Fish captured using spears, traps, lines, nets, and shellfish were a vital element in the diet of early Kintyre hunter-gatherer communities.
Commercial fishing, involving full-time fishermen, was late developing in the area and Campbeltown’s elevation to national importance as a fishing centre began around 1760 when it became an annual assembly port for a fleet of drift-netting herring ‘busses’ fitted out to capitalise on government subsidies. By the end of the century the fishery was in decline and investors began withdrawing their capital.
These large busses, based on the design of Dutch fishing vessels, were phased out and the fishery reverted to small open boats. Around 1840, the scale of the boats increased again with the appearance of part-decked drift-netting smacks. In the 1870s, the scale increased still further when luggers were bought into Campbeltown to engage in mackerel drift-netting in the southern Irish Sea, based at Kinsale.
By then, however, drift-netting had entered a terminal decline, replaced by ring-netting, which was Kintyre’s unique contribution to world fishing technology. The ring-net evolved in the first half of the 19th century from small beach seine-nets operated from Tarbert but was soon being employed offshore. During this period, the mid to late 19th century, many ring-net fishermen based themselves in summer at their favourite fishing locations, living ashore in tents and huts.
The small open skiffs increased in size until the sail version, incorporating living accommodation in the form of a small forecastle or ‘den’, reached its height of development with the Loch Fyne Skiff, such as the Yerda which is to be seen in the Heritage Centre the prototypes of which, the ‘Alpha’ and the ‘Beta’, were launched for a Dalintober fisherman, Iver McGeachy, in 1882.
The 20th Century
With the turn of the century and the coming of motor power, the model evolved again. In 1922, the ‘Falcon’ and ‘Frigate Bird’ were launched for pioneering Campbeltown skipper, Robert Robertson. These vessels ushered in an era of technological advance which only ended when ring-netting ended in the 1970s. These larger motorised ring-netters were fast, highly manoeuvrable and ultimately well-equipped with winches and electronic fish-detection and navigational aids.
The ring-net fishermen ranged widely in pursuit of herring, to the Isle of Man, Firth of Forth, Yorkshire coast and especially to the Minches, where an annual winter fishery conducted in darkness along dangerous shores and often in hostile weather – increasingly assumed major economic importance.
By the 1960s, diversification was well underway and most fishermen had converted to seine–netting for white fish, dredging for scallops or ‘clams’, and trawling for ‘prawns’ (scampi). In recent years, with the negation of herring-fishing and dearth of white fish on local grounds, the main fishing effort has been directed at shellfish – prawns, scallops, and ‘buckies’ (whelks) – and the Kintyre fishing fleet has been reduced from hundreds of boats in the 19th century to less than a dozen in the this century.
The greatest feature in the decline of fishing has been the related decline of fishing communities. Until the beginning of the 20th century, there were small communities all around the coasts of Kintyre: at Muasdale, Southend, Sanda, Saddell, Torrisdale, Grogport and Skipness, as well as at the main ports of Campbeltown, Carradale and Tarbert. Additionally, there were many seasonal fishing stations: huts and cottages which housed individual fishermen, who launched their boats from the shore to fish for lobsters and salmon. The ruins of these fishing stations can still be seen, usually, with a nearby ‘port’, a passageway cleared of rocks, for the launching and beaching of their open boats.
The salting–or curing–of fish was the main means of preserving catches until refrigeration arrived in the 20th century. At Carradale and Torrisdale in the late 18th century stood two ‘red herring houses’, where herring were steeped and then smoked in a lengthy process. Kippers were introduced in the 19th century, but these required less salting and less smoking and deteriorated much more rapidly than the red herring.
Large quantities of herring were cured in barrels on Campbeltown Old Quay. The busy scenes of gutting and packing herring into barrels, using the labour of women from the Scottish East Coast and Ireland, have been captured in photographs. But when ring-netting arrived, combined with railway and steamship communication, the market in fresh herring became increasingly important, and the gutting, smoking and salting was no longer carried out.