herring photos


I recently bought these two photos from the saleroom, the photos themselves are nice and they cost me the mighty sum of two pounds but what the photos represent was really why I wanted them. Since I bought them they have sparked an interest in me about my family and the role they played in a huge aspect of Shetland history.



I don’t come from a textile background, I have mentioned that before and it’s why I think I seek out as much Shetland knitwear as I can. But one thing I am connected to which was at a point one of Shetlands largest industries, the Herring industry. Shetlands main industries historically were Crofting, Fishing and Knitting. As times have changed these things have peaked and dipped but from the late 1800’s until the mid 1970’s Herring fishing in Shetland was a big deal.

Gutting Herring at Shearers Station, Lerwick. 1940s, Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives
Gutting Herring at Shearers Station, Lerwick. 1940s, Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives

My Great granddad Magnus Shearer (my dads granddad) alongside his brother Arthur and Uncle James started their Herring fishing company in 1919. Magnus and Arthur were born in Clate, Whalsay in 1890 and 1894 respectively. Their Uncle James was born in 1867 and during this period the Herring Industry was booming. To give you an idea in the year Magnus began his apprenticeship as a cooper (they made the barrels the herring were put into) there were 1783 boats working, over 21,000 people employed (the 2015 Shetland population is approx 22,000 people total!!) producing well over a 1,000,000 barrels of cured herring.

 Women gutting herring in the farlins at Shearer's Station, Whalsay. Photo: Magnie Shearer
Women gutting herring in the farlins at Shearer’s
Station, Whalsay. Photo: Magnie Shearer
 Women gutting herring in the farlins at Shearer's Station, Garthspool. Photo: Magnie Shearer
Women gutting herring in the farlins at Shearer’s
Station, Garthspool. Photo: Magnie Shearer

During the First World War understandably the industry died down and both Magnus and Arthur served with the Gordon Highlanders and after they were demobbed and came home the industry was beginning to grow again, most of Europe was on the brink of starvation after the war and herring was a main food supply. To that end they established J&M Shearer in the Summer of 1919. Initially they set up a small curing station at Scarfskerry where the Lerwick Boating Club is located now. (I worked at the boating club one summer when I was at College) after a few years they moved to Freefield where they rented a jetty from Hay & Co, they also operated a station in Whalsay from 1922. In 1928 they were able to purchase the whole Garthspool property in Lerwick they then were able to also purchase the former whaling station in Collafirth, Northmavine which had been turned into a Herring Station (this is the area my Mams side of the family now stays) This huge growth and additions to the company gives you an idea of how strong this industry was.

Research LK 62 landing herrings at Garthspool, to J&M Shearer. Photo: Magnie Shearer
Research LK 62 landing herrings at Garthspool, to J&M
Shearer. Photo: Magnie Shearer

During this period although there was huge growth the industry fluctuated terribly year on year, Shearers was best placed because it had the three stations and were able to rely on their workforce. Early each season Arthur and latterly Magnus’s son, Magnus M (my Great Uncle, my Grannys brother) would go to Whalsay to hire some of the gutters for the coming season, paying them ‘Arle Money’ this was a rough contract, to show that both parties were committed to working together in that season. Mostly the women worked for Shearers year on year, probably because the men were originally from Whalsay and they had a good relationship with them. The ladies worked in groups of three, two gutters and a packer. In Lerwick there was the need for up to 10 crews of three with Whalsay having roughly half that at its peak. The work was dirty,cold and painful. The two gutters would gut the fish while the packer packed the Herring in tiers of salt in barrels, the rate of gutting was extremely fast with about 30-50 herring a minute so every morning the ladies would tie bandages over their fingers to avoid being nicked or cut by the special sharp knife they used to gut the fish. If they did cut their fingers the salt would enter the wound and make it extremely painful.

 Women gutting herring in the farlins at Shearer's Station, Garthspool. Photo: Magnie Shearer
Women gutting herring in the farlins at Shearer’s
Station, Garthspool. Photo: Magnie Shearer
Herring gutting at Shearer's. Photo: Magnie Shearer
Herring gutting at Shearer’s. Photo: Magnie Shearer

After the outbreak of the Second World War the herring fishing went down dramatically, again my Great Grandad Magnus was enlisted to the Gordon Highlanders but due to his age (49) he remained in Shetland as Movement Control Officer, during this time he also became provost of Lerwick from 1941-1946. To keep things going Arthur stayed on to run the business during the war and he also ran the Whitefish side of the business which had been established to give the coopers extra work during the winter.

James Manson nicknamed 'Yunkers', making a whole barrel in Shearer's Cooperage. Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives
James Manson nicknamed ‘Yunkers’, making a whole barrel in Shearer’s Cooperage. Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives

Some Summer herring fishing still went on at this time but on a much smaller scale as the yard had been taken over as an Army camp. Both the herring and whitefish was controlled by the government and the story goes that all the cured herring during the war was used to feed German Prisoners or War at POW camps throughout the UK.

