learning from Loch Fyne

Like many of us here in the UK, I’ve really enjoyed the BBC Wild Isles series, and am full of admiration for the dedicated camera crews and production teams behind this series which raises such important questions about the future of our natural landscape. The sequences shot in Islay and around Shetland were particular highlights for me, as was the stunning fifth episode, whose spectacular narrative sequences and beautiful photography were the work of underwater cameraman, Doug Anderson. I’ve become really passionate about what’s going on to protect and restore Scotland’s marine environments as a result of the work I did for our Secret Coast project, exploring what happened to Argyll’s fishing industry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As well as the subject I was ostensibly researching back then – the story of Loch Fyne’s lost herring – I read an awful lot about Scotland’s marine environment, and began to really think about the exploitative and extractive nature of certain kinds of salmon farming (whose huge commercial interests hold an awful lot of weight in Scotland) and learn more about great community-led habitat restoration projects, (such as this one at Loch Craignish). The Wild Isles series seems to have reignited a debate on the important subject of Scotland’s Higly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) and I thought I’d share the piece I ended up writing for our Argyll project, about what I learned about Loch Fyne. You can read this essay, together with a range of others by historians like Stephen Mullen and Gilbert Márkus, in our Argyll’s Secret Coast book.

The spit at Otter

On Loch Fyne’s Cowal shore, is Otter, whose name is an an anglicised variant of the Gaelic ‘oitir’, referring to the distinctive spit of land that extends westwards, at this point, from the shore across the loch. Formed by the continual tidal movement between Loch Fyne’s upper and lower reaches, Otter’s mobile ridge of sand and shingle emerges each day from the surface, and then sinks away from view.

The loch is often calm, but even when the water reflects the far shore like a looking glass, at Otter everything is in motion. Lifted from the loch bed, turned and re-turned by the tide, the jaggy edges of oysters are gradually ground down to a suede-like softness, and cockle ridges are smoothed away, like the worn faces of old stone saints. Whether rose or chestnut coloured, dull grey or streaked with quartz, pebbles lifted from the spit at Otter lie sleek and polished in the palm. This is a landscape of attrition, a place where you might put your hand to the ground to feel the sands of time. 

Otter is a quiet place today, but two centuries ago, it was the focus of a strange and bloody conflict. The sandy spit, a boundary of sorts between the loch’s lower and upper reaches, began to mark the difference between two communities, and two different ways of life. These communities had once felt connected, but they now found themselves set against each other, in peculiar opposition. The spit was the frontier between two sides divided over a resource that was the property of neither, but which both nonetheless fiercely claimed. One side championed the virtues of tradition, continuity, and careful management. The other flew the flag for enterprise, profit, and innovation. Both acted entirely out of their own interest, yet within the context of a growing problem that was much larger than themselves. This is both an old story, and a very modern fable. It’s the story of how Loch Fyne lost its herring. 

Loch Fyne

Herring are mysterious fish: their shoal migrations are difficult to fathom, their movements and behaviour notoriously uncertain. Yet, for centuries, the elusive silver darlings had provided an important boost to the incomes of the crofting communities along the upper reaches of Loch Fyne. Loch Fyne is the longest of Scotland’s sea lochs, extending inland for more than forty miles. By the early 1800s, around the shores of the east and west upper loch, were clustered many small communities, growing bere, kale and potatoes on small crofts, supporting their family with a cow or pig or two and, when the season was right, fishing for herring. Soft-mouthed herring cannot be caught with lines, and in upper Loch Fyne they were traditionally trapped with wide-meshed drift nets. Like gigantic curtains, these nets would be drawn out at night, before the herring rose to feed, hanging down into the depths of the water from cork buoys floating on the surface. Made of flax, and weighted down with ropes, these nets were huge, unwieldy, and difficult to maintain. Because the location of the herring shoals could rarely be accurately predicted, drift-net fishing could be somewhat hit and miss, owing more to chance than to design.  Retrieving the herring from the laden nets was hard and heavy work, and the nets themselves required continual drying and repair to ensure their good condition. But one or two small vessels with well-maintained drift nets might serve a whole community: several local men could hold a share in a boat, and hence a share of its profits, and herring caught by the drift-net method could be quickly sold on to the curing merchants, who, in season, stationed their large processing “busses”, ready to salt each new catch, at the top of Loch Fyne. 

