Thomas Ralston: The screws

According to my dictionary there are around twenty meanings of the word ‘screw’ but to a seaman – and in particular to a fisherman nowadays, the first meaning to spring to mind would almost certainly be ‘propeller.’

To a fisherman of the 1900s, however, the word would evoke the image of a particular type of vessel and, dependent upon the experiences of the speaker, would provoke either a curse or a blessing upon its owner.

I am referring of course to the famous – some would say infamous – ships which used to follow the herring fishing fleets around the Clyde and even further afield, buying their catches at sea and running them to market.

On a recent visit to Campbeltown, I met Bob Miller, a man with a remarkable memory for this era, and the content of this essay is plucked almost solely from his memory.

Bob was born in Fairlie in the early nineteen twenties. His father, Barney Miller, worked on the railway pier there; carrying herring catches from the skiffs to the railway wagons. In these days, the motive power for the bogeys employed in this task was the horse.

How far is it from Tarbert Loch Fyne to the nearest railhead? Bob asked me. I was surprised, and I must admit somewhat sceptical, when he told me that it was at Fairlie, only fifteen miles away. That – as later measurement was to prove to me – was correct as the crow flies – but as the skiff sailed, it was more like twenty miles. Still, it was very much closer than I would have answered immediately.

There were problems in the marketing of herring in the days of which Bob and I were chatting, which are not readily recognisably to the casual observer who casts his mind idly backward in time.

No articulated juggernauts ran then – had they been available, the roads they require were not. Telephones – even the ordinary coin-box ‘Press button A’ ones that stood on just about every street – were a novelty not seen very often; and yuppies and mobiles had yet to be invented.

How can the herring vendor of this era inform his market of the quantity to arrive?  At some time today maybe, if the wind keeps up?

However, we are concerned in this essay mainly with the problems involved in the rapid transporting of the catches. In this era ice was something of a rarity except when it was cold enough to freeze ponds – and then it was so cold that herring would keep without it anyway.

Skiffs – the catching mediums – were not fitted with engines, so their progress was subject to the vagaries of wind and tide. Rowing with sweeps in a calm was not uncommon but this, you must agree, would have been a slow, laborious process.

The common way of preserving herring was to use salt, a commodity which had been used thus for many centuries without any great improvement in its production or employment.

Getting herring to the end consumer in a fresh state, particularly when the fish were in prime eating condition, would bring great financial rewards to the successful broker. Unfortunately herring are at their best in the summer months, which of course is the time when the heat poses most difficulties to the man trying to keep them fresh.

The prime markets for fresh herring were in the big cities and the demand – in the low-paid days of which I write – for a good, cheap, protein-packed feast, was almost insatiable when the silver darlings were filled with fat. Para Handy himself relates how the tenements of Glasgow were redolent with the lovely smell of herring being fried, around the ‘Glesca Ferr’.

So, to paraphrase for our ‘revolting cousins’ in a certain former colony, ‘We have a praablem’.

Without the benefit of hindsight, how would you, the reader, go about solving it? Remember, if you are successful, ‘Yer fortune’s made’. Can you evolve a way of getting the fish into the markets before your competitors, thereby commanding a premium price?

The arrival of ‘the screws’

Someone, whose name I have not been able to discover but who undoubtedly made a fortune from his brainwave, hit on the idea of purchasing or hiring a steamer especially to carry the herring to Glasgow. One Carmichael of Tarbert has been suggested as a candidate for this honour, but the Macfarlane brothers of the same town, were in on the act early also. Of course the originator was not able to patent this idea, so he did not keep the advantage for very long.

There is no doubt that this brainwave stemmed from the normal usage of the passenger steamers which then plied their trade on the Clyde, and is simply a logical – but giant – step forward from the ‘wherries.’ They were light sailing ships which had been in use as herring carriers in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The brilliant but horrifyingly dark and exceedingly disturbing novel ‘Gillespie’ gives us an idea of how it may have come about, but this novel is completely fictitious.