Packing th gutted herring into the barrels. The cooper on the far right of the photo is Magnus Shearer (Arthur's son) Photo: Magnie Shearer
Packing the gutted herring into the barrels. The cooper
on the far right of the photo is Magnus Shearer (Arthur’s son) Jamieson & Smith can be seen in the background behind one of the boats mast’s. Photo: Magnie Shearer
Gutting mackerel at J. & M. Shearer's station. Lt.-Rt.- Tammie Garriock, James Manson (Yunkers), Bertie Tulloch, Willie Couper. Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives
Gutting mackerel at J. & M. Shearer’s station. Lt.-Rt.- Tammie Garriock, James Manson (Yunkers), Bertie Tulloch, Willie Couper. Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives

After the war my Great Uncle Magnus joined the family firm and his cousin, Arthur’s son, also called Magnus (its a strong family name, what can I say!) went into the cooperage to serve his apprenticeship. In 1945 when all the fishermen returned home from the war Shearers decided to put all their boats back out to the fishing (they had been being used as ‘flitboats’ to transport goods between the stations and then in War service) and built back up the Shetland fleet. The industry never recovered completely after the war and the demand for cured Herring was beginning to fall, however the demand for frozen Herring was beginning to rise and J&M Shearer installed Ice factories in 1945,1948 and the flake ice plant in 1960. (one of these buildings is now the offices of the Shetland Amenity Trust) Gutting machinery was also installed in 1964 which improved the conditions for the workers but quality became more of a problem. The company was bought by HPB (By Products) LTD in 1970 and in 1977 on the 1st of January a complete ban on herring fishing in the British Sector of the North Sea began essentially ending 250 years of Herring Fishing in Shetland and ending the Shearers involvement after over 60 years.

The two men in the foreground are Magnus Shearer Snr, the 'M' of J&M Shearer (my Great Grandad) The other man is the AHM Herring Inspector Photo: Magnie Shearer
The two men in the foreground are Magnus Shearer Snr,
the ‘M’ of J&M Shearer (my Great Grandad) The other man is the
AHM Herring Inspector Photo: Magnie Shearer
 Gutting herring at Shearer's Station, Garthspool, herring drifter 'Research' LK 62 in the background Photo: Magnie Shearer
Gutting herring at Shearer’s Station, Garthspool,
herring drifter ‘Research’ LK 62 in the background Photo: Magnie Shearer

Of course by the time I was born in 1990 this was all long over but there are little reminders of Shearer’s everywhere down on the sea front in Lerwick, I feel a strong connection when I walk along there which I do often. My work at Jamieson & Smith is near to where the stations were located and you can see it in the background of lots of the photos. The herring gutters that came up to work in Shetland were the reason Jamieson & Smith started doing a Mail Order service, one of the first in Shetland, so the gutters that came up to work in Shetland in the season could carry on knitting when they got home. It’s hard for me to appreciate how difficult it must have been for my family when the business began to fail as the industry died. They kept it going in different forms but when I read how parts of the business were broken up and sold off it makes me feel for my not so distant ancestors. I wish my Granny was still here so I could ask her about it, although perhaps it was upsetting which is why I don’t know too much about it all. Or of course I could be being dramatic (me? never..) and that was just how the world was changing. All the information I have and all the photos were kindly given to me by my cousin Young Magnus, my Great Uncle Magnus’s son. He gathered together what he could from memory and research because the official records of the business were lost or destroyed when they were relocated to the offices of the then parent company HBP (By Products) LTD in 1984 when they sold off the business and assets of Shearers. An interesting thing young Magnus also sent me was a transcript of a recommendation letter which my Great Granddad received when he was looking to emigrate to Nova Scotia as a Fisheries Officer after a particularly difficult Herring season in 1920-1921. As he pointed out, who knows if his optimism took over or if he had already met and fallen in love with my Great Granny Flora Stephen as they were married in December 1922. In any case, it’s a good job he didn’t or I likely wouldn’t be here today!

J&M Shearer barrels, Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives
J&M Shearer barrels, Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives

I hope this history is vaguely interesting to some of you, I’m glad I got those £2 photos..! As an aside my nephew is also called Magnus, he’s not a Shearer but his dad is from Whalsay..

Further reading:

Coull, James R. Fishing, Fishermen, Fish Merchants and Curers in Shetland: Episodes in Fishing and Curing Herring and White Fish. Shetland: Shetland Amenity Trust, 2007. Print.

Telford, Susan. ‘In a World a Wir Ane’: A Shetland Herring Girl’s Story. Lerwick: Shetland Times, 1998. Print.

Fryer, Linda G. “Knitting by the Fireside and on the Hillside”: A History of the Shetland Hand Knitting Industry C.1600-1950. Lerwick: Shetland Times, 1995. Print.

Abrams, Lynn. Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World: Shetland 1800-2000. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010. Print.



28 thoughts on “herring photos

  1. Thanks for sharing your family’s history, Ella. The pictures were priceless & really brought life to your writing. It was a great window to life on Shetland in those days.

  2. Lovely read and beautiful photos they hold many memories for me as my mother was a packer ar Shearers in Lerwick. I used to go down to the station after school and help her to top up the barrels

  3. Ella, that was a great read. I love history and often think on those herring girls because of other pictures i have seen but gutting 30-50/minute is remarkable. I have Linda Fryer’s book. You have a lot to be proud of. Thank you.

