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The Swan – A proud story of our herring heritage and history

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9 June 2020

One of The Swan Trust’s main objectives is to celebrate and keep our heritage alive. Swan Trust Trustee, John Goodlad, looks back at Shetland’s Herring Fishing heritage, and the important part Swan played, and is still playing, in this story.

Shetland has a rich fishing history which is fitting for a community where the fishing industry is still very important. Shetland fishermen have caught all kinds of fish with all kinds of fishing gear for hundreds of years. Without doubt, the biggest and most important was the herring fishery undertaken by sail boats using drift nets. This reached a peak in 1905 when 113,000 tons of herring were landed. At this time there were over 400 Shetland herring boats, from all over the islands. There was not an island or community in Shetland that did not have its own herring fleet. There were over three thousand herring fishermen in Shetland at this time. Many women also worked in the industry at the curing stations all around the islands. These women gutted, packed and salted the herring into barrels which were exported to Russia and Germany. There was hardly a voe in Shetland that did not have a curing station at this time. As well as the outside area where the herring were gutted, each of these stations had its own pier, storage sheds and accommodation for the workers. Shetland was one of the main places in the whole of Europe insofar as the herring fishing was concerned - it was an incredibly busy place.

And yet there is hardly any evidence of this great industry left in the islands. All of the piers have collapsed or been changed to different uses, the curing stations have all disappeared and the herring fleet has of course long gone. That is why the Swan restoration project was so important. The Swan was one of the 400 strong Shetland fleet that fished for herring in that record-breaking year of 1905. She had been built in Lerwick in 1900 and had fished until the 1950’s. When she was rediscovered in 1990, she was in very poor shape lying in an English harbour. Recognising her importance, a community initiative, which later became The Swan Trust, had the vision to raise funds to bring her back to Shetland and restore her to her former glory. Without the Swan there would be nothing left, apart from museum artefacts and old photos, of this important and huge part of Shetland history.

For the past 25 years the Swan has been sailing around Shetland and much further afield as a reminder of our herring heritage. As you watch her sailing, it is not difficult to begin to imagine what the waters around Shetland might have looked like more than a century ago with hundreds of Swans coming and going around the isles. This is what makes history come alive; in a way that faded black and white photos never can. The Swan has also given many Shetlanders the experience of sailing and living on board an old drift net boat. The cramped space, the way she can skip along under full sail, how she fares in bad weather and the dinners cooked in the galley are all real experiences that take us back to these days of ‘iron men in wooden boats’. She has been the best teacher of history that Shetland has ever had. Perhaps the greatest contribution that the Swan has made to contemporary Shetland culture is the hundreds of young people who have sailed on her. This includes day outings for primary school bairns, lengthy trips across the North Sea for secondary pupils and sail trainees, aged 15-25 years, taking part in the annual Tall Ships Races. Swan has enabled the skills of sailing a traditional fishing boat to be passed on to the next generation, and it is heartening to see some of these young people returning to become regular crew members on board.

As she has sailed around Europe, she has brought our fishing heritage and culture into the heart of many harbours and ports. She sails to Orkney most summers, is a regular visitor to Portsoy for the boat festival and is well known along the west coast of Norway. Wherever she goes she attracts attention, and is a great ambassador for Shetland.

To mark the start of her 25th year as a sail training and charter vessel, the Trust had planned a herring tour to celebrate her past – starting in Lerwick and visiting a series of Herring fishing ports along the way to Anstruther, where the trip would end in time for their annual harbour festival. Retracing the steps of all the old herring boats who fished out of these ports, a series of talks and visits on board the Swan were planned in partnership with organisations in each area, such as the Stronsay Ranger, The Wick Society and The Scottish Fisheries Museum. Plans are currently underway to reschedule this trip to 2021. If you would like to be contacted when dates are confirmed please contact the Trust.

Follow these links to read more about the history and restoration of Swan.

The Trust could not continue to care for Swan, and provide life-changing sail training opportunities, without its volunteers, as well as the donations made by individuals and organisations. If you would like to support the Trust please click on the links above or contact us.

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