Fishing along the Firth of Clyde was not, originally, one of our Hunter ancestors’ pastimes, they were not fishermen by trade. That is not to say they did not eat fish, however their main source of food would have been meat: cattle and sheep. The Hunters of Hunterston were ‘inland farmers’ and as well as keeping cattle, they were skilled hunters. They were, by royal appointment, required to keep the forests of Arran and Little Cumbrae supplied with wild animals for their king’s pleasure. Our Hunter ancestors would also have grown barley and oats to supplement their diet as well as using the fruits of the forests around them. This way of life continued happily (with the interruption of the odd battle here and there) for centuries until, at the beginning of the 19th century, the Clearances drove these local farmers closer to the coast where the land was marshy with poor soil and so difficult to farm. Fishing was, at first, a means of survival and the landed catch was shared among the community. Elswhere in Scotland, other families started to preserve fish as a way of ensuring that there was food on the table at times when storms at sea prevented the fishermen from venturing out.
The Firth of Clyde is a wide and deep water on the west coast of Scotland and stretches from where the river Clyde enters the Firth at Dumbarton right down to the Mull of Kintyre in the south west. It is on this coastland near West Kilbride, that the seat of our Hunter Clan, our very own Hunterston Castle, has been situated for over 900 hundred years. Then, Hunterston Castle would have had a wide and unimpeded view from the Pele Tower to the coastal area which would have been advantageous in taking action against the enemy from overseas.
In the near distance we can see the Cumbraes with the Isle of Bute beyond. If you climb up the hill on Great Cumbrae to the Glaid Stone on a sunny day (they are not as few and far between as you might imagine!), you can see the archipelago stretching out before you including the Kintyre peninsula. The Isle of Arran is to the left, often referred to as Scotland in miniature, and if we turn our head to the right, we can just make out Dunoon in the distance against the backdrop of the hills leading up to the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Looming high, they add majesty and colour to this wonderful scenery. Further to the north, the Firth of Clyde pushes inland forming a fjordlike seascape of intriguing lochs and inlets. There are myriad islands, about 40 in total of which only four are inhabited and a couple are well-known to us Hunters: the isles of Arran, Bute and Cumbrae. It was on these islands that the Hunters of Hunterston kept the hunting grounds for the kings of Scotland and for which they were honoured with the hereditory title of Royal Huntsman.
From its source in the hills in South Lanarkshire, the river Clyde flows in its meanders through Glasgow and down to the coast, where it opens out in the Firth. The waters are naturally deep, about 164m, which has meant that large cruise ships are able to moor at the Ocean Terminal at Greenock and provide another string to the bow of tourism in the area.
The towns and villages along the coast of the Firth of Clyde have, for many centuries, harvested the fruits of the deep waters here. In the past, the secrets of the sea surfaced to provide a profitable living for many communities. The bounty of the Firth kept the economy booming until well into the1970s. Huge shoals of herring were in abundance; at its height (1940s) 40,000 ton were caught annually. In their wake, whiting, cod, plaice, turbot, monkfish, haddock, ray and skate were caught as well. Dolphins, sharks and orcas were also frequent visitors to the Firth of Clyde and sea angling was a popular sport with competition fishing and angling clubs on the mainland and islands. In Victorian times it was popular for city dwellers to travel to the countryside and coastal areas to enjoy outdoor exercise and fresh air. The latter activity brought other commercial enterprises to the towns and villages such as pubs, restaurants and hotels and thus tourism was born. The industrial revolution in the 1800s saw the coming of the railway which contributed to the commercial viability of the fishing villages helped along by the beautiful and seemingly endless vistas of the surrounding countryside. The Firth of Clyde grew into one of Scotland’s best loved recreational hotspots which included activities such as: sailing, island hopping, golf, hiking and of course, whisky tasting!
From sail to steam and beyond
Early fishing boats in the Firth of Clyde, were more like glorified dinghies with sails and oars to propel them forward. However, they were fairly small so that they could be landed on the beaches easily and fishermen did not venture far from the shore as the boats were largely unstable in rough weather.
Improved boat designs like the Skaffie, the Fifie and the Zulu all contributed to the success of the fishing trade.
New and larger fishing boat designs were favoured as the fishing industry took off and
industrialisation meant that boat design could be accommodated to include a steam-operated system. The first of this kind appeared in the 1890s and although it still had a mast for a smaller sail to support the boat, this was mainly used as a crane to haul aboard the catch. The steamboat was amazing as it was able to plough through rough seas and therefore travel further from the shore and explore what other delights the Firth of Clyde could divulge. Later, petrol and paraffin engines were developed which also meant that heavier fishing gear could be used. Seine nets and trawler nets were introduced – the larger the catch the better the profit!
Photo: Lochranza- astle Ise of Arran Scotland. (Curtesy of Arran Heritage Museum
Before power-assisted sail, line fishing was the most popular fishing technique at the time, whereby a line of about a kilometre long and set with bait hooks was trailed behind the boat. Locating the catch meant watching out for seabirds swooping down into the water to catch their prey. Where they plunged into the water, was where a shoal of herring were feeding.
These days trawler fishing is the most common form of fishing technique where nets are dragged along the bottom of the sea bed to catch, mainly, white fish. The dragging of the nets along the bottom creates a disturbance which rallies the fish and they are lured into the nets. Nowadays, sophisticated equipment is used to locate the type of fish that the fishermen want to catch.