  4. Fascinating Ella, you are fortunate to have these records of your family. A great genealogy resource!

  5. I always look forward to your posts. I have a deep love of History, no matter where. I was thinking, right before I opened your post, about a wonderful story I came across not to long ago. It was posted, I believe, by the owner of a small yarn and specialty shop in the small fishing village of Cordova, Alaska. Not only has she and her Husband worked in the fishing industry, but her daughter and her husband and her so, have embraced this wonderful, yet difficult way of life. Over the past year, she has fallen in love with “Fishermen’s Sweaters”. After much research and a few trips, she has decided to create a Fisherman’s Sweater Design for her Fishermen and Women, as well as a design for the community of Fishermen in Cordova. You might enjoy it. She traveled to the Shetland Islands, to add to her research. You can read about it at , thenetloftak.com. She presents it in the form of chapters and ” the long” or “the short” story. I read both and I think, if you really must choose one, that you go with “the long story”. Well, have a wonderful weekend, and Happy Knitting” Till next post…

  6. Spookily… Down here in Eyemouth, Saturday was the beginning of the Herring Queen festival http://www.ehq.co.uk
    At first glance I thought your photos were of Eyemouth, the barrels, the brats, heads down… and I’m sure readers from Lowestoft and all east coast points north will also recognize the scenes.
    There is a play ‘get up and tie your fingers’ by Ann Coburn which is a story about the Eyemouth fishing disaster told through the eyes of three herring lasses. Last year this toured as part of ‘follow the herring’ http://www.customshouse.co.uk/followtheherring which connected to ‘the knitting’ by involving the communities visited in making a shoal of knitted herring.
    (Can’t see how to add a photo to a comment, sorry)
    Yours is an excellent blog, thank you.

  7. So interesting & much food for thought (no pun intended). Just think of those women with the bandaged up fingers, salty, smelly, exhausted & heading home to KNIT in the evenings! “A man may work from sun til sun, but a woman’s work is never done.” I really enjoyed this post & the photos. Great family (and regional) history.

  8. Lovely post, thank you for sharing the pictures and the book titles. I’ve been after something about the Herring lasses for a while – it must have been some life, and a shock to realise how recently it stopped.

  9. Look out for poet Donald S Murray’s new book ‘Herring Tales’ due out September 10th 2015. If his book ‘Weaving Songs’ is anything to go on, it promises to be a real gem, and a further insight into the Herring industry around the coast.
    Love your photos Ella; they are a real find.

  10. This was a really interesting post to read for me. I was raised outside Måløy in Norway, and Shetland has always been apart of the family stories. This is where the chistmaslights came from, the best sweets (Quality street – impossible to buy in Norway then) and the swimsuit I got from my aunt.

    My grandfather was a fisherman and Shetland was like a neighborhood for him (I found a picture of his boat in Lerwick – see under) and we heard a lot of stories.

    When I got to see this place in 2000 (just for 14 hours) it was like a place I knew. These days I am doing research about the wool, sheep and the knitting history, but my connection will always be through the fishing boats.

    I’m coming back soon.


    PS And its interesting to se my female name as a mens name.

  11. Your posts continue to be of interest. Thank you for sharing your family’s story. I am struck, as always, by how hardworking the people of Shetland are. Keep writing please…

  12. so interesting to hear of your family . I am from fraserburgh another herring port with strong links to Shetland and though im not “fisher” it brought back so many childhood memories . my next door neighbour at that time was a gutter and followed the fleets down as far as Yarmouth and up to Shetland . the speed they gutted fish was amazing !! . my neighbour also had her barrel of salted herring sitting at the back door for over the winter , it sure did stink in the summer !
    I also remember all the wee kipper houses that used to smoke the fish . they looked so ramshackle they always seemed as though they were about to fall down .
    folk used to dry herring at the back door . split and hung on wires (a bit like a big abacus frame but with fish instead of counters )
    all these things are gone now including the herring but it was good to remember sparked off by your blog ! oh and this was the 60’s by the way. some of the “old ways” hung on till the 70’s but I suppose the collapse of the herring industry and the introduction of quotas changed the whole industry . its certainly different now !
    it was definitely a harder life then . I love to hear all your stories and as you can see this one has set off an avalanche of memories ! cheers .
    you never said if you liked herring though . do you have hairy tatties in Shetland .? herring mixed with mashed potatoes ! yum yum

  13. Thank you for posting this. It’s really important to keep a link with the past and what has forged our personal histories. It’s too easy to loose that connection in this busy world, fascinating stuff, thanks again x

  14. I’m playing catchup on my blog reading, and I just wanted to tell you how fascinating I found this to be. I’ve read a bit on herring girls before, but I learned several new things from your post. Thank you for sharing this!

  15. Hi, sorry this is not really to do with this fantastic article ; I wondered if you have any connection with a Magnus Shearer who lived in Wynford Ave, Uphall around 1970? Not a common name so I thought I’d ask. I can explain if you’d like. My email is calum.mclean@sky.com
    Thank you

Leave a Reply to Cheryl aka CherylfromCreemore Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.