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October 1979 Index

Bulletins Index

Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
1979 - October

Bulletin Index


I. Sutherland

Few of the world's natural resources have caused the trouble and legal wrangling as the humble herring. As many people in Europe were involved in its pursuit as there were in its armies until the beginning of the 20th century. It brought in more wealth to Europe than the Conquistador brought from South America and its economic importance rivalled that of oil today.

The source of the trouble it caused lay in its mobility as unlike minerals, it did not stay in one place for long, wandering all over the North Sea bringing the prospect of an easy food supply and quick riches tantalisingly close to the shores of one nation after another, and then moving on. With no physical barriers to stop them each nation invariably pursued them away from their coasts with the inevitable result of either war or a complicated set of treaties in which the partners attempted to achieve the maximum benefit from the wealth.

At least three wars were started by disputes over possession of the herring and innumerable skirmishes In 1242 and 1348 long and bloody wars broke out between Denmark and the Hanseatic League under the leadership of the town of Lübeck, over the herring stocks in the approaches to the Baltic Sea and England went to war with Holland, when the Dutch Achmural Van Tramp tied a whip to his mast head. And so on,

Herring is one of the most abundant fish in the sea and all figures quoted in respect of the quantities caught are astronomical being always in millions and billions. If one disregarded human nature there would have been no need to fight or dispute over such wealth as there was more than enough for everybody but of course that was not, and is not, the way of things with the result that countries rushed not only to ensure the privilege of fishing for themselves wherever they could but also, having secured or attempted to secure the monopoly, then passed laws which would affect the domestic economy as well. Some were good, some were bad but as a general rule they were intended to get the maximum capital return which in those days meant that it usually ended up in the hands of very few. The effect of these laws made itself felt a lot more slowly in the middle ages and often a century would pass before corrective steps were taken to alter a law which may have been intended to give maximum benefit to the whole country, fishermen, merchants, landowners, and of course the crown, but often had the opposite effect. Good examples of this may be found in Scots law where many laws were made, mostly on democratic principles but in practice proved no more than a handy method of achieving fortune by the people with influence or the knowledge to turn them to their advantage.

In an article of this length there is space only to deal very superficially with one example but at the same time it will serve as an illustration of the kind of problems that king and parliament tried to solve, recognising as they did the economic possibilities which were being offered by the herring to those with the imagination to realise them.

Actt of 1491. James IV Parliament No. 4 of that year.

"Anent the making of schippes and busches on the quhilk all idle men suld labour."

Item; anent the greate innumerable riches that is tinte in fault of Schippes and Busches to be disponed for fishing sic lik as etheris Realmes has, that are merchand with the sea, and for the Police and conquest, that may be had here intil, and to cause idle men and avengeours to labour for their living, for the eschieving of vices and idleness, and for the commoun profite and universall weill of the realme. It is thochte expedient be the Lordes of the ArticIes and als statute and ordainit in this present Parliament, that there by Schippes and Busches maid in all Burrowes and Townes within the Realme and that the least of the said be of twentie tun. And that the Townes and Burrows have the Schippes and Busches according to the substance of ilk towne and to the number as after followes, weil abulzied with ilk necessarie graith, and with mariners, nettes and other graith convenient for their taking of great fish and sma.And all the said Schippes and Busches to be readie made to pass to fishing be Fastren's E'en next to cum. And in ilk Burgh of the Toyaltie, that the Officaris of the Burgh mabe all the starke idle men within their bounds to pass with the said Schippes for their wages and gif the said idle men refusis to pass that they banish them the Burgh."

The act goes on at some length, dealing with the penalties which will be exacted on any town or official which does not comply, but there is sufficient of it above to show the good and the bad.

Fir8tly, the act points out that there is a great loss of revenue because very little is being done to pursue the herring. This resulted from an earlier Act which backfired but now the Parliament is trying to enforce towns to build ships and busses. But they stipulated a minimum size of 20 tuns (tons), and this meant that there were very few people who had the money to build a vessel of that size. Only a handful of ports could raise the kind of money required to build and fit out a vessel and in fact very few were built as a result. The idea had been sound enough if they had not put a restriction of the size of the boats to be built.

But the Act went further, into what was merely a job creation scheme by saying that the unemployed had to man the vessels. Apart from the fact that very few of the unemployed had experience of the sea, as most were displaced farm labourers, the Act had a much more sinister side effect when it said that anyone refusing employment would be banished from the town. Because this literally and actually made the unemployed, in the few towns which did build ships, bonded slaves to the ship owners under threat of banishment.

The result of it all was that the Act proved a very unpopular one and failed almost completely. Not because the basic idea was wrong but because of the machinery built into it to try to make it work. It was nearly 100 years before it was straightened out, but that, as they say, is another story.