[from D. Robertson, Tour, 1794]
THE HERRING FISHERYTHE MANKS FLEETA SUPERSTITION HIGHLY INJURIOUS TO THE FISHERYREFLECTIONS THEREONTHE MANKS JUBILEE.
SOON after our return to Douglas, I took an evening walk to the Promontory south of the town. The weather was serene and delightful: the neighbouring fields were in full blossom: the windows of St. George's chapel flamed with the setting sun; and the ocean was tinged with his ruddy light. In the bay, vessels from many a port,with streamers waving in the wind, were waiting the completion of their cargoes; and at a distance, scattered along the horizon for many a league, were seen the white sails of four hundred fisher-boats; while the town beneath was a crowded scene of business, enlivened with mirth and festivity,
The herrings are supposed to migrate annually from the north of Europe in one immense body; but on arriving at the northern Isles of Scotland, are broken into various huge shoals, which, after visiting several of the kingdoms of Europe, regularly return to the more northern regions. About the middle of summer a few stragglers appear off this Island: but the fishery seldom commences till the middle of July; and for a month or six weeks continues off Peele, Port-Iron, and Castletown. The herrings, though then in their prime, are by no means so abundant as afterwards.
About the end of August they collect from every part round the Island, towards the north point of Douglas-Bay; and here, with increasing success the fishery continues till the middle of September; when the equinoctial gales usually intimidate the fisher. men, and dissipate the herrings.
The boats seldom exceed eight tons, are built with much dexterity, sail swiftly, and are easily commanded. When new they cost, including the nets, upwards of seventy or eighty guineas, but they, seldom are the sole property of the fishermen. The produce of every night is divided into nine shares. Two belong to the owners of the boat; one to the proprietors of the nets; and the residue to the six fishermen. Two of these are generally seamen; and the rest, at the beginning of the fishery, come from the interior parts of the country; to which, on its close, they return supremely contented, if they have procured herrings, and the women, in their absence, cultivated potatoes, barely adequate to the maintenance of the family till next fishery. Few of the fishermen are acquainted with the anxiety attending the possession of riches. The greater part of their gains is consumed during the fishery in feasting or ebriety; and the remainder is usually consigned to quiet some importunate creditor.
Upwards of four hundred boats (1) come pose the Manks fleet. An Admiral and Vice-Admiral are annually elected: to the former of whom Government allows 5l. and to the other 3l. for the season. Their boats are distinguished by a small flag at the topmast, and their province is to conduct the fleet to the herring-grounds~. The boats sail with the evening, and return with the morning tide. On leaving the harbour, each fisherman uncovers his head, and appears for a few moments engaged in devotion: but this I presume, is more a relic of customary superstition, than an expression of real piety. Under the cloud of night they shoot their nets, which are buoyed up by inflated bags of dog-skin, dried in the sun and smeared over with tar. The herrings are caught by the gills; and in such abundance, that part of the nets must be frequently cut away. Many of the boats return laden with fifty, and some with seventy meazes (2). This, while it continues, occasions a very rapid influx of money into the country; a successful night's fishing being frequently estimated at 3000l. and sometimes amounting to 5000l.
Among the herrings are caught great quantities of dog fish, called by the Manks gabboch, which prey upon the herrings, and from their strength and voracity prove fiery destructive to the nets. They furnish the natives with oil, and when dried resemble ring; but are seldom used except by the poorest of the inhabitants.
I have already mentioned some of the superstitions of this country; but these were in general innocent fancies. An error of that nature however prevails during the fishery, which proves highly injurious to the interests of the Island. Superstition, that foe to commerce, operating on the native indolence of the Manks, influences them to sacrifice at her shrine every Saturday and Sunday evening, during the herring season; the fishermen being of opinion, that the sale of the fish caught on the one evening, and the sailing of the boats on the other; would equally profane the Sabbath.
Did this regard to the Sabbath proceed from a just veneration of the awful injunction of Him, who is so profusely conferring on them the blessings of the sea, it would be pious and commendable: but it is more the offspring of fear, than of gratitude to Heaven. It arises from a tradition, that on a Sunday evening of the last century, when the boats were fishing, a tremendous gale, accompanied with thunder and lightning arose, which destroyed a great part of the fleet; while several of the boats, which had fled for refuge to a neighbouring cove, were crushed to pieces by the fall of the impending precipice. Whether this actually happened, or was only a fabrication of priestcraft, I have never been able to learn. It has however proved a real calamity to the country. The natives believe it an awfill instance of the wrath of Heaven, and are thereby deterred from subjecting themselves to the like vengeance. This sacrifice of two days is very injurious to the fishery. From Friday to Monday evening the shoals of herrings move to some other ground; and frequently, as soon as they are dis. covered, the close of the week prevents any material advantage therefrom.
Were the boats to sail on the Saturday evening, the fish would be sold on the ensuing morning; and this. in the opinion of some, might occasion a bustle inconsistent with the solemnity of the Sabbath. But what injury could be given to the most pious and enlightened mind, were the fishermen (after having, on the Sabbath-day, offered up to God in his temple the incense of grateful hearts) to sail with the evening tide, and gather in the blessings which Heaven, at this season, so copiously pours around them ?
During the fishery, the Island seems to awake from its native lethargy. Douglas is a scene of great festivity. This season is a jubilee to the fishermen; and their wives and daughters come in groups from the interior parts of the country to heighten it. The Manksman shakes off his wonted sloth and melancholy, and assumes an air of gaiety and mirth. The day is passed in banqueting, and flowing cups go round; gladness smiles in every eye; the song echoes from every corner; and not infrequently dances conclude the festivity of the night.
To a generous mind it is highly gratifying, to observe some thousands deriving life and gladness from this employ. The pleasure however diminishes on reflecting, that all this gaiety and exertion will soon be over; and that the Manksman, when he has basked, like a summer inset, for a little time in the sunshine of industry, will retire to his usual indolence and misery; to his smoky cottage, and tattered family: for, till manufactures are more generally established, he will never know either a continuance of the comforts of life, or the blessings of society.
1: In this number are not included the smacks, brigs, &c. belonging to the lowland.
Durring the fishery there is a penalty of 51. for every gull Chicle is killed; these birds being supposed constantly to attend the herrings.
2: A meaze of herrings is five hundred.