod, and to purchase lobsters, around the Orkney Islands; and both are carried alive to the London market. This trade has done much good to these islands, and has brought a great deal of money to them; but still it is of a more circumscribed nature, and is less calculated to swell the national wealth, than the herring and white fishery in general.

“Hitherto the industry of the Orcadians has been chiefly directed to farming pursuits; while the Shetlanders have been almost exclusively occupied in the cod, ling, and tusk fishing. It is doubtful, indeed, if, up to this period, there be a single boat belonging to the Shetland Isles which is completely equipped for the herring fishery. But on reaching Shetland another fleet of Dutch doggers was seen collecting in numbers off these islands—a coast which is considered a rich harvest in Holland.

“So systematically do the Dutch pursue the fishing business upon our coasts, that their fleet of busses is accompanied by an hospital ship. This vessel we now found at anchor in Lerwick roads, and were informed that she paid weekly visits to the fleet, to supply medicines, and to receive any of the people falling sick, or meeting with any accident.

“Though Shetland is certainly not so much an agricultural country as Orkney, yet it may be hoped that the encouragement judiciously held out by the Highland Society, for the production of green crops in Shetland, may eventually have the effect of teaching these insular farmers the practicability of providing fodder for their cattle in the spring of the year. This has long been a great desideratum. The command of a month or six187 weeks’ fodder would enable the proprietors of that country to stock many of their fine verdant isles with cattle, and to employ their hardy tenantry more exclusively in the different branches of the fishery.

“It is well known, that, next to the Newfoundland Banks, those of Shetland are the most productive in ling, cod, tusk, and other white fish; and by the recent discovery of a bank, trending many leagues to the south-westward, the British merchants have made a vast accession to their fishing grounds. The fishermen who reside in the small picturesque bay of Scalloway, and in some of the other bays and voes on the western side of the mainland of Shetland, have pursued with much success the fishing upon this new bank, which I humbly presume to term the Regent Fishing Bank—a name at once calculated to mark the period of its discovery, and pay a proper compliment to the Prince. Here small sloops, of from fifteen to twenty-five tons burden, and manned with eight persons, have been employed. In the beginning of August they had this summer fished for twelve weeks, generally returning home with their fish once a week. On an average, these vessels had caught 1000 fine cod fish a week, of which about 600 in a dried state go to the ton, and these they would have gladly sold at about £15 per ton. So numerous are the fish upon the Regent Fishing Bank, that a French vessel, belonging, it is believed, to St. Malo, had sailed with her second cargo of fish this season; and though the fishermen did not mention this under any apprehension, as though there were danger of the fish becoming scarce, yet they seemed to regret the circumstance, on account of their market being thus preoccupied.

188 “Here, and at Orkney, we had the pleasure to see many ships arriving from the whale fishing, and parting with a certain proportion of their crews. To such an extent, indeed, are the crews of the whalers made up from these islands, that it is calculated that not less than £15,000 in cash are annually brought into the islands by this means. With propriety, therefore, may the whale fishery be regarded as one of the most productive sources of national wealth connected with the British Fisheries.

“From the Orkney and Shetland Islands our course was directed to the westward. A considerable salmon fishing seems to be carried on in the mouths of the rivers of Lord Reay’s Country in Sutherlandshire: the fish are carried from this to Aberdeen, and thence in regular trading smacks to London. We heard little more of any kind of fishing till we reached the Harris Isles. There, and throughout the numerous lochs and fishing stations on the mainland, in the districts of Gairloch, Applecross, Lochalsh, Glenelg, Moidart, Knoidart, Ardnamurchan, Mull, Lorn, and Kintyre, we understood that there was a general lamentation for the disappearance of herrings, which in former times used to crowd into lochs which they seem now to have in some measure deserted. This the fishermen suppose to be owing to the Schools being broken and divided about the Shetland and Orkney Islands; and they remark, that, by some unaccountable change in the habits of the fish, the greatest number now take the east coast of Great Britain. This is the more to be regretted, that in Skye, the Lewis, Harris, and Uist Islands, the inhabitants have of late years turned their attention much to the fishing. Indeed,189 this has followed as a matter of necessity, from the general practice of converting the numerous small arable farms, which were perhaps neither very useful to the tenants nor profitable to the laird, into great sheep walks; so that the inhabitants are now more generally assembled upon the coast. The large sums expended in the construction of the Caledonian Canal have, either directly or indirectly, become a source of wealth to these people: they have been enabled to furnish themselves with boats and fishing tackle, and for one fishing boat which was formerly seen in the Hebrides only twenty years ago, it may be safely affirmed that ten are to be met with now. If the same spirit shall continue to be manifested, in spite of all the objections which have been urged against the salt laws, and the depopulating effects of emigration, the British Fisheries in these islands, and along this coast, with a little encouragement, will be wonderfully extended, and we shall ere long see the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in that state to which they are peculiarly adapted, and in which alone their continued prosperity is to be looked for, viz., when their valleys, muirs, and mountains are covered with flocks, and the people are found in small villages on the shores.”
* * * * *

