Translation of interview about making a fishing buoy, and frightening Mac an t-Stronaich
M = Maggie Smith
F= Finlay Maciver
M When did you make this fishing buoy?
F I didn’t know what I had let myself in for. I was sixteen or seventeen. I was keen on fishing with small lines and buoys were difficult to get. They were expensive and quite often too large. There was a strong current and the buoys sometimes carried away the anchor. You made your own buoys to your own specification. I began to make it under instruction. Initially I had to get a wedder and skin it, then take the fleece of the skin. Then I had to cure the skin by salting it and coating it in bark. That’s what they used for the herring nets. The nets were cotton and had to be coated often or else they would rot.
M What did they use to coat them?
F They used bark from Spain or Portugal. The bark was put in boiling water and when it cooled, I put the sheep skin in it. You put the nets in the mixture when it was still hot, but you had to leave it to cool for the hide. It took a long time to cure it. Then I had to shape it, make it circular using a piece of wood. You had to make a hole through it and all I had was a hot poker from the fire. I managed it with some guidance from my father. Then next thing was to gather it round the top, there was a little hollow all the way round it for the string. The string was the same kind as the string used for the nets. It went on dry but when it was soaked it tightened. It didn’t need a lot of air to keep it afloat. The buoy was the right size and wouldn’t drag the anchor but a lot of work to make them.
Quite often the nets were bought ready made. Depending on the supplier, some nets had three hooks to the yard some two. If the fish was plentiful the three hooks to the yard was what you needed. The hook was on a thread made of horse hair, hand spun and from the horses tail. I remember the horses here and there were quite a few of them in the district, you’d never see one with a long tail, they had all been clipped to attach the fishing hooks. There was a knack to twisting the horse hair.
M Did the fishing nets come with the hooks attached?
F The nets came with the hooks but you lost hooks when you were fishing, particularly if you caught dogfish. If you caught dogfish they ate the other fish and the horsehair attaching the hooks, the lot. The moths liked the horsehair too. You had to ensure the moths didn’t get into the herring net basket.
M How did you manage to keep them out?
F With paper. You put the paper on the top. Everybody had the small lines hanging inside the house, this was to keep it dry. The were very careful. And very particular that the small lines would be dried out after use. The lines were made of cotton and it would rot. Quite often it was hanging inside the house close to the fire in the smoke.
M Which times of the year did they fish?
F They fished all year round but not so much in the spring but they were very keen to go out in the winter..up to New Year. There were frosty spells at that time. I remember going out fishing with them as a boy. The boats went out quite a distance from the shore and they caught big haddocks. They were excellent for salting, they’re called Jumbo Haddock now. They were plentiful just off Gallan Head.
M Was the fish caught commercially?
F No they didn’t sell it. When they took it ashore everybody in the village had fresh fish before the end of the day. The haddock was salted then hang to dry.
M How long was it left in the salt?
It wasn’t left in the salt for very long at all. They used to say that if you took the eyes out of the haddock. As much salt as the two hollows would hold that that was enough to salt the fish. Too much salt and it was far too salty. Then they hung it above the fire. In the winter it was half smoked and it kept them in meals until the spring. It was soaked first of all to remove part of the salt. The salt fish was very tasty when you were hungry….
I remember hearing about the fishing a long time ago.. about Mac an t-Sronaich’s time. The only thing that ever scared Mac an t-Sronaich and it was Domhnall Ruadh Beag from Eneclete that frightened him. Mac an t-Sronaich was on the hill Mula Chaolartain and he was seeing this thing going down the side of Beinn a Deas, the route to Hamnaway. Domhnall Ruadh Beag was barefoot and taking a herring net on his back to Loch Hamnaway where there were huge shoals of herring being caught.
All Mac an t-Sronaich could see was this round black thing moving along on little white legs. He couldn’t understand what it was and came to the conclusion it was the devil himself. Mac an t-Sronaich left Domhnall Ruadh Beag well alone that day.
The herring at Loch Hamnaway was so plentiful then, that instead of coming home with the fresh herring, they took the salt out to Hamnaway and salted the herring in holes in the moor. The men selected a hillock where the water was draining off, made a hole in it, put the herring in the salt and their catch was preserved until they found the time to go and bring it home. It was small herring but seemingly very tasty. They were salting it in the peat and putting turfs on top of it, as it was on hillocks with the water draining away it was kept dry. Peat will preserve anything.
But my own first memories were of the men going to Gallan Head for the herring. They came from all around ..Carloway and Bernera, in August and September before the herring spawned and was spent. They put all the herring in salt, the herring would take the salt at that time of year. If there was herring there was food for the winter.
The mutton wasn’t as plentiful then. There weren’t so many wedders and besides they needed the money from the wedders. There was some mutton but mostly older sheep. But after the war there was no herring to be had at Gallan Head. After the war maybe two house would purchase half a barrel of Loch Fine herring to see them through the winter. That would sustain them until the spring when the fish would be available again. In the spring the Icelandic dried fish would come to the shops in big bundles, they were all tied by the tail. There were cod and tusk. When you went to the shop you just chose the one you wanted, cut it off the bundle and left the tail hanging there. The fish was bleached white and delicious and was always on the menu at peatcutting time. Wherever you went at peat cutting time you didn’t get any meat but that fish ..it was tasty with good potatoes.
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