Alexander Nasmyth, Herring Boats on Loch Fyne (nd, late eighteenth century). National Gallery of Scotland

By the early 1800s, herring was a lucrative and highly sought after catch, both for the domestic market, and increasingly for export, as herring preserved by the salt “Scotch cure” provided the empire with a cheap and easily transportable source of protein. In the decades that preceded emancipation, between 50,000 and 80,000 barrels of cured herring were exported annually from Scotland to the Caribbean, to feed the enslaved people whose labour generated huge profits for Scottish plantation owners, many of whom, of course, hailed from Argyll. Greenock fish merchants, Glasgow curers, West Indian exporters: everyone was cashing in on the herring boom, and the fishing communities of Argyll were no exception. Close to Cowal, on the neighbouring peninsula of Kintyre, was the coastal village of Tarbert, where, unlike the mixed, marginal, crofting communities of upper Loch Fyne, fishing provided a continuous livelihood for the area’s working men. So as well as catching herring around the mouth of Loch Fyne, Tarbert fishermen liked to work further out at sea, seeking different catches of different types around the inland waters of neighbouring peninsulas, down towards the Clyde and up towards the Minch. By the 1830s, Tarbert’s enterprising and highly mobile fishermen had begun to try out different methods of catching herring, actively seeking out the shoals rather than waiting for them to show up. They tested lighter nets with smaller meshes, in which many more (and younger) herring might be caught, and they experimented with a new way of trapping and catching the elusive fish. Rather than the hit-or-miss drift net curtain, their new method involved two boats working together, actively locating, pursuing, and encircling a shoal with a lightweight net of drawstring bag-like construction. Chasing and trapping the fish in this way was peculiarly skilled, exacting work: experienced crewmen could “read” the position of the herring from tiny signs in the dark water and calculate the position of their nets by feeling a shoal’s vibration against a wire. 

William Howes Hunt after JM Turner, Herring boats on Loch Fyne (1833). British Museum.

But as well as adult fish, the efficient small-meshed ring nets caught herring fry, and other fish of different types: many more than could be taken or indeed were wanted.  When boats were at capacity, any herring not landed by the ring-netters were simply left to die. But, for these enterprising fishermen, this waste was not regarded as a problem. Because from their perspective, they were simply onto a winner:  their new equipment was lighter, cheaper and easier to manage than the cumbersome, labour-intensive drift nets; their skilled work of reading tides and shoals was efficiently accomplished; the volume of herring that they began to catch was far greater than that of their drift-netting neighbours; and, of course, the profits of their catch were greater too.  

Walter Geikie, A Dealer in Herrings, from Scottish Characters (1833)

By the 1840s, the Tarbert ring-netters were capturing huge quantities of herring in the mouth of Loch Fyne, and around its lower reaches, toward Otter. Alarm bells began to ring for the drift-netters further up the loch when, alongside significant reductions in their seasonal catches, they noticed dead fish, decaying in the water and by the shore. They immediately recognised the problem as one of overfishing.  The new ring-netting method was depleting the loch’s overall stocks of herring, as well as creating waste, whose putrefying presence itself deterred new shoals from moving around Loch Fyne. 