The following history of the origin of the Shetland herring fishery, communicated to Blackwood’s Magazine in 1821, is, I think, worthy of being recorded:—

“Few people, on examining the map of Scotland, would believe that the herring fishing has only within these few years been begun in Orkney, while the natives are almost strangers to the fishing of cod and ling.

190 “On the other hand, it is no less extraordinary that although the cod and ling fishery has been carried to so great an extent in Shetland as to enable them to export many cargoes to the Catholic countries on the Continent, not a herring net has been spread by the natives of Shetland till the present year (1821), when Mr. Mowat of Gardie, and a few other spirited proprietors of these islands, formed themselves into an association, and subscribed the necessary funds for purchasing boats and nets, to encourage the natives to follow the industrious example of the Dutch.

“The immediate management of this experimental fishery was undertaken in the most patriotic and disinterested manner by Mr. Duncan, the Sheriff-Substitute of Shetland. Having procured three boats, he afterwards visited Orkney, to ascertain the mode of conducting the business there, and having also got fishermen from the south, this little adventure commenced. Its nets were first wetted in the month of July, and it is believed its labours were concluded in the month of September, after obtaining what is considered pretty good success, having caught as follows, viz.:—
The ‘Experiment,’     6-manned boat,     212?     crans.
The ‘Hope,’     5”     119?     ”
The ‘Nancy,’     4”     ?80     ”
            412?     ”

“The great object which the Shetland gentlemen have in view, in this infant establishment, is to give employment to their fishermen in the herring trade, after the cod and ling season is over, and by this means to enable them191 to partake of those bounties and encouragements so properly bestowed by Government on the fisheries; and thus abstract the attention of the lower orders of these islands from an illicit traffic in foreign spirits, tea, and tobacco, which has greatly increased of late years.

“The profit of the herring fishing at its commencement has, however, afforded more encouragement than could have been expected; for, besides paying the men a liberal allowance for their labour, a small sum has been applied towards defraying the expense of the boats and nets. But what is of far more consequence to this patriotic association is the spirit of enterprise which it is likely to create by bringing forward a number of additional boats in the way of private adventure, which must be attended with the best advantage to the Shetland Islands.”

Again, in 1820, Mr. Stevenson took occasion to express his solicitude for the welfare of the fishermen in the following note, suggesting the means whereby they might sometimes avoid a coming storm—a suggestion which is now to some extent carried out by the Board of Trade’s establishment of marine barometers at many of our fishing stations:—

“Mr. Stevenson informs us,” says the editor of the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal12 for 1820, “that having occasion, in the beginning of September last, to visit the Isle of Man, he beheld the interesting spectacle of about 300 large fishing boats, each from fifteen to twenty tons192 burden, leaving their various harbours at that island in an apparently fine afternoon, and standing directly out to sea with the intention of prosecuting the fishery under night. He at the same time remarked that both the common marine barometer, and Adie’s sympiesometer, which were in the cabin of his vessel, indicated an approaching change of weather, the mercury falling to 29·5 inches. It became painful, therefore, to witness the scene,—more than a thousand industrious fishermen, lulled to security by the fineness of the day, scattering their little barks over the face of the ocean, and thus rushing forward to imminent danger or probable destruction. At sunset, accordingly, the sky became cloudy and threatening, and in the course of the night it blew a very hard gale, which afterwards continued for three days successively. This gale completely dispersed the fleet of boats, and it was not without the utmost difficulty that many of them reached the various creeks of the island. It is believed no lives were lost on this occasion, but the boats were damaged, much tackle was destroyed, and the men were unnecessarily exposed to danger and fatigue. During the same storm, it may be remarked, thirteen vessels were either totally lost or stranded between the Isle of Anglesea and St. Bee’s Head in Lancashire. Mr. Stevenson remarks, how much it is to be regretted that the barometer is so little in use in the mercantile marine of Great Britain, compared with the trading vessels of Holland, and observes, that although the common marine barometer is perhaps too cumbersome for the ordinary run of fishing and coasting vessels, yet Adie’s sympiesometer is so extremely portable193 that it might be carried even in a Manx boat. Each lot of such vessels has a commodore, under whose orders the fleet sails; it would therefore be a most desirable thing that a sympiesometer should be attached to each commodore’s boat, from which a preconcerted signal of any expected gale or change of weather as indicated by the sympiesometer could easily be given.”

