Wigtown Book Festival: Donald S Murray on Herring Tales

Author Donald S Murray, who's based on the Isle of Lewis. Picture: Bloomsbury
Author Donald S Murray, who's based on the Isle of Lewis. Picture: Bloomsbury
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HERRING is as important to Britain’s industrial heritage as coal and steel and the silver darlings put Orkney and Shetland at the heart of a global industry, author Donald S Murray 
tells David Robinson ahead of his Wigtown Book Festival appearance

If you really knew what you were doing, you could hear the herring rise, the sound of thousands of small bubbles bursting on the sea’s surface. And when you saw them, there was a word for that shimmer of silvery scales, that blaze of phosphorescence on the water. In Shetland, where Donald S Murray now lives, they call it the mareel, which, as he says, sounds like a dance; in the Gaelic of his native Lewis, it’s called a’ losgadh. The burning.

Murray grew up near the Port of Ness, on the northern tip of Lewis, and though he never worked on a boat out in search of a’ losgadh, he knew plenty who did. Fish dominated the local economy. It was there in the smells in the harbour air, of the fishmeal factory and in some of the houses; and of all the fish, the one that mattered most was the herring.

So when I ask him how long he’s spent researching his latest book, Herring Tales, he smiles and says it’s taken all of his life. Or at least the half-century back to when he was nine, listening to his Aunt Bella talk about her days “following the herring”.

She’d come out to his croft every Saturday to help his father – her brother – who by then was bringing up his two sons by himself. She’d help to prepare their Sunday dinner, chop the vegetables, do a bit of ironing. She was in her fifties by then, her hands gnarled by rheumatism – a consequence, he thinks, of all those years gutting herring in the cold and damp – but she never complained. “She was like a mother to me,” he writes, “showing strength, love and tolerance while at the same time enduring great physical pain.”

When Bella was born in 1914, the herring industry was at its height. Two to three million barrels of herring were landed at Scottish ports each year. From May to August, boats would go out from Orkney and Shetland in search of the silver darlings, all the time going south down the coast. By September to November, they’d be fishing off the Yorkshire coast and as far as Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. Wherever the boats went, the herring girls would follow, gutting, cleaning and packing the fish, working long hours and staying in barely sanitary dormitories. A good worker would be expected to pack 30,000 herring a day; 30 barrels, in other words, each with 20 layers of fish, their tails in the middle and heads facing out.

The more he listened to Bella, and especially her sister Agnes (another herring girl, who settled in Wick) the more the young Donald would pick up stories about their lives working away from the island. “As they talked,” he says, “these distant places like Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft no longer seemed that far away. And that was one of the attractions of writing this book. People always see places like Shetland and the Western Isles as being very peripheral communities, maybe even backward. But with this story of the herring, if you go back relatively recently – just 100 years – these places were very much the centre of a worldwide industry, and one that in its own way was as much part of Britain’s industrial history as coal and steel.”

In Murray’s book, the humble herring turns out to have a massive role in civilisation. Capitalism may – just about – have got off the ground without it, but herring certainly helped to get it going, as the Dutch fished further and further away from their shores in ever-bigger boats – basically early factory ships – that needed loans for their construction, a navy to guard them, and a whole new bureaucracy of standardisation to ensure that importers were happy enough with their salted catch. Nor was herring history just a matter of commerce: it swam into northern Europe’s art, literature, craft, music and folklore too – like the rather useful (from the point of view of keeping the peace) proverb that said herring would stay clear of any port at which blood had been spilled.

And people might just have believed that, because if there’s one thing about the herring, it’s that they’re fickle. You can’t count on them. A port like Siglufjordur on the north coast of Iceland can be built in the 1940s, and thrive for a while, then just a decade later the herring decide to stay away and it starts to fade away. On Murray’s wide-ranging tour of northern Europe, there are plenty of glimpses of that lost, fishy past so many countries used to have in common.