The sandy spit at Otter rapidly became the focus of the emerging tensions between Loch Fyne’s drift-net and ring-net fishers. Not only did the spit mark a natural boundary between the loch’s upper and lower reaches, but it was a convenient and safe landing point for skiffs and crews who worked at night. Local landowner, Mungo Campbell (who had made a huge fortune from the profits of slavery in Guyana, and who had recently enlarged his Ballimore estate with the “compensation” money paid out after emancipation) wasn’t keen on the escalating herring conflict on his doorstep. He issued official complaints about the local presence of a new “class of boats not owned by the regular fishers of herrings” and their habit of “dragging [their catch] to shore on spots favourable for the operation, such as the sand reef of Otter . . . at all seasons and all hours of night.” These practices, Campbell argued, were “hurtful to the herring fishing in its proper season” and could not “be put an end to . . . unless made illegal by an act of parliament.” John Miller of Scotland’s recently-established Fisheries Board eventually agreed. Unless the Tarbert ring-netters were “entirely prevented,” from working around Otter, “the Loch Fyne fishing, which has for centuries been famed for its herrings, will be annihilated and its industrious fishermen ruined.” There were, Miller argued, clear grounds to suspect “that this new mode of catching leads to extermination.” Miller was right, of course, but he didn’t know that then. Still, with the support of influential local figures like Campbell, the “buss” curing lobby (whose profits had been affected by the new practices), and the Fisheries Board, in 1851, the British government introduced an act making the practice of ring-net fishing illegal in Loch Fyne. 

Inveraray from across Loch Fyne

To police the new act, an armed government survey vessel, HMS Porcupine, was stationed near Otter.  But the commanding officer soon complained that he and his men were finding the law impossible to enforce, because of the “determination, cunning and ingenuity” of the ring-netters.  In 1853, a Porcupine patrol shot and wounded Colin McKeich, a local ring-net fisherman, during a confrontation, and things became much more difficult for all involved.  Well-supported parliamentary petitions were lodged by both sides—the ring-netters arguing for their superior efficiency and their right to fish where they chose, and the drift-netters protesting that, if overfishing continued at the rate of recent years, there would be no herring for anyone to harvest from Loch Fyne. Further clauses were added to the act—by law, ring-netted catches and equipment might be seized; by law, processors and merchants buying herrings that had been landed by illegal methods might be prosecuted—but still the men from Tarbert came to fish and sell their catch. In 1861, Loch Fyne’s herring conflict turned to crisis. In June of that year, after landing a catch at Otter, Peter McDougall, a young ring-netter from Ardrishaig, was shot and killed by a government patrol; Tarbert ring-netters were pushed over the Inveraray pier and chased out of town by hayfork-wielding drift-netters, and, the following month, “riots and bloodshed” were predicted on the shores of Loch Fyne if the Tarbert men continued to venture to Otter to land their catches.  On August 5th, it very nearly came to that, when a group of 300 drift-netters sailed to Otter to confront the small group of smacks and skiffs from Tarbert that, in spite of repeated warnings, then lay at anchor off the sandy spit. There were angry words and an exchange of fire between the two sides, before the drift-netters eventually withdrew. 

Attempting to regulate and police fishing in the 1850s and 60s must have been extremely tricky. The government simply could not hope to keep tabs on the activities of small groups of skilled, experienced, and determined men, working under cover of darkness, who could communicate with one another in Gaelic as well as English, and who were able to move rapidly, discarding nets and catches when alarmed. By 1867, the parliamentary act outlawing ring-netting was deemed to be essentially unenforceable and, bolstered by the evidence of record annual catches of Loch Fyne herring (which incorrectly convinced the Fisheries Board and government that the new methods did not affect overall stock levels), the methods of the Tarbert fishermen were legalised. And in any case, by this point, ring-netting had begun to be adopted by other fishing communities, spreading to the Hebrides, and then north to the fjord fisheries of Norway—a landscape dominated by long sea lochs, like Argyll. 

The drift-netters had complained that the ring-netters mode of fishing was essentially unsustainable. They had pointed out the waste the new method generated, highlighted the problematic destruction of herring spawn and fry, and suggested that these practices heralded the inevitable depletion of Loch Fyne’s herring stocks. They had found themselves swimming against an extractivist tide—against the prevailing nineteenth-century doctrine of taking, exploiting, and profiting from whatever the natural world provided—and eventually, they had lost. Within a few short decades, the boom was over. Overfishing had its predictable effect. The debate between efficiency and sustainability, between quick profit and long-term management, was now immaterial. Because the herring had gone, and no longer supported the small communities of Loch Fyne.

