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Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland
Marine Highland Industries

By William Anderson Smith, Ledaig, Argyllshire.
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In face of the Edinburgh Fisheries Exhibition, originated by the Highland and Agricultural Society, and so successfully conducted under its auspices, it would be out of place to devote much space to the question of the fisheries ; but, as the subject is engaging the particular attention of a Special Committee of that Society, I desire to place before the public the necessities of the Highlands in this connection, and the various directions in which enterprise might be stimulated and encouraged.

It so happens that it has been necessary hitherto to bring extraneous aid both in skill and money to develop all marine industries along the Highland coast-line, as the only important centres of such industries have been created from without, the natives, with some few but important exceptions, neither showing skill as boatmen and fishermen, nor love of seafaring. Yet the enormous extent of coast-line, the many safe anchorages and harbours, the mildness of the western sea, and the facilities in railway and steamboat communication fast being multiplied, ought to direct especial attention to the undeveloped resources in these waters, that might well relieve many over-populated districts from the pressure that is upon them.

The poverty of the more isolated districts, preventing the men obtaining the needful boats and gear, is gradually lessening through a wider diffusion of wealth; and what is greatly required is a wider diffusion of knowledge and skill, to enable the scattered population to make use of the resources often at their door.

Of recent years much progress has been made in the western herring fishery, various new stations having been established of an important character; while the whole west coast has been tapped by steamers in the herring season to an extent never hitherto attempted. This has done more, however, to bring boats from the east than to develop the west coast fishery as a local industry, and not until the coast population are stimulated to attempt the capture of the ordinary white fish off the shore, and so gradually accustomed to seafaring and the careful handling of craft, will they acquire skill sufficient to enable them successfully to follow the bolder branches of the profession well out to the deeper banks.

The use of the long line or bulter, as employed in the cod and ling fishery, is mostly confined to special centres where this fishery is conducted, but has not extended to the outlying districts where fish are to be had in at least sufficient quantity to supply the locality, while occasionally considerable supplies could be forwarded to the more populous districts. The consequence of this want of gear and skill is that we are exceedingly ignorant as to the marine resources of the west, neither knowing properly what species of fish are common, nor where they are obtainable; while, wherever the herring fishery is in full swing, all other fish are neglected, as they show but a poor return for the labour expended compared with this prolific fish.

As examples of what fisheries are worthy of attention, I may instance mullet, which are plentiful in certain localities, but through ignorance of the proper mode of capture, and perhaps want of the proper appliances, I never see one for sale, and •rarely hear of a capture.

I have seen the sand smelt (Atherina) in quantities, but the people were equally ignorant of their character, and in want of the required nets to enclose them.

The conger eel, which is a good and wholesome, and at any rate a marketable fish, is only sought as bait for the cod and ling boats, while they might form an important winter fishery if regularly sent to the southern markets.

Whiting are more especially plentiful in some seasons in our sea-lochs, where these are largely supplied with fresh water; but their capture is only intermittent, partial, and for local consumpt. The people have not learned that they are valuable as a marketable commodity, and that it is worth expending care and assiduity in their capture. But perhaps the most remarkable instance of disregard of a valuable industry is that of the fresh-water eel, which can only be termed "marine" from its frequenting the sea to spawn. Neither eating what is to them an unclean and disgusting object, nor capturing it for sale, it is allowed to swarm on all our coasts, occasionally to the serious injury of the fry of the Salmonidae; and its neglect represents a loss to the country which may well be calculated at a very large sum, seeing that the eel fishery of Ireland is scarcely, if at all, inferior in value to her salmon fishery. It is hardly conceivable, but throughout the Highlands you will scarcely ever see an eel trap, nor, indeed, can they be purchased in the west, to our knowledge; the only specimen exhibited in Edinburgh being wholly unsuited for the purpose designed. What is wanted is the distribution of a few properly made osier traps, so that the scattered population may understand their construction, and the value of the creature they are designed to capture, in the market. This ignorance of apparatus is so widespread that we look to the new Committee of the Society to use their influence in obtaining proper exhibits of the best appliances for fish capture, to be loaned throughout the Highlands to the different coast districts as a means of education, to supplement the annual shows of the Society, now thrown open so liberally to all connected with the fisheries.

There is scarcely a stream with a coast exit but is well filled with an eel population, and as the elder members freely prey upon their weaker brethren, the annual removal of a large proportion of the more marketable eels would only improve the streams as eel preserves.

These same streams can for the most part readily be made available for sea trout, by merely breeding and turning loose a moderate number annually, which will return thither in the breeding season; and even when the stream is so small as to offer scarcely any facility for the passage of sea-trout, a very little expenditure would form a pool or pools a short way from the mouth of the stream, where good sport and an important aggregate food-supply could be obtained. Large fish will make strenuous endeavours to pass up the very smallest water-courses, or wait patiently for a spate to enable them to do so; while it is rare that they would require to wait long in the rainy west.

