The Fishing Industry

The waters of the Minch and the West Coast of Scotland have always been rich fishing grounds, but until recent times only a fraction of these riches was exploited. The boats used by the people of the islands and West Coast were small, but sufficient to supply the small local market. The development of a large scale fishery, such as that which existed on the East Coast and in the Firth of Clyde, was hampered by the inability of these small boats to follow the herring shoals, and then transport them to the markets of the South. Those communities which did attempt to do so often paid dearly - in 1783 five boats left the island of Barra to carry the year's catch of cured fish to the Clyde, but four of them were lost with their crews on the dangerous crossing. In the mid-19th century, however, as the price of herring rose, more and more fishing vessels from the East Coast began to make the journey to the Minch, in May or June, before the East Coast season began. Numerous curing bases were established in the Western Isles to treat the fish they caught and the number of fishing vessels rose, eventually reaching 1400.

Lovat Pier, Mallaig in 1908

19th century fishing boats at Lovat Pier,
Mallaig, in 1908

On the mainland, Lord Lovat encouraged his tenants in North Morar to supplement their livelihood by fishing, building a stone pier and a salt store at Mallaig. However, the main centre for landing and curing fish in the area was Tarbert, in Loch Nevis, which at one time boasted an inn, post office and a church. The completion of the railway to Oban in 1880 made it easier to transport the fish south, but local fishermen continued to be plagued by the unreliability of the herring shoals. In the boom year of 1882 two steamers ran daily to Oban with fish, and many local fishermen were able to buy larger boats and new nets, but in 1885, 1886 and 1887 the fishing was a failure and the crofter-fishermen were reduced once again to poverty.