From our twenty-first century perspective, the moral trajectory of this story seems straightforward. For who wouldn’t support the cause of sustainable stock management over that of overfishing? But, unlike the feuding communities of Loch Fyne who could not really know the future, we have the benefit of hindsight. And we must remember that for many years, for several generations of maritime historians, this story has been told with a very different emphasis: as a battle between conservative, backward-looking, luddite drift-netters and their creative, enterprising, forward-thinking ring-netting counterparts.  We might also consider the questions raised by Loch Fyne’s herring crisis within the context of an advanced division of labour: as a conflict between those for whom herring fishing had become an increasingly specialised and highly skilled economic activity and those for whom it simply comprised one among many different seasonal crofting tasks. And all that is before we begin to think about the multiple, overlapping layers of poverty and profit, of grotesque greed and exploitation, that form this story’s global backdrop.

The drift-netters and the ring-netters fished in different ways, but close ties also bound them together. They shared a sense of coastal place, a language, a local culture, and the common identities of poor working people striving to support their families with the resources provided by the marginal landscapes in which they lived. Both communities were also clearly exploited by the processors, who bought their raw fish very cheaply, cured it, and sold it on to the merchants and exporters, who in turn profited from the product in an imperial marketplace, where it had become the key component of the diets of enslaved people, who had themselves been bought and sold as commodities, and put to work to grow the enormous wealth of Scottish plantation owners. The silver fish defined the conflict between two Loch Fyne communities, but also lay at the heart of a much bigger narrative, a story that continues to this day, a story that concerns the extractivist, imperialist exploitation of the global south.

Herring boom . . . and bust. . .

Today, a very different fish—the carnivorous salmon—is carefully grown and harvested around the beautiful shores of Loch Fyne. The feed of Scottish farmed salmon is made up of smaller fish, like herring, or sardninella, such as yaboi. In Senegal, the yaboi has long been known as the “people’s fish” but local fishermen now sell what they catch to big, European feed processors rather than to the small, shore-side transformatrices (curers).  Yaboi stocks are rapidly depleting, and the “people’s fish” sadly plays a much smaller part in Senagalese diets. Rather than feeding West African communities, the nutritious yaboi now fills the bellies of the hungry salmon farmed in Scottish coastal waters, which we, in our turn, consume.

Across the sandy spit at Otter, the waters wash back and forth, transforming rocks and shells to shingle, and shingle into sand. The past throws up many stones and many stories, and it does not always give us straightforward answers. But it is more important now than ever that we continue to tell and retell these stories, turn these questions over and over, in our own discursive tides. 

On the yaboi, West African diets and Northern European farmed salmon, I recommend listening to both parts of Hazel Healy’s brilliant BBC World Service documentary, Tale of a Tiny Fish Part one and Part two

On the West Indian cured herring market pre- and post-emancipation, see David Alston, Slaves and Highlanders, Silenced Histories of Scotland and the Caribbean (2021)

This essay is indebted to Angus Martin’s thorough history of the Loch Fyne herring conflict, The Ring Net Fishermen (1981). Martin, a descendant of generations of ring-netters, concluded, after many years of researching and writing his book that his ancestors had been part of a much bigger problem. His final paragraph reads: “the most profound and influential personal lesson of these five years of questioning and gathering has been this: that Western society, by its criminal contempt for the fellow-creatures which share its corner of the planet, has brought itself to the edge of an ecological and moral crisis from which, without the exercise of immediate and unswerving restraint, there can be no withdrawal.” 

The photography is by Tom, of course. You might also enjoy the short film he shot to accompany my essay.

Loch Fyne

Read more Argyll stories in our book, Argyll’s Secret Coast