By the 1850s, Stornoway was fast becoming a town of some commercial importance, based on its reputation as the best harbour on Scotland’s north-west coast. It had a major ship-building and repair facility and its harbour also catered for the lucrative shipping trade in Atlantic waters.

But it was to be the humble herring, that would establish Stornoway as a centre for the industry. By 1876, the demand for fishing stations in Stornoway harbour was so great that they were let out to the highest bidders. In 1868, a major Scottish bank built a handsome structure on North Beach Street to act as its Stornoway office, and two other banking interests soon followed suit, an indication that Stornoway’s commercial base was bordering on the ‘financially significant’. Before long, the town was recognised as the major herring port of Britain – if not of Europe. 

“Gods providence is our inheritance” – the humble herring helped put Stornoway on the map

In the summer months, at the height of the herring fishing season, Stornoway’s population tripled, from its usual figure of around 3000 to nearly 9000 people, made up of fishermen, herring gutters and packers, fish curers, coopers, carters and labourers. In 1899, a reporter stated that there were, on one Sunday morning, no fewer than 930 fishing boats in the harbour. During each week, these boats landed their herring catches to be handled by gutters, who cleaned the fish and then packed them, lightly salted, in barrels. Special cargo boats were chartered to take these barrels on to Germany, Russia and the countries of the Baltic Sea.

The Stornoway kippering industry was also an important element in the town’s economy. Almost daily, cargo boats sailed away from the harbour with tens of thousands of boxes of kippers, the quality of which earned the product a cachet which was recognised the world over. Boats sailed for Liverpool or else were taken to the railhead at Kyle of Lochalsh to be entrained for the markets at Billingsgate in London.

The First World War and the Russian Revolution in 1917 put paid to herring exports and Stornoway suffered greatly after the hostilities. Up until the outbreak of the Second World War, the Stornoway herring industry had managed to keep its head above water but decline soon set in. The industry never really recovered and today, the Stornoway fishing fleet concentrates its catch almost entirely on white fish and shellfish.

When the Stornoway Town Council decided to design a Burgh Coat of Arms, they made sure to include in the armorial bearing, three small fish and the motto “God’s Providence is our inheritance” in recognition of the vital role played by the herring in the island’s economic development.

Frank G. Thompson