For the best part of a century, cod was the mainstay of the Shetland fishing industry, and intrepid skippers criss-crossed the north Atlantic in search of the richest grounds.
Trips of three months’ duration were not uncommon, and the lives of fishermen, many as young as 14, were fraught with incredible danger and discomfort.
In The Cod Hunters, John Goodlad records these voyages in depth, including the sizes of the catches, the length of time at sea and the numbers of crew, thanks to sources such as the Lerwick Fishery Office.
But his account of his homeland’s 19th century cod fishery is much more than a tale of record catches and ship dimensions, market prices and weather incidents, although these all figure in vivid detail.
The Cod Hunters represents a profile of ordinary people doing extraordinary things as they chased cod shoals from Rockall to Faroe, Iceland to the distant Greenland cod banks.
With an illustrious career in fisheries, starting in his twenties when he chaired the Shetland Fishermen’s Association, Goodlad moves easily among his subjects, the long gone men who set sail in often perilous conditions to harvest the seas for cod.
He gives the statistics a personal dimension by following the fortunes of individual players, whether cod smacks or cod fishermen – or even legendary cod grounds.
One of these, Heglie’s Bank off Iceland, was the stuff of Shetland folklore, and Goodlad had first heard mention of it as a boy.
He turns detective to try to locate the ground that had never appeared on a fishing chart, and in the process discovers one of many links between the Shetland cod hunters and their Faroese successors.
In fact, the Faroes are rarely out of the picture. Goodlad recalls how his grandmother joked that you were not allowed in the best room in the house until you had fished at Faroe.
‘It registered with me from a very early age that the men who crewed the Faroe smacks must have had something of an enhanced social status in nineteenth century Shetland.’
Faroe provided relatively accessible fishing, shelter when necessary and, for many years, contraband, mostly brandy, with which the Shetland cod hunters were able to subsidise their modest incomes.
Smuggling became a crucial part of the ‘catch’ from the Faroes, where there was no excise duty, and even a Goodlad ancestor was caught redhanded by the author, with brandy and three woollen jumpers.
The discovery of a Faroese merchant’s company ledgers in a bar in Tvoroyri revealed that many Shetland cod fishermen would spend a year’s wages on illicit goods, which they would then land at night at some secluded bay, out of the reaches of the Coastguard Service.
Read a sample of the book here
More innocent images colour this always engaging story, of the ‘beach boys’, for example, who laid out the bulk of the cod catch, processed in salt on board the smacks and then left to dry, ‘glistening white’, on pristine pebble beaches.
And the method of fishing itself, primitive but effective, with each fisherman casting his own baited hand line, reflects the simplicity of the times. Goodlad is surprised to learn that there was an enormous difference in catch rates among fishermen deploying exactly the same lines.
He also unearths the first wellboats which, to a former salmon farmer like Goodlad, might seem basic. But they were nevertheless efficient in keeping a proportion of the catch alive to supply the increasingly affluent middle classes in London who ‘wanted fresh cod to adorn their dining tables’ and were prepared to pay a premium for it.
The cod fishery was eventually replaced by the herring, but the cod hunters, and the merchants who took almost as many risks, left behind a legacy of seamanship and innovation, not just in Shetland but in the Faroes.
Goodlad ensures that these remarkable ‘iron men in wooden boats’ will not be forgotten, in a thorough history that is both faithfully and lovingly told.
The Cod Hunters, by John Goodlad, published by Shetland Heritage Publications, 183 pages. Hardcover from £25, paperback from £15 (firstname.lastname@example.org).