Monday, 19 April 2010


The sense of smell is apparently closely and curiously linked to one’s memory. When we’re talking fish, it may well not be everyone’s favourite idea of how to achieve a sense of nostalgia, but it doesn’t half take you back. The niff and the whiff of fish are linked to so many coastal towns, and Stavanger is no exception. So from now on, whenever I open a jar of pickled herring for a standard Norwegian lunch, as I did today, I will think of Stavanger. Some would describe this as ‘dead fish on cardboard’, but there’s more to this fish than meets the nose.

When children in Stavanger complained of the continual smell of fish around town, they were quickly reminded that ‘the smell of fish is the smell of money.’ If it hadn’t been for fish, the city would never have come about. For hundreds of years, the naturally deep harbour in the centre of Stavanger had provided a meagre living for the small community that grew around it. Once the Domkirke, the Cathedral, was established, the place was set to grow, but it was not necessarily going to flourish. Like everywhere else, the town was dependent upon circumstance and fortune. There were good times and bad, but over the centuries, it was fish that remained critical to the town’s economy.

In the late 18th century, the town’s folk were particularly undernourished and struggling for survival. Disease was rife and a grinding poverty left people with little hope. But towards the turn of the century, a mysterious happening took place. For some unknown reason, the herring arrived in the North Sea, great shoals of flickering silver, to be known forever more as ‘God’s Gift’.

Like the coastal towns and villages of Scotland and the North East of England, the herring, the Silver Darlings, as the Scots called them, offered a real chance of prosperity. Apart from the fishermen, there was work for the town’s folk in gutting, preparing and barrelling the fish. A considerable trade grew out of it, and soon Stavanger had a sizeable fleet of boats trading herring to the Baltic, bringing back linen, corn and other products. In Stavanger, the harbour could be jammed with the number of boats involved. As trade spread, larger ships were built, links extended further and further afield, people grew rich, wealthy merchants built large houses and the city thrived.

But just as mysterious as their arrival, the herring began to disappear in the latter part of the 19th century. The shipping industry had flourished as a result of trade being widened, but soon this was also in danger. Bankruptcies occurred amongst the merchants and poverty took a grip on the city once more.

The parallels with many of our Scottish fishing communities are strong. Even today, after the military, fishing remains the most dangerous of all professions. Apart from the risks to life and limb in going to sea, the economics of it could be highly variable. Such uncertainty has always formed bonds between fishing communities, despite at times competing for the same fish from the same sea. Fishing communities are always at the mercy of politics, economics, technology, fish stocks, and above all, the hazards posed by nature.

I have to divert slightly here and mention one particular fishing community in Scotland that stands out as a place where circumstance contrived to create Scotland’s worst fishing disaster. The town of Eyemouth on the Berwickshire coast was entirely reliant on fishing. The old 19th century photographs of the day’s catch being unloaded in Eyemouth, of the townsfolk gutting and packing fish into barrels, a harbour packed solid with fishing boats, are extraordinarily similar to the photographs of people doing just the same in Stavanger. But in October 1881 a hurricane caused 189 men from the Eyemouth fleet to drown. Unfortunate circumstances had led the Eyemouth men to take a risk. One in three of the adult male population were lost at sea, a horrific tragedy which devastated the small community at the time and is still strongly felt today. It’s a story that has moved me ever since my friend Peter Aitchison, a descendant of the families involved, first told me the details. He tells the story with immense dignity and accuracy and I have no qualms in pointing you towards his book on the subject, ‘Black Friday’. Once I’d read it here in Stavanger, surrounded by fishing boats and able to smell fish somewhere nearby, the ‘silver darlings’ had a new meaning.

As volcanic ash continues to disrupt our airspace, it is odd to reflect on how fragile nature can make us feel...whether it is an ash cloud, an unexplained wave of herring, the depletion of stocks, or a dangerous storm, you can’t help wondering ‘what next?’

In Stavanger’s case, the herring disappeared, but after a few years, the city struck gold once more, and the smell of fish remained ‘the smell of money’.

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