The coasts of the Western Highlands and Islands are well supplied with sandy and muddy stretches of foreshore, where the various flat fish abound; and yet, partly through ignorance of their value, partly through dislike of all flat fish, the inhabitants rarely capture any of them, and never send them to market.

I will not at present touch upon the advantage of breeding artificially the finer qualities of these fish, so as to supersede the plaice on these feeding grounds ; although this is quite a feasible, and in our opinion not a difficult operation. But we merely call attention to these sources of supply as at least of local value. The Broad Bay flounder of Stornoway, and celebrated flounder of Iona, are noted instances of superior fish.

A fresh hake is a fish that is looked upon by many as an especially delightful dish, and yet this fish is never seen in the market, although comparatively plentiful on many parts of our western coast.

I am not aware that the tusk or torsk is ever captured south of Ardnamurchan, but it is one of the finest of the Gardidae when fresh, in our opinion; and I am persuaded that if the fishermen of the north were once to have it properly introduced into the market, this firm, nourishing, and agreeable fish would soon become a public favourite. Along the Hebridean coast-line the turbot was usually classed among "flounders" in our experience, and we have frequently purchased fish at 1s. each that would have been worth 30s. in the London market. A very great number of these fishes are cut up for bait in the cod and ling fishery, and a little arrangement might readily bring them before a more appreciative set of customers. The same may be said of the halibut, a fish only of recent introduction to our markets in the west of Scotland, and one that ought to be procurable in far greater abundance than at present, as it is by no means an uncommon fish on the western banks. Foremost among fishes that are wholly neglected along the western seaboard, I would place the skate, especially the thornback skate, which is rarely captured except when it ought to be let alone, namely, when it comes into shoal water to deposit its eggs. These fish are very numerous among the muddy lochs of the Highlands, and living for the most part upon Crustacea, and frequenting comparatively shallow water, they ought to be readily captured, and constitute an industry of some value. They are readily kept alive, and easily fed upon crabs, and could thus be kept until wanted, when they might be crimped and promptly despatched to the nearest market. By protecting them in May and June, when they come shoreward to lay their eggs, the stock could easily be kept up, and their capture of a moderate size can be readily effected with small lines baited with hermit crabs or whilks.

There is yet another class of fishes quite ignored among us. We refer to the species of sandlaunce (Ammodytes), those delicious fish, which in many quarters are so highly prized, and are only inferior in delicacy to the smelt. They are very numerous in our extensive western sands, and ought to be assiduously sought after, either for local consumption, or, where practicable, for prompt despatch to a ready market. The whole West Highlands of Scotland being comparatively virgin ground, without the danger of interfering with vested interests of an irremovable character, such as meet the fish-culturist on the English rivers and coasts, no better time than the present could present itself for the wise and judicious supervision of the coast in connection with its marine industries.

The great success of lobster ponds made out of any suitable small arm of the sea, into which lobsters may be placed in the summer time, and kept until the winter season, ought to stimulate efforts to improve upon this by both breeding and feeding them in such "lobsteries." The West Highlands lend themselves admirably to efforts in this direction, and I cannot understand how it has never paid any one to despatch the fine crabs of the north and west to the southern markets. As a rule, consignments of these have never been successful, and I am strongly inclined to question whether such consignments have had fair play in the open market. The supply is unquestionable, and the quality superior, without being overgrown, and I could wish that a bona fide experiment were made on a proper scale with this commodity.

The idea of enclosed rocky ponds might be greatly extended in the west and north, where such baylets frequently open direct from the outer ocean. At Arcachon there are ponds into which sea fish enter freely as fry, and where they are then secured by closing the entrances except to the inflow and outflow of water. The fish are kept there until they attain a marketable size. This principle could easily be carried out in many districts at small cost, and the coast, indeed, ought to be lined with similar feeding-places, whence the fish could be taken during severe weather, and despatched to good markets.

It is scarcely credible the quantity of cockles that can be obtained from certain portions of our coast, of a quality so superior as to be little inferior to oysters. And yet we never heard of any being despatched to market from the Highlands, although they form such an extensive industry on the English coast, where this shell-fish is distinctly inferior in flavour to the northern mollusc. There is surely room here for encouraging a traffic among our poor island populations.

