A small town with a rich maritime history, Stornoway on Lewis has not forgotten the herring girls upon whose hard work a successful fishing industry relied.
Last night I happened on a television show about the Outer Hebrides. The beautiful photography of this amazing region took me right back to our visit there earlier this year and reminded me of our stay in Stornoway.
Famous for it’s wild weather, Stornoway, on the island of Lewis, is the largest town in the Hebrides. Consider the fact that it’s population is just over 6,200 souls and you’ll get some idea of just how isolated and sparsely populated this region is.
Founded by vikings in the 9th century, the town grew around the safe, natural harbour – a place of shelter for fishing boats in the wild and stormy seas and a practical setting-off point for the mainland. A pawn in various clan squabbles, the island of Lewis was eventually sold by the Mackenzies to a Scottish trader who built the present Lews Castle, now owned by the council and a museum and cultural centre.
The economic and cultural foundations of the town were built around it’s maritime history. The town still hosts a fishing fleet, but this is much reduced from it’s peak when the herring fishing industry supported much of the town.
Women played a huge role in the local fishing trade and the ‘herring girls’ were the backbone of the industry. Young girls, many only in their very early teens, would travel to Stornoway from their tiny, remote communities in the outer islands to work as herring girls. Away from their families for the first time and staying in boarding houses in the town, the young girls worked long hours on their feet, outside in all weather.
Working in teams and using sharp knives they gutted the fish and packed them in salt. These sharp knives meant they frequently suffered from cuts on their fingers and hands. The wounds were cruelly aggravated by their constant exposure to salt and salty brine as they packed the fish, and the only protection they had was to wrap their sore hands in cotton cloths.
Enduring dreadful travelling conditions and providing for themselves, the girls worked over long periods, for poor wages – not seeing their homes or families for months at a time. The herring industry came to a halt with the second world war, but the herring girls are commemorated by two statues on the harbour where they worked so very hard.