Herring had been conveyed to Glasgow by the forebears of Cal Mac for a long time, but remember, these ships ran to a strict timetable – herring do not. Wherries were subject to the same vagaries of wind, as were the skiffs. The amounts of herring delivered to the markets in Glasgow in a really fresh condition would have been limited to those landed in time to catch the passenger steamers, but for example, the Dalriada and the Davaar would leave Campbeltown at 7.45 am, so the catchers would have to be in the harbour with their catches at a very early hour indeed.

The rest of the catch would have been salted and sold for a lesser price.

Initially the herring conveyed by ‘the screws’ – as the new carriers quickly became known – would be bought on the pier at, let us say Tarbert but before long they took to the sea with the fleet, following the skiffs as they searched throughout the night for the shoals.

When a pair of skiffs had a ‘puckle’ of herring alongside, the first priority was to light the flambeau. This was a rudimentary paraffin-powered flare type of light; and when the wick was lit and the device was held aloft, it was the recognised signal that the screw was required.

If the fishing was slack, it was not uncommon for several screws to attend the same flare, and they would then tender their bids for the catch. Initially the skipper of the screw was also responsible for ‘bidding’ a price for the herring, but later they carried a man called a buyer, who was tasked with ensuring that the herring were bought at a price that allowed a profit to be made. No easy job this in the days before radios made it easy to calculate the fishing successes of the night. A glut of herring meant a low price.

Having secured a load, the screw would then set off at full speed for Glasgow, where the boxed herring would be landed to the eager buyers. These consisted of a great many ‘cadgers’ – men who had transport of some kind, be it hand or horse-drawn – who would congregate at the quayside and await the arrival of the first herring of the day.

Once loaded with whatever amount they reckoned they would be able to sell, they set off around the streets of the city, and out into the country to find customers for the silver harvest.

Motorised skiffs, the Fairlie Railway Pier and speed to market

The fitting of the internal [or infernal] combustion engines into skiffs in the early years of this century, led astute fishermen to realise that they could grab a piece of this market for themselves by running their catches to the nearest railhead.

So began the boom of landings at Fairlie, where the railway pier had been opened in 1882.

By 1910, there was a significant minority of engine-equipped skiffs in the Clyde. In 1911, the average gross earnings of motor-equipped boats was £200, as against £70 for those still relying on wind power alone [figures from Fishery Board records]. Motors allowed them to pursue their quarry much more efficiently, as well as affording them the opportunity of landing to a more buoyant and rewarding market.

Some of the screws were specifically built for this job. Speed was the single most important asset, for obvious reasons. The Rob Roy was built in Troon and the Marie in Rutherglen.  Also Clyde-built were the Talisman and the Gael. Other names which Bob related to me were the Brittania, the Norman, the Watchful, the Arethusa, the Karma, the Scotia the Good Design and the Nightingale.

The Macfarlanes, probably originally of Tarbert, owned the Dutiful and the Titania. MacKinney and Rafferty, the well known Glasgow fish merchants, owned the Recruit; and James Alexander owned the Norman.

As time went on and the trade increased, the purchasing power of the screw fleet was added to by buying steam drifters from the east coast – and not only the east coast of Scotland. They travelled as far as Lowestoft and Yarmouth in their quest for speedy craft.

One boat, the Lincoln, had been built as a North Sea fish-carrier, and pursued that trade, having been bought by McKinney & Rafferty. Incidentally, Bob told me that she was the only boat he ever saw which was registered in Ardrossan, her registration number being A D 1.

Men who were in the market for such vessels would visit a port and ascertain which of their possible purchases were the fastest in the fleet, before approaching the owner of the ‘blue riband’ holder with an offer to buy.

The screws normally carried a crew of six men – the Skipper, Mate, Engineer, Fireman, Cook, and Deckhand, but when they were discharging, all took part in the labour.

Crews came from Ardrishaig, Tarbert, and Campbeltown, but most of the engineers, Bob said, were from the east coast.

When the skiffs started to land at Fairlie, a local infrastructure rapidly grew up to cope with the influx of trade. Kippering sheds were set up, among them one owned by the well-known D. A. Macrae. Another belonged to McCallum of Tarbert. This meant the appearance in Fairlie of gutters and splitters, the hard working fisher lassies.

The herring landed at Fairlie by the skiffs and entrained to Glasgow, were often there before those carried to the City by the screws and therefore got the first of the market, so very soon the screws ceased the long run up the Clyde to Glasgow, and also landed at Fairlie.