The halcyon days of the fishing industry seemed inexhaustible. No one could imagine that the enormous amounts of fish spawning and feeding in the Firth of Clyde would decline. And yet……
The decline of the fishing industry in the Firth of Clyde
Even in the 1800s, when the fishing industry was just taking off and the once poor fishing villages and surrounding towns were enjoying the profits of a booming economy, scientists were expressing their concern about the amount of fishing vessels in the Clyde Waters and the consequences of overfishing. A ban on bottom trawling fishing was set as well as a ban on fishing within a distance of three nautical miles from the shoreline. The fishing industry still continued to thrive between the end of the Second World War and the 1960s when herring was the predominant catch. Thousands of tons of herring were landed each year and their hauls contributed significantly to the overall economy.
In the 1960s, the Government, recognising the importance of a thriving economy in the area, lifted the ban on bottom trawling. In the 1980s, the ban on inshore fishing was also lifted. Although this boosted the economy, such intensive fishing in the whole of the Firth of Clyde, left little time for the fish stocks to replenish. The decline was rapid and by the 1990s the fishing industry was severely depleted. Undeterred and spurred on by international demand, a smaller fishing industry now trawls for shrimp, scallop and prawns. Recreational angling is still allowed but the depths of the Firth of Clyde are no longer able to deliver the variety once renowned along its coastline and at Lamlash Bay on the Isle of Arran, there is a No Take Zone to protect the sealife there.
Other measures are being taken to try to regenerate the ecosystem in the Firth of Clyde and rebuild fish stocks; inshore fishery authorities have installed a special department to try to reverse the decline of overfishing; commercial fishing is banned at certain times of the year to allow fish to spawn and feed in peace and COAST (Community of Arran Seabed Trust) is an organisation dedicated to ‘reversing the decline in Arran’s marine habitats.’
Some of the different types of fish found in the Firth of Clyde
The decline of the fishing industry in Scotland and in the rest of the UK is noticeable across the Channel. In the Netherlands, where I live, we have a robust fishing fleet but disputes concerning fishing rights, fishing quotas and more recently the decline of skilled labour, has meant that my local fishmonger has a smaller selection of fish on offer. Excellent quality nonetheless, but there are some fish sorts that he does not have on display. The large Turkish community in the Netherlands eat large quantities of sardines and sprats. These are available in the Turkish supermarkets. Other fish is imported from other parts of the world and from fish farms including Scotland.
The fishing culture of the Firth of Clyde has certainly not disappeared but it is fragile. There is an awareness that has arisen born out of a deep interest in preserving our ecology for future generations. Finding a balance between a thriving economy and a thriving eco-system is our challenge for the future.
Traditional Scottish recipe: Cullen Skink
For this typically Scottish soup, Cullen Skink, my fishmonger was able to source some smoked haddock for me. The Netherlands, where I live, has a history of smoked herring and smoked eel, but not of smoked haddock. Mine has been caught in European waters and smoked in the Netherlands. It looks good! Let’s get cooking…
Cullen Skink is an authentic traditional Scottish dish. It is a hearty fish soup originating from the town of Cullen in Moray in the north-east of Scotland. The coastline banks onto the Moray Firth. The soup is made with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions.
The name is something of a throwback to the middle ages – at least the second part: Skink. This actually refers to the knuckle or shin of beef. Originally, meat was used for this dish to make a hearty beef broth. However this was replaced with smoked haddock, when, in the late 1800s, Cullen harbour became a thriving centre for herring fishing and smoking haddock. As smoked haddock was then in plentiful supply, the adaptation of the recipe was simple and cheap with a delicious result.
The etymology of the word interests me. ‘Skink’ is derived from the Middle Dutch word ‘schenke’ which means shin. Although Middle Dutch was spoken and written between the 11th and 15th centuries, it is still used in the Dutch language today.
The recipe I want to share with you is from The Spruce Eats on whose website you can find other authentic Scottish recipes.
- 1 1/4 pints milk (approx 720ml)
2. Small handful flat-leaf parsley, leaves and stalks separated, plus more for garnish
3. 1 bay leaf
4. 1 pound smoked haddock fillet, not dyed (approx 455gr)
5. 2 ounces butter (approx 56gr)
6. 1 medium onion, finely chopped
7. 8 ounces (approx 230gr) mashed potato, leftover or cooked fresh
8. salt, to taste
9. Black pepper, to taste
10. Crusty bread, for serving, optional
- Make sure you have all your ingredients ready. Allow extra time if you still have to make the mash potato.
- Put the milk, parsley stalks, bay leaf, and haddock into a large, roomy saucepan.
- Finely chop the parsley leaves and keep to one side.
- Bring the milk to a gentle boil and simmer for 3 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the heat and leave for 5 minutes for the herbs to infuse their flavor into the milk.
- Remove the haddock from the milk with a slotted spatula and put to one side.
- Strain the liquid through a fine sieve and reserve the herb-infused milk.
- In another, smaller saucepan, melt the butter and add the chopped onion. Cook gently until translucent, about 5 minutes. Be careful not to burn the onion.
- Add the milk and the mashed potato to the onion and stir well until the mixture has a thick and creamy consistency.
- Flake the smoked haddock into meaty chunks, removing any bones you may find. Add the fish to the soup.
- Add the chopped parsley leaves to the soup and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook the soup for an additional 5 minutes. Don’t over stir, because the fish chunks might disintegrate.
- Taste the soup and add salt and pepper as needed. Be careful with the salt, as the fish will impart quite a salty flavor all on its own.
- Garnish the soup with more chopped parsley or a little extra pepper. Serve hot with crusty bread, if desired.
Source: The Spruce Eats https://www.thespruceeats.com/traditional-scottish-cullen-skink-recipe-435379
Other sources for this blogpost