Women in Fishing
A little bit of local history...
Until the late 1960s, on the corner where High Street and Gibraltar Street meet Argyll Square in Oban, Jeanie MacFarlane could be found selling fish. No matter the weather, she carried fish from the pier in her wooden barrow and sold them to passersby. In her later years, she acquired a van and moved from her corner to park by the pier. She was remembered affectionately in the town for her generous portions and sense of humour.
MacFarlane is just one woman who was historically considered to comprise the “backbone of the fishing industry”; her predecessors paved the way. While fishing is historically associated with men, women along the coast of Scotland have been integral parts of the industry since the 19th century. In the 1840s, girls and young women began to accompany fishermen on their herring expeditions to keep camp. They baked, cooked, and washed for the crews. While the household duties alone kept the fishermen afloat - both literally and figuratively - the women were also tasked with making and mending nets and baiting the lines with mussels, which they also had to collect.
By the 1870s, the fishing market was thriving, resulting in women taking on even more prominent roles. Around this time, the crews transitioned to decked boats, as opposed to setting up camp on land. With this change and due to the increase in volume of fish, women’s duties expanded beyond keeping house and they began gutting and packing the herring in teams of three: two women gutted and one woman packed the herring. An experienced gutter could finish 30-60 fish in a minute.
As the industry bloomed, so did the number of women working, with just under 2,000 herring lassies employed in 1905, a record year. The women were on call from early Monday morning until Saturday night, as the boats arrived at unpredictable times. During their working hours, there was little time for rest, even for food or injured hands. The women’s fingers were bandaged with cotton to prevent cuts, but at the speed they were working, injuries were inevitable. With long hours, sore hands, and little rest, the work was not glamorous, but the workers persevered to get the fish to market.
In addition to making and mending nets, baiting lines, and gutting and packing, women were also tasked with selling the product. In the early days of the industry, herring lassies sold fish out of a pack on their back. With time, packs turned to barrows, and barrows to vans, evident in Jeanie’s operation in Oban. She maintained the long history of herring lassies in Oban and greater Scotland, while simultaneously evolving past traditions and developing a story of her own. Jeanie MacFarlane is remembered as not only part of the rich history of Oban, but also of women’s prominence in the fishing industry in coastal Scotland.
These images and documents can be found in the 'Fishing, Herring-Gutters, Ganseys, Kippers, etc.' binder in the Dunollie Archives located in the Reading Room. There are many other binders in the Reading Room filled with various aspects of local history which our visitors are welcome to consult.
This particular piece of research is one of five blog posts put together by Helen Anderson. Helen joined us all the way from Vermont, USA, as recipient of the John S. Carasik scholarship. The scholarship is awarded through the MacDougall McCallum Heritage Foundation, with the goal of sending recipients to Dunollie Museum, Castle and Grounds & the Gaelic Heritage Centre in Lismore to assist with our ongoing projects.