The following notes as to the habits of fish may prove of interest to the naturalist:—

“It has often been observed in the course of the Bell Rock operations, that during the cold weather of spring and autumn, and even at all seasons, in stormy weather, when the sea is much agitated by wind, the fishes disappear entirely from the vicinity of the rock, probably retreating into much deeper water, from which they do not seem to return until a change of weather has taken place; so much was this attended to by the seamen employed on this service, that they frequently prognosticated and judged of the weather from this habit of the fishes as well as from the appearance of the sky.”

“It was a general remark at the Bell Rock that fish were never plenty in its neighbourhood, excepting in good weather. Indeed, the seamen used to speculate about the state of the weather from their success in fishing. When the fish disappeared at the rock, it was considered a sure indication that a gale was not far off, as the fish seemed to seek shelter in deeper water, from the roughness of the sea, during these changes of the194 weather. This evening, the landing master’s crew brought to the rock a quantity of newly caught cod fish, measuring from fifteen to twenty-four inches in length. The membrane called the sound, which is attached to the backbone of fishes, being understood to contain, at different times, greater portions of azote and of oxygen than common air, the present favourable opportunity was embraced for collecting a quantity of this gas in a drinking glass inverted into a pail of salt water. The fish being held under this glass as a receiver, their bladders were punctured, and a considerable quantity of gas was thus collected. A lighted match was afterwards carefully introduced into the glass, when the gas exhibited in a considerable degree the bright and luminous flame which an excess of oxygen is known to produce.”

On showing this extract to my friend Dr. P. D. Handyside, who has contributed some interesting papers to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on the Polyodon gladius, he writes:—“Biot and De La Roche found that the proportion of oxygen in the air bladder increases with the depth of the water in which the fish usually lives, from a small quantity up to 87 per cent. Biot found in the deep Mediterranean fishes 87 parts of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbonic acid. Humboldt found in the electrical eel 96 parts of nitrogen and 4 only of oxygen. No hydrogen has ever been detected in this organ. In the air bladder of marine fishes oxygen predominates, and in that of fresh-water fishes nitrogen. No air sacs exist in rays, flounders, sole, turbot, and others which lie at the bottom.”

Dr. Handyside adds: “The extract shows with what a195 practical and accurate mind your father was endowed, and I think, in justice to him, you should give his observations.”

I also communicated Mr. Stevenson’s papers on fishings to the Honble. B. F. Primrose, C.B. (Secretary to the Fishery Board: Scotland), who has kindly sent me a letter explaining why the progress of the fishings in the Shetland Islands is slow, from which I give a few extracts:—

    “I have read with great interest your father’s notes upon the fisheries of Scotland. They bear distinctly the impress of that practical and accurate mind with which he is described as having been endowed. It is also pleasant to see that his mind went a great deal further, and grasped the application of science to solve the mystery of fishings.

    “He seems to have overlooked, as was universal in his day, that the secret of fisheries is not the presence of fish but the certainty of markets. Samuel Laing of Orkney, to whom he refers, was, I think, the first that struck this key note of truth. The Dutch came here and fished for herrings because they could not fill their vessels fast enough for the markets behind them in Holland. The Shetlanders did not fish for herrings because they had no remunerative market for them, but they fished, and fished boldly, where they had one, viz., for the whales of the Arctic Regions. They might have brought the herring home from off their own coasts and got nothing for them, but they could not bring the whale oil home without a secured profit.

    “The same thing obtains still. Shetland, from its position, cannot compete with the mainland of Scotland either in the home market or in the great continental markets for herrings; but it yields large supplies of cod, ling, and tusk, for which it pushes distant adventures to Iceland and the Faroe Isles.”


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