The Herring Girls of Stornoway
During the late 19th and early 20th century approximately 20% of the population of the Isle of Lewis was employed one or another in the herring industry, the majority of them being young women who would travel the ports of Scotland following the herring stocks, going as far as Shetland in fierce weather conditions and on cramped and unsuitable ships. To commemorate the hard and arduous labours of those women, Stornoway Amenity Trust erected two statues in the town of Stornoway depicting the work of the women of this era at their work. One statue is located on North Beach Quay and another on South Beach Quay.
First year herring girls were known as Cuibhlearan or Coilers, like most “apprentices” the were paid less that the other girls until the following season when they would have been expected to be proficient enough.
Once landed the catch of herring would be spread along a farlain or trough to be gutted. The girls would work in groups of three with the tallest girl given the hard job of packing the barrels, which involved attempting to reach the bottoms of each barrel, the other two girls would gut the herring. The girls would pick the fish; the most experienced would not even need to look at the fish to judge its size. With a sharp cutag or knife, they would gut the fish, throw the guts into a basket and the cleaned fish into its appropriate barrel for quality and size. The Coopers would keep a close eye on weather the girls were sorting the fish into its correct barrels. Each layer of fish gutted would be covered with rough salt. The herring girls were paid on piece time, meaning they were paid per barrel instead of by the hour. This meant the faster the girls worked the more pay they would receive, consequently the girls worked very fast indeed!
The herring girls were expected to work daily (except Sunday) from 6 am to 6 pm. On some days the girls would wait all day for fish to come in and on the days when the fish never came, the girls would go without pay.