Welcome to Tea Toast & Trivia. Thank you for listening in.
Join me as I travel across the ocean to Shetland, where the fresh sea air and rugged landscape captures the spirit of the adventurous souls. Shetland is in the northern region of the United Kingdom just above the Orkney Islands. With a latitude north of 60°, the Shetland Islands are bordered by the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
There are many stories held safe in Shetland’s complex geology of faults and fold axes, metamorphic rocks, granite intrusions and the assemblage of rocks called “the Old Red Sandstone.”
Humans have made Shetland their home since hunters and gatherers roamed the land. A few centuries later – well, to be truthful, many centuries later -, the Vikings came in their dragon ships to plunder. Somewhere along the way, they changed their minds about the plundering and decided that Shetland would be a great place to settle in and raise their families.
Then the time came when the Norway kings and Scottish monarchs clashed for supremacy. There was never a dull moment.
This story looks back to the turn of the nineteenth century as told by the good people of the Unst Boat Haven. Unst is one the Shetland’s North Isles. No one really knows the origin of the name “Unst.” It may carry a Norse meaning, from the Old Norse “Omyst” meaning “eagle’s nest.” Some even think there is a Pictish connection.
But I digress, for this story is about fish – and the gutter lasses. You see, Unst is in one of the richest fishing grounds in the world.
The 1840’s onward were marked by the booming herring industry that propelled Shetland to the pinnacle of Europe’s go-to place for herring. Unst was at the centre of the hubbub. This small island became a vital herring port – a powerhouse of employment opportunities.
In early autumn, massive shoals of herring came to feed off the coast.
Men would bring in the fish. But a workforce was needed to gut the fish and ready them for market.
It was brave, hardworking women who responded.
They came –in the thousands – some as young as fourteen, from the Scottish Highlands, Hebridean Islands, Northumberland and as far away as Ireland to find employment. They came to be known as “gutter lasses.” The labour was difficult, tedious and dangerous. They were to gut the herring and pack them into barrels which were layered with salt. Crews of three worked together, two to gut and one to pack. The only tool they used was a short, sharp knife – one slip would lead to a painful cut, which was aggravated by contact with salt. The women twisted strips of flour sack cloth around their fingers and thumbs to act as protective bandages. They wore heavy shawls and oilskins to shield them from wind and rain as they waited for the boats to bring in the catch. It was piece-work, which led to unbelievable productivity. A good gutter could grade between forty and sixty herring a minute.
Every morning, the call of “Up Lasses and wup your fingers!” had them at their posts at 6:00 am. They worked tirelessly through the day until the day’s catch was processed, which could be 2:00 am the next morning.
As they waited for the boats to come to port, the women knitted, shared stories and built a strong community.
Six-day workweek, long hours, harsh conditions – it was worth it all. The wages that were brought home to help their families were eagerly welcomed.
Best of all – there was freedom in travel. The gutter lasses would return every season. Adventure and good company were irresistible. Life-long friendships were formed.
The gutter lasses have faded into history, but their story remains ever fresh, a reminder that we are at our best when we build a community based on friendship and common purpose
And so dear listeners, safe travels wherever your adventures take you.
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