Anyone who has read Murray’s wildly inventive and irreverent The Guga Stone: Lies, Legends and Lunacies from St Kilda published two years back would know already not to expect any dryasdust history from him. They’d count on a bit of poetry (less here, though some of it switches into his prose), plenty of tall tales (again, not as many, although he does insinuate that barnacle geese “hatch from certain shellfish clutching rocks and the undersides of boats”) and a good sense of humour (plentiful here, with an extended riff on the importance of herring in Jewish-American comedy). Put all of that together with childhood memories, and a whole range of fascinating stories he has uncovered on his travels, and these herring tales are far more tasty than you might expect,

His point about the cosmopolitanism of “peripheral” islands is well made. Before the First World War, Russians and German traders and fishermen were all, for example, regular visitors to Lerwick and Stornoway, and the commerce so intense that both those places even produced their own banknotes. Whether in fisherman’s ganseys or (somewhat earlier) the herring girls’ plaids, the patterns themselves were a kind of dialect too, telling others at a glance where their wearers came from. And of course the recipes were themselves a kind of universal language: dare you tackle the noxious-smelling Swedish surströmming, or do you prefer smoked kippers, Bismarck herring, the Yarmouth bloater or – like the Dutch, who have never lost their taste for it – the matjes, or soused herring? “That’s my favourite too,” says Murray, “it slips down the neck very easily indeed, even more so than the traditional Scottish herring in oatmeal, which I also love.”

These are good times for Murray. He’s been a teacher for 29 years – that’s where the humour in his writing comes from, he says: if you can make people laugh, they’re so much more receptive – but has been writing full-time for the last three. It’s paying off too. With Herring Tales, he’s moved for the first time to London publisher Blomsbury, and Sequamur, his first-ever play, seems to be an instant success. On the day we talk, it was being performed at Ypres in Flanders, having already been staged in London, Belfast, Edinburgh and all over Scotland. There’s even talk about a transatlantic production next year.

Written in Murray’s native Gaelic, it tells the story of a William Gibson, a charismatic former headmaster of his alma mater, the Nicholson Institute in Stornoway. In 1932, he was trying to write a speech for a ceremony at which they would be the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the 148 pupils of the school who had died in the First World War, in which he had encouraged them to fight.

Does Murray have any regrets about quitting teaching two years ago? “In Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett makes him say something like ‘My best years are behind me now …. but I wouldn’t have them back.’ That’s my position too.”

The actual Beckett quote carries on, “Not with the fire in me now.” That might sound too grandiloquent, but Murray would agree with the sentiment. After teaching for 29 years – in Stornoway, Benbecula and Lerwick – being able to write full-time, “feels like a second life, a rebirth. It’s wonderful.”

Herring Tales, by Donald S Murray, is published by Bloomsbury, price £16.99. He will be talking about it at the Wigtown Book Festival on 29 September at 1:30pm. He will also be discussing writing – and thinking – in both English and Gaelic at the festival tomorrow at 7:30pm, www.wigtownbookfestival.com


Today A lot of politicians have the BBC in their sights right now, so can it still survive unscathed? This New Noise, Charlotte Higgins’s history of it, could hardly be better timed. This event, though could, as many people might also have also wanted to hear BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner talk about his work. She’s on at County Buildings Main Hall, £8; he’s in the ScottishPower Foundation Marquee, £9, but both are on at 1:30pm

Tomorrow Fresh from her triumph at Edinburgh (where she was interviewed by First Minister Nicola Strgeon no less) Val McDermid talks about her new Tony Hall/Carol Jordan thriller, Splinter the Silence, 1:30pm, ScottishPower Foundation Marquee, £8

Monday 28 September AN Wilson talks to Stuart Kelly about reading the Bible as literature, 10:30am, County Buildings, Main Hall, £6

Tuesday 29 September From punk stardom to the pulpit is indeed a less-travelled road, but in his memoir former Communard Rev Richard Coles explains why he took it, 6pm, Scottish Power Foundation Marquee, £8

Wednesday 30 September The Stables Dinner with Liz Lochhead, 7:30pm Home Farm, Garlieston, £35 (or see her reading at 1:30pm for £6)

Thursday 1 October The Festival Expedition: Robert Twigger leads a group sea kayaking from Garlieston to Cruggleton. Pre-booking essential, £14

Friday 2 October: The Man Booker Prize – The Festival Decides: Debi Gliori, Adrian Turpin, David Sumner and chair (and 2013 man Booker judge) Stuart Kelly work out who ought to win. 6pm, County Buildings, £6

Saturday 3 October To Begin – a new piece of work by National Theatre of Scotland based on local people’s stories on theme of journeys 1:30pm and 7:30pm, Wigtown Parish Church, £8pm (also Friday)

Sunday 4 October: Janice Galloway – one of the best readers of her own work, here talking about Jellyfish, her new short story collection, 1.30pm, McNeillie Tent, £6