The screws carried up to one thousand boxes of herring at a time and very often, when the weather was good, a fair amount of these containers would be carried on deck to expedite landing. They discharged them four boxes at a time, using the steam winches with which they were fitted, landing them on to bogeys which carried sixteen boxes at a time. The boxes, with the exception of the ‘Glasgow’ boxes, held one basket, or a quarter of a cran each.

The so-called ‘Glasgow’ boxes, which came equipped with rope handles and a hinged lid, carried half as much again and were, because of their extra weight, highly unpopular with the ‘Lumpers’ as the labourers were known.

The loaded bogeys were then – and this is where Barney Miller and his horses came in – hauled up to the waiting train. The Glasgow fish-train left at six-forty-five promptly, so in fact herring which had been happily swimming at Inchmarnock at four in the morning, could – and very often were – on someone’s breakfast table in Glasgow just five hours later.

The Glasgow to London express train left at ten in the morning, so our Inchmarnock herring could feature on someone’s menu in London just twelve hours after its demise. Beat that nowadays if you can, using only public transport.

Herring could be discharged all day at Fairlie, and were loaded into fish vans there. These vans were picked up as and when required, by the normal passenger trains from Largs.

Such was the speed of the screws discharge that one of them, the Good Design, landed at Fairlie three times within a twenty-four period. This was in the twenties, during the time of the heavy fishing in Loch Striven, the Kyles of Bute, and at Inchmarnock.

Ice was not normally used on the herring sent to Glasgow but was employed on catches that were sent further afield, to Fraserburgh, or to Billingsgate in London, for example.

This then was the marketing scene in the Clyde herring fishery almost a hundred years ago. I doubt that the cargo of one screw could be sold in a fortnight now but ach, fish fingers are easier aren’t they?

The ‘klondykers’ – extending the reach of the herring

Bob told me that on Fridays – remember that this was during the era that saw the ban on Roman Catholics eating meat on a Friday – a screw might be sent up the river to Greenock to meet the demand of that city alone!
In 1924 a German ship, the Karsten Raeder of Hamburg, arrived on the scene and heralded in a new phase in the marketing of herring.

She iced and salted the catches, and took them straight to Germany. This venture which continued on a regular basis until 1935 meant an increase in prices to the fishermen.

An early companion to this ship, the ill-fated 215 ton German trawler Hoheluft, was wrecked on Christmas Eve in 1924. Only one of the crew of twelve, Friedrich Geiger, was saved. The ship had been employed by the Hamburg Wholesale Fishery Company, buying herring in Tarbert for several days and when loaded had set off on its voyage home.

The master, Captain Geiss had intended sailing south along the west coast of Ireland toward the English Channel but on a black night a gale from the south west drove them well to the north of their intended course and at around 11pm the ship grounded near the Mull of Oa on Islay.  The fortunate sole survivor spent the night clinging to rocks before, as day broke, making his way to safety.

At its height, nearly twenty foreign ships were engaged in this trade.

Because the ‘klondykers,’ as these ships were known, were willing to take smaller herring than were the ‘kipper yards’ or ‘freshers’ supplying the British markets, it meant that the skiffs were able to do away with the wide-meshed slings, or ‘riddles’ they used to release the smaller immature fish.

Very few memories remain of those days and I will be forever grateful for the time that the remarkable Bob Miller gave to me, thus enabling me to recall them here.

Thomas Ralston [written in 2005]

This story is part of lifeboat coxswain, fisherman and published author, Thomas Ralston’s personal archive of his writings on the worlds of lifeboating and of fishing in Scotland [and Argyll] when its fishing industry existed.  Separately and together they record the workings of this industry as he experienced them.

A born observer as well as a natural storyteller, these articles document the practices, the fishing grounds, the ports, the fleet, the characters, the sales side – almost every aspect of it invisible to those who ate the protein harvested from the seas.

Everyone interested in reading more of these accounts can find them by entering ‘Thomas Ralston’ and ‘Tommy Ralston’ in the Search box at the top right of this screen, below the banner. The articles were published in one or other version of his name.

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