Shoals of Herring


Here at DBTR we like to think of our live-music programme as not only interesting musically but also culturally thought-provoking. With that in mind, our November offering features North-East based folk duo Janice Burns & Jon Doran who formed in 2017 after discovering a shared love of traditional song. After watching one of their youtube videos Janice & Jon gave DBTR pause to reflect on the history of ‘migrant labour’, especially as those two words never seem to be far away from the lips of newsreaders these days. Much of the antipathy aimed at seasonal workers is linked to the thorny issue of Brexit of course, in particular, those who have travelled to these shores from eastern Europe in order to do the work many of us are not even prepared to consider. ‘Fish gutting’ being one such occupation.


Janice & Jon’s self-titled 2020 mini-album features ‘Song of The Fishgutters‘, the lyrics were written by Ewan MacColl which he had paired with a traditional tune for the award-winning 1960 BBC Radio Ballad programme ‘Singing The Fishing’. This episode followed the lives of the men and women from East Anglia and Northeast Scotland who had found work in the fishing trade. This practice had started around 1850 when women followed the herring fishing fleets to process the catch and continued until the 1960s. As the fish migrated from the Norwegian waters into the North Sea, the women started curing fish in Scotland during the summer and would work their way down the east coast and arrive in East Anglia in the autumn.

To gut and pack the large quantities of herring thousands of fish gutters would travel and work alongside each other. Leaving their homes for work ‘the herring lasses‘ often stayed in wooden lodgings along the quaysides of the east coast. At the turn of the 20th century, there were over 100 Scottish curing companies operating out of Great Yarmouth, East Anglia employing approximately 6,000 women. A barrel of 700 fish took around 10 minutes to gut and pack, and a crew could manage up to 30 barrels a day. As they were paid by the barrel, speed was important. Salt was the enemy and would aggravate the inevitable cuts from their sharp gutting knives so the workers tied strips of rag around their fingers.

Listening to Janice & Jon’s version of the fish-gutters song I thought of these migrant workers and how they, much like today’s workers from the Eastern European countries had left their homes in order to do hard, low paid seasonal work. It is a fact that today’s fish gutters are more likely to be migrant workers from Central and Eastern Europe than British workers. Many have found work in the Scottish fish processing industry as employers are said to find it hard to attract local staff for the seasonal employment they have on offer.

Tickets here > Janice Burns & Jon Doran + Heather Ferrier Claypath Deli, Durham. Saturday 20th Nov. 7pm

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