[From Letters from IoM 1846]

LETTER III.

FISH, FLESH, AND FOWL.

" They're all fishing."-SONG.

"The only remarkable quadruped peculiar to the island is the tailless cat, an accidental variety of the common species, Felis Catus."-FORBES.

THERE is a tradition of a dispute between the Kings of England and Ireland for the possession of this island, which was agreed to be amicably settled by the introduction of venemous reptiles from England, which would not live in Ireland. The " reptiles," we are informed, lived, and the King of England took possession of it.1 There does not now appear, however, to be any noxious reptiles (weasels and rats excepted 2) on the island.

I am not aware that there are any freshwater fish except the trout, which abounds in many of the rivers, and is generally small. Partridges, woodcocks, grouse, snipes, wild ducks, and puffins,3 are generally plentiful; hares are scarce, for want of cover. The bones of red deer and other species are found in different parts of the island, and a race of hardy ponies are bred here; also short-horned cattle, and small mountain sheep, coarse, wooled. The puffin is extremely fat, and reckoned a delicacy by many. They build their nests in rabbit-burrows, and are very prolific. It is said that formerly 5000 of their young were taken annually, without any appa rent diminution of their numbers.4 Many small hawks, called " meslyns," arrive here from Ireland and the western parts of Scotland. Wilson mentions the existence of eagles, but I have not seen any. The curlew (scolopax arquata) is occasionally seen about the Calf of Man. Other birds usually seen upon the coast are, gulls, cormorants, shags, herons, crows, &c. The birds of passage that spend the breeding time on the Calf of Man, are said to consist of eight species, among which are the " alea aretica" (puffin), and " torda" (razor-bill).

The coasts of this island abound with a variety of fish; salmon frequent the bay from July to September; gurnet, ling, cod, and flat-fish, are in great plenty, but herrings5 may be considered as the staple commodity of the island. They are the chief support of the poorer classes. There is a singular allusion to this fish in the Oath of the Deemster,6 which shows the importance attached to it by the Manxmen-" To execute the laws of the isle betwixt party and party, as indifferently as the herring's backbone doth lie in the middle of the fish." Herrings first appear off the island about Midsummer, but the fishing seldom commences till about the middle of July; towards the end of August, they shoal round the whole island. The boats sail with the evening and return with the morning tide. The fishermen, on leaving the harbour, invoke the blessing of Providence with heads uncovered; and Bishop Wilson's form of prayer for the herring fishery is used during the season in all the churches. Great quantities of dogfish7 (which prey upon the herring, cod, and other fish) are sometimes caught, and are very destructive to the fishing nets. A great number of vessels from England, Scotland, and Ireland, attend the Manx herring-boats, and purchase herrings from them, to sell fresh at the different markets, but the greater quantity they salt for exportation.

The killing a sea gull, during the fishing season, is punished with a fine of 31., on account of that bird indicating the course of the fish. The fishing, with one or two exceptions, has not been so prosperous as formerly, probably owing to the herrings having shifted their ground. This is considered by the fishermen as a judgment on them for their quarrel with the late Bishop, respecting the green-crop tithes, in which the Peelmen took a violent part. The cod fishery is now neglected, though there are banks abounding in this fish a few miles only from the island; the cause of which is said to be the want of capital adequate to furnish vessels of twenty-five tons, the expensive lines required, and their ignorance of the proper mode of salting the cod. The floats used in the herring fishery are made of dog-skins.8 Their law prohibits tarred nets, and every vessel must reveal to the next the discovery of a " stall of fish," as it is called. The old Manx statute prohibits fishing " from Saturday morning till Sunday at night after sunset, on pain of forfeiting boats and nets;"and the " take" of Monday, in consequence of not disturbing the fish, is said to be greater than that of other days. Some of their boats are of twenty-eight tons, and the crew consists of about ten men-the owner of the boat receiving a double share of the fish taken. These boats are half-decked, their keels very short, and though swift sailers they pitch exceedingly, and are not considered so safe as the English ones. Some of these large boats cost 1001. The herring9 fishery of this island is subject to the jurisdiction of an officer, called the"water-bailiff," by whom the immediate superintendence of the fishery is given to two " admirals" appointed by himself. They are themselves fishermen and masters ofboats, and their duty is to direct the time of sailing and of casting the nets, and settle all disputes among the fishermen. Difficulties, however, sometimes arise from the Manksmen's quarrels 10 with the English and Irish fishermen, as the latter do not acknowledge the authority of these " admirals." The following return of the fishery in 1840, by George Quick, Esq., Receiver-General and Water-Bailiff of the island, presents a fair average of the annual value of this branch of commerce :

 
MAZE 11
VALUE
Purchased and carried to Liverpool in Manks boats
25,000
35,000
Ditto in English and Irish boats
10,000
12,000
Consumed in the island, fresh and salt
15,000
10,000
Cured in the Island for exportation in bulk and barrel
30,000
15,000
 
80,000
72,000

The only quadruped peculiar to this island is the sini caudal (tail-less) cat, termed in the Manks language stubbin-in English, a rumpy. This Mr. Forbes considers to be an " accidental variety of the common species "felis catus,' frequently showing no traces of caudal vertebrw, and others merely a rudimental substitute for it." 12 As a mouser, this cat is preferred to all others. Some of the same species are or were to be met with in Cornwall, and cats of somewhat similar appearance are said, by Sir Stamford Raffles, to be peculiar to the Malayan Archipelago. Many have been carried away, by visitors to the Isle of Man, and some kittens of this species were presented to the Queen, some years ago, by Mr. Howard, of Douglas. Now I am on the subject of cats, I shall conclude with the following anecdote which I heard at Edinburgh, where cats are great favourites, particularly among the poor in the Canongate.

