Work of the herring girls

Girls at their first year at the gutting were called cùibhlearan or coilers.

Herring Girl on South Beach St.

Herring Girl on South Beach St.

They were paid less than the older girls due to their slowness and inexperience. They had to learn quickly. By the following season they would be fully proficient in the work and received the standard pay.
The women were required to be available for work every day except Sundays. They were expected to wait for fish to arrive, sometimes staying around the yard all day in vain and without pay.

The girls worked in crews of three. Two would gut the fish and the tallest girl – the one who reached the bottom of the barrel easiest – would have the task of packing the barrels.

Catches of herring were landed from the boats and spread into a long, deep, trough or fàrlain where the gutters were standing, each poised with a sharp knife, ready to start work. In later years, as health and safety regulations crept in, the troughs were erected higher and made shallower to prevent the women from straining their backs so much.

With a swift twist and turn of the wrist

Gutters bandaged their fingers with rags, made from washed flour sacks in an effort to protect them. But inevitably, the sharp knife they used, cutag, inflicted nasty cuts and with their arms plunged deep in the fàrlain the salty brine soaked into the open flesh resulting in painful wounds.

With a swift twist and turn of the wrist, the gutters quickly sliced down the short length of the slippery belly of the fish, removing the guts. A gut basket sat on top of the fish in the fàrlain to the right of each gutter, while creels or tubs for the cleaned herring lay beside the fàrlain close behind her or at her feet.

Simultaneously, the intestines were flung into the gut basket while the cleaned fish was dropped into a tub. The women sorted the gutted herring into the tubs according to quality and size. One technique was to gather together a small heap of fish of the same size. The girls could gut and sort fish almost blindfolded with the cleaned fish flung into a creel behind them without a glance, casting their eye on the next fish to be grasped rather than the one in their hand.

“Bottom tier!”

The women would have to judge the size of each herring, a knack learnt by experience, and throw fish of the appropriate size into the correct basket. The coopers kept a close eye on them, using a wooden gauge to measure a sample of fish, ensuring that the barrels were filled up with the same size of herring.

The packing stopped and the women would yell “bottom tier” to summon the curer who would cast his critical eye over the first, bottom layer and woe betide any packer who failed to lay the herring belly up. Each layer of fish would be covered by rough salt before the next tier was placed on top.

Gutting fish was paid by piece work – by each finished barrel. So the faster the girls worked the more wages they received.

Product traceability and quality control was simple but very effective. Each packer was assigned an identification number which was branded on every barrel she worked on.

After the first filling, a’ chiad lìonadh, coopers rolled the barrel on its side, and left it for about ten days or so, to allow the herring to settle, stacked in rows with a pile of others.

For the second or next filling, an t-ath lìonadh, the barrel was pulled upright and the top opened. The low bung was removed to allow the salty pickle to drain out and be saved in a tub. More herring was packed into the barrel and refilled and the saved pickle poured back in.

The third filling or an treas lìonadh finally filled the barrel to the brim. A cooper would seal it and with a sizzling hot iron brand the date – month and year – on each barrel. They were stacked – a maximum of three high – until shipping.

Grades of herring

The wider herring industry normally graded the fish into five selections but the
port of Stornoway had seven:
Matje – the largest fish and very popular on the USA market
Large Full – large adult herring with developed roe and due to spawn
Full – adult herring with developed roe ready for spawning
Mattie Full – fish in good condition with developed roe
Mattie – fat fish without roe
Spent – thin and poor fish, spawned and caught at the season’s end
Tornbelly – damaged or torn, bitten by other fish