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My Mother was a Herring Girl

A Shetland girl would always have their knitting to hand


Photo of two herring girls

Ann’s mother Winnie (left) and a friend

The 1900s were a boom time for fishing in the North Sea, especially during the herring season.  There were boats from Lerwick as far as Lowestoft to bring the herring into the various fish quays.  These fish needed to be cleaned and packed into big wooden barrels ready to be sold.  Enter the herring girls, the majority of which came from the Shetland Isles.  My mum and her sisters were herring girls in the 1930s.  Hard work but they loved it.  They had the opportunity to see new places and meet new people, many of whom remained friends over the years.  My mum and one of her sisters met their future husbands at the fishing.  Mum married in 1942 and after the war settled in North Shields.

Herring girls returning from work

A lift home after work. Winnie is front row 2nd from right

When the herring season was about to start, they would begin to arrange their belongings for the time they would be away from home.  They had a good sturdy wooden box called a kist.  They needed something sturdy because they went by train from port to port and the kist could take a bit of a bashing.  It was a big wooden box, traditional for the herring girls of Shetland, they all had one. It is a Shetland item.  Some girls were from Moray, but it was predominantly the Shetland Islands where the herring girls came from.  Traditionally going back centuries really when the islands just fished for themselves.  The herring fleet was mainly from the northeast coast of Scotland right down to Lowestoft, it was all a great adventure they loved it.

Everything was well organised in advance; carriages were booked on the trains and board and lodgings booked at each port.  Herring girls who were married with children brought their children with them.  The children would attend the local schools at the various ports, not the extended holiday they hoped for but back to school.  The herring girls who were not married became adopted aunties for the duration.

Cleaning herring was a very messy business, the fish scales got everywhere so a lot of them wore bib and brace overalls and good stout shoes or wellingtons, and a beret kept their hair away from the face.*

A group of herring girls from the Shetlands

Herring girls relaxing and happy. Ann’s Auntie Sally far left, Winnie is back row 4th from right

The northeast coast could be very breezy.  If it was a nice day, when they finished cleaning the fish, they would go for a walk or sit in the sun having a good old natter and out would come the knitting.  A Shetland girl would always have their knitting to hand.  My mam knit, she would write to my aunty in Shetland and ask her to send skeins of wool down for her knitting because she knit for the family and quite a few of her friends used to say can you knit me a Shetland scarf for the winter because although they were very light they were very warm.  It’s a Fair Isle, they didn’t use patterns; the patterns were handed down from mother to daughter.  All in their heads, they never needed a pattern.  Doing the fishing, when they stopped if they sat down, they would be knitting scarfs, gloves, socks whatever.

By the early 60s the big factory ships from abroad could do everything from catching the fish, cleaning, and packing them and the herring girls were no longer needed.  The end of an era but what wonderful times they had.  When my mum and her sisters phoned each other, they would often refer to the times when they were the herring girls.  Herring was always a popular meal in our house, especially the roll mop herring with new potatoes and melted butter, with the warning from mum, “Watch for the bones.”  There’s an awful lot of bones in a herring.  In recent years the medical profession has been advising us to eat more oily fish.  The people of Shetland have been doing this for centuries, maybe this is why they tend to live long lives.  Mum and her sisters were in their late 80s, early 90s when they passed away, herring girls to the end.

*[Ann later provided more detail on the herring girls’ clothing: Herring girls wore heavy “oilies”. These were full bib-skirt style with braces crossed at the back, coming halfway between the ankles and knees.]


Ann was interviewed as part of the North Shields Herring Girls Project

Thanks to Ann for the images in this memory © all rights reserved

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