The periwinkle (Littorea littorina), again, is exported in large quantities under the name of "whilk," and yet the real whilk is never gathered, either for local consumption or export; whereas there is not only a good demand for these mollusca as food in the cities, but a still better demand for them as bait in the line fisheries. We should prefer to see our own line fisheries so developed as to demand all that the localities could supply, but in the absence of this a distinct industry could be created out of these carnivorous shell-fish themselves; and this might lead more readily to the further development of the capture of those various fishes that these mollusca are employed to allure. From the quantity of whilk spawn thrown, its accessibility, and the readiness with which it lends itself to culture, we are strongly of opinion that an opening for an industry may be found in their artificial propagation in certain localities. The so-called "whilk," or periwinkle, trade is already a large one in the Highlands, and we believe would be locally improved by the more regular cutting of the sea-ware. This is commonly allocated to particular farmers ex adverso the coast, and we consider that so long as they claim such allocation they should be obliged to perform their part of the contract, and cut the whole portion allocated every third year. This would supply the winkles with fresher pasture, and enable the same coast-line to carry a larger stock. The great stretches of uncut ware in many districts represent a double loss to the locality in manure and periwinkles. I will not enlarge upon the vast importance of the mussel harvest, that only requires gathering in many places, and would amply repay attention in others.

Those splendid shell-fish, the myae, tapes, and solens, are all worthy of note, and ought at least to prove an aid to the local populations, many of whom will not at present condescend to touch them. Is there no way of teaching their practical value, and stimulating the coast population to test their nourishing and palatable qualities ? Many of these very shell-fish that are despised at our own doors are imported tinned from the American seaboard! How much more agreeable and nourishing they are fresh, and how readily they will bear carriage to market, ought surely to be more widely known.

Over a great portion of the west coast, at a few fathoms depth, a good supply of scallops, or Pectens is procurable, and these are among the most delicate shell-fish that our waters can supply, more especially the species P. opercularis. On the east coast they are mostly dredged for bait, but if it were generally known how superior they were when fresh from the water, they would be assiduously sought after as a table delicacy. Unfortunately they cannot retain a supply of water, and consequently will not carry far or keep ; but they could be placed in ponds when captured, and sent off by train when desired.

Apart from the food supply, there are other industries that would well repay encouragement and industrious pursuit.

Although carrageen, or Irish moss, is not so much in fashion as it once was, or as it deserves to be, for puddings, it is still of value commercially, and would yield a fair return if despatched to cotton manufacturing districts for the making of size. This fine purple alga grows freely along our coasts, and can be gathered in quantity at very little cost of labour.

Another article that could readily be garnered in large quantities, and would always find a ready market, is Zostera marina or sea-wrack. This grass grows just beyond ordinary low water, but can easily be cultivated along muddy coasts, where it not only improves the ground for the culture of oysters, but renders it firm and more traversible. Considering the excitement over it as a possible source of fibre during the cotton famine, we are surprised that attention has so soon been removed from its unquestionable claims. As stuffing for cushions, and for upholstery generally, it is even now largely used; the bulk, we believe, coming from Holland.

The utilisation of other marine products ought also to attract enterprise. The skin of the rough hound (Squale rousette) is no longer in great demand for shagreen, yet we see no reason why it should not be largely used in other manufactures in which ingenuity and skill are employed. I see no reason why it should not form a basis for such manufacture as much as the skin of the alligator, which of late years has fetched such large prices and come so much into favour; not so much from its intrinsic value, as from the taste and elegance of the articles manufactured from it.

The same may be said for shell ornaments. Our shells are quite fit to compete in this direction with those of most other countries, but what is wanted is good taste and artistic knowledge. We must confess, that at present our shell ornaments are not such as to induce purchasers of taste to invest.

When we think of our enormous Highland coast-line, and the hundreds of thousands of acres of utilisable foreshores, we cannot but conclude that there is great remissness somewhere, when our marine industries of all kinds are so backward in the Highlands. The population may not be naturally a seafaring race, but they are capable of being stimulated to any class of industry when once they are shown the way; and I have endeavoured to trace out a few directions in which they may be successful in utilising—at small cost to start with—some of the really vast resources of our Highland lochs and outer waters.

I have already had occasion to refer to the necessity for a clearer understanding as to the foreshore ownership, so that the public interested might more readily know how to obtain legal sanction for attempts at foreshore cultivation of whatever kind. The prevailing uncertainty is a great stumbling-block to any such efforts. When it is not otherwise distinctly acknowledged, the proposed marine cultivator, however, may conclude that the ordinary Highland proprietor claims the control of the shores ex adverso his estate, and acts accordingly. A difficulty is seldom raised, except on important occasions; but the successful creation of a new industry is just such an occasion as would raise questions that ought previously to have been settled!

Would it be too much to ask those Highland proprietors connected with the Highland Society, who have a right to their ex adverso foreshores, and are willing to encourage all bona fide efforts at marine cultivation, to register their names and coastline in the Transactions of the Society, as the first important step towards a proper understanding?

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