Courage on the high seas – The Spectator

Posted: August 27, 2022 at 12:03 pm

The Salt Roads: How Fish Made a Culture

John Goodlad

Birlinn, pp. 254, 17.99

The Shetland Islands and the Faroes may seem to be somewhere out there in distant waters, marginal and in the greater scheme of things not very important in the history of the world. But from a maritime perspective it is precisely the fact that they are suspended in mid-ocean, surrounded by water that teems with fish (if one knows where to look) that has given them a role in human history out of all proportion to their size. In his fascinating account of the part played by these islands in the harvesting of cod and herring from the North Atlantic, John Goodlad raises vital questions about the worlds food supplies. He also brings to light the heroic endeavours of the poor and humble fisherfolk who mastered fierce Atlantic storms and experienced shipwreck in order to bring food to our everyday table.

Beguiled by the sight of modern massive trawlers that use sonar to identify shoals, and are often in consequence guilty of massive overfishing, we forget the sheer physical struggle that was demanded of Shetlanders when they used to set out in their small sailing boats, not unlike those of their Viking ancestors. They could read the seas without any sophisticated instruments and they identified where the fish might lie through canny instinct. They hauled in their catch by hand, while being tossed around by the waves.

We also forget how important fish has been, and remains, in feeding the world. Goodlad reports that fish remains the prime source of protein across the globe, with 180 million tons being consumed annually, significantly more than chicken or red meat: Without fish, the worlds population could not be fed. This means that those who regard eating fish as a crime against nature have gravely over-simplified the problem of making fish sustainable. The author believes this must be done through good management. Fish stocks can recover from overfishing, and the intelligent farming of fish could become a vital resource. Perhaps, though, he needs to pay more attention to the pollution of the oceans, as a result of which fish are ingesting plastic micro-pellets and failing to achieve the size they used to reach. The 80 kilogram halibut of past times have all but disappeared.

Salt also figures largely in the history Goodlad tells, for fish was a product that needed to be carefully preserved after catch. The search for Atlantic cod was already well underway by the end of the 15th century, when Hanseatic merchants visited Shetland to buy salt fish and John Cabot witnessed the shoals off Newfoundland. Soon after, or maybe secretly before Cabot, Basque fishermen arrived in the same waters.

Cod has the advantage of storing its oil in its liver, while its flesh is pure protein, and that makes it suitable for drying in the cold winds of the North Atlantic and for salting. To this day, bacalhau is the national dish of Portugal, and reconstituted stoccafisso, or stockfish cod dried until it has the texture of cardboard still features on menus in Venice.

Occasionally ranging as far as Greenland in their search for cod, Shetlanders were able to tap into this market after the Napoleonic wars. Peace with Spain meant they could sell their produce there, though in the early days the quality was not as high as that fished by the Basques. Shifting their search closer to home, they discovered great shoals off the Faroes, and their salt cod improved to the point where they were even able to convince their Basque rivals to buy it.

These changes took place against a grim background of famines, bankruptcies and shipwrecks. Goodlads wonderful book offers a powerful evocation of a hard life in the unforgiving terrain of the Shetlands and the Faroes. For Shetlanders, fish were for centuries the main means to a livelihood, and the conditions under which local lairds employed their fishermen made the struggle even harder their fishermen is the right phrase, since their legal condition was, Goodlad observes, little better than that of serfs. Attempts to challenge the Dutch command of the herring fisheries faltered, but eventually herring rather than cod became the favoured catch.

This was not an easy switch to make. Herring, a very oily fish, deteriorates quickly, and as far back as the late Middle Ages the Dutch had perfected a way of salting and curing herrings that earned its supposed inventor, Willem Beuckelszoon, the dubious honour of being counted as the 157th most famous Dutch citizen in a poll conducted a few years ago.

Herring was the staple fish in northern Europe, just as cod was in southern Europe, and Shetlanders intruded themselves into the Scottish herring fisheries which, on the eve of the first world war, were sending about 2 million barrels to the Baltic every year. Much of it was then transported by sleigh deep into the eastern European interior, since it was enormously in demand in the Jewish shtetls of Belarus and Ukraine, as it also was among students of Scottish universities, who would arrive each term loaded with herrings and oatmeal.

There is much in this book about life and culture in the Shetlands and Faroes. The sense of a common Viking heritage can be gauged from the presence of plenty of Norse vocabulary in Shetlandic speech (which is based on Scots, the old Scandinavian language known as Norn having died out). Goodlad suggests that, if the economically dynamic Faroes can go their own way as a semi-independent nation with aspirations to full sovereignty, the same could happen in Scotland. More to the point, surely, is the future of Shetland and Orkney in an independent Scotland. With such a strong sense of their distinctive identity and history they might well wish to remain part of Britain, or might acquire a status similar to the Isle of Man, another formerly Norse territory. Or be handed back to Norway after 550 years? Perhaps not.

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Courage on the high seas - The Spectator

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