It was customary at Edinburgh, about the time of the French Revolution, when riots occasionally occurred in the Canongate and Old Town, for those who headed the mob to commit forcible abduction upon all cats which they could find either at the doors or the firesides of their disconsolate owners. These wretched " cattier" were sometimes immediately killed, but generally tossed about till they expired. A full-sized dead cat was sometimes so far improved by this cruel process, " as to be fit to be tied round the neck of a gentleman like a cravat," as some author has expressed it. A curious accident once occurred to Lord Coalstoun, when living in the Old Town. It was at that time the custom for advocates and judges to dress themselves in gown, wig, and cravat, at their own houses, and to walk in a sort of state thus decked out, with their cocked hats in their hands, to the Parliament House. They usually breakfasted early, and when dressed were in the habit of leaning over their parlour windows for a few minutes before St. Giles' bell sounded the starting peal of a quarter to nine, enjoying the agreeable morning air, and perhaps discussing the news of the day, or the dissipation of the preceding evening, with a neighbouring advocate on the opposite side of the alley. In this manner the " Advocate's Close" as it was called, would sometimes resemble a modern coffee-room more than anything else. It so happened, that, one morning, while Lord Coalstoun was preparing to enjoy his matutinal treat, two girls, who lived in the second flat above, were amusing themselves with a kitten, which, in thoughtless sport, they had swung over the window by a cord 13 tied round its middle, and hoisted for some time up and down till the poor little creature was getting rather desperate with its exertions. In this crisis, his lordship popped his head out of the window directly below that from which the kitten swung, little suspecting, " good easy man," what a danger impended, when down came the exasperated animal directly upon his senatorial wig. No sooner did the girls perceive what a landing-place their "wee beastie" had found, than in terror and surprise they began to draw it up, but this movement was, alas, now too late! for along with the animal up also came the judge's wig, fixed firmly in its determined talons. His lordship's surprise on finding his wig lifted off his head was redoubled, when, on looking up, he perceived it dangling its way upwards, without any means (visible to him) by which its motions might be accounted for. The astonishment, the dread, the almost awe of the senator below, the half-mirth, half-terror of the girls above, together with the fierce and relentless energy of retention on the part of the kitten below, formed altogether a scene to which "language cannot do justice," (as Mr. Robins was wont to say,) but which Cruikshank might embody with considerable effect. The joke was soon explained and pardoned; but the girls afterwards were strictly enjoined by their parents, never again to fish over the window with such a bait for men's wigs.14

 

Footnotes

1 Hollinshed's Chronicles.

2 Bishop Wilson, however, observes, " There are several noxious animals, such as badgers, foxes, otters, filmarts, moles, hedge-hogs, snakes, toads, &c."

3 The flesh of these birds has an unpleasant, rank, and fishy flavour ; but is very palatable pickled or salted.

4 Many years ago, a large Russian merchant vessel was wrecked upon the coast. The crew perished, and many rats, escaping to the shore, took possession of the nearest burrows, and almost exterminated the unfortunate puffins, so that not one was taken for years afterwards.

5 The herring is a very delicate fish. When taken out of the water it gives a faint squeak, and instantly expires, and though immediately thrown again into the water never recovers, from whence probably originated the vulgar expression, ' As dead as a herring."-Vide APPENDix A.

6 "The two Deemsters are the temporal judges, both in cases of common law, and of life and death; but most of the controversies, especially such as are too trivial to be brought before a court, are decided at their houses."-Bishop WILSON.

7 Sir Joseph Banks supposed the dog-fish to be " a real small shark."

8 Which may account for the number of these animals in the island.

9" So long as this fish continued to visit the coast in such large numbers, there was little hope of modifying the enthusiasm of the natives for a pursuit which provided them with the necessaries of life for the year, at the expense of four months' activity. The returns of the fishery were indeed at some seasons enormous. The memory of persons still living, can recal a season when the herrings were so abundant, that they caught them with the hand on the beach. After having been sold at four-pence a hundred, until purchasers could not be found, they were carted off for manure. On the 13th July, 1667, herrings were sold publicly at sixpence a maze (500) ; and there is a statute unrepealed, though not enforced, prohibiting the exportation of herrings as long as they might be sold in the island for one shilling, and two-pence per hundred, under penalty of forfeiture to the buyer, and fine equal to the price to the seller."-MANKS GUIDE.

10 The principal subject of dispute is the period of commencing the fishery, and of shooting the nets.

11 520.

12 Vide Appendix B.

13 A garter, it is said.

14 This anecdote is related in that amusing work, "Traditions of Edinburgh."


 

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