HERRING FISHING

 

 

Sgadan y Borth, sgadan y Borth (Herrings of Borth, Herrings of Borth)

Dai lygad mhob corff (Two eyes in each body)

 

This was the ancient Borth herring-sellers’ cry that once reverberated through the autumn air in local villages. The fish sellers and their herring laden carts travelled from Borth via Ynyslas calling at the farms on the way to Llangynfelin. By the time they had arrived at Tre'r-ddol Taliesin and Talybont, the price of the fish was increased slightly. Village children carried baskets of herrings on foot along the circuitous route up over Rhiw Fawr to the farms of Ty Du, Brynbala, Brynbwl, Moel Cerni, Ty Llechwedd Bach, Rhydmeirionydd, Rhoscellan, Wileirog Isaf, Maenuwch, Wileirog Uchaf, Ffos Y Gravel Isaf, Ffos Y Gravel Uchaf, Blaunwaen, Cilolwg, Rhiwlas, Ty Llwyd, Tynewydd and Tir Helig. Others took their catch by handcart to Glanwern and from there to the farms of Felinwern, Glanleri, Tynsimnau, Penwern and back to the hamlet of Dolybont. They would call at Felinfawr, then over the Leri up to Henllys and Bryneithyn Farms and on to the cottages at Taicannol. From there to Brynllys Farm and and finally Pantydwn Farm. Returning home, those on foot crossed the bog fording the Leri at Ynys Fergi, whilst those with a cart crossed the river back near Brynllys; all accessing the village via the Rhyd road.

 

It is certain that the herring (clupea harengus) created and sustained the settlement of Borth, and many others on the Welsh seaboard. This fish remained an emotive pivotal point in village life until the early twentieth century. The Celtic peoples held this potentially life-saving creature in high esteem. The Welsh for herring is ysgadenyn and in the plural ysgadan. The 'y' is dropped nowadays, so it is like the Irish spelling, scatan or sgadan. For the Manx it was skeddan and in Cornish guidn. The herring had become part of the people’s psyche and they perceived that a threat to this natural bounty was also a threat to them. So much so that in 1878, fisherman Humphrey Owen of Aberystwyth blamed the decline of herrings on the fact that previous gluts of this fish had resulted in them being used as manure - an insult to nature (Buckland & Walpole, 1878-9).

 

The catching of this bounty of the sea was imperative for Borth villagers’ survival to such a degree that at times it had Biblical connotations as it echoed Christ’s life and work amongst the Galilean fishermen. In the fervour of the Methodist Revival, the herring for many became a symbol for the Host; the body of Christ. It conjured up images of this fish as a kind of manna that alleviated spiritual and physical hunger. No doubt haunting the memories of the people were the spectres of previous famines. These themes inspired the late author A. E. Richards (1905-1982), whose plays and short stories such as Master Mariner and Who’ll Buy My Fresh Herrings, are redolent of Borth as he based his characters and themes on village history and folklore. His works include these religious considerations, evolving from Borth folks dependence on sea harvests when he stated “The shining herring shoal is a miracle in the evening of the year” (Richards, 1950, p.5). Many a version is told in Borth of how the congregation of a local chapel was led by the preacher past Pengoitan Farm and up to the fields bordering the cliff opposite todays Francis Road. The whole gathering knelt on the ground and the preacher lead the prayers exhorting the Lord to arrange for the arrival of the already overdue herring. The village was herring-dependant to such a degree that after a poor season in 1898, a local newspaper reported that Borth people would have to suffer a dire winter because of a dismal herring harvest (Cambrian News, October 1898).

 

The first towering headland south of Borth is called Craig y Wylfa, which means the Cliff of Vigil. Some have suggested a romantic connection with smuggling, but its primary role, as its name suggests, was its use, especially by the women folk, to watch for the returning fishing boats. A heavy price was paid at times in reaping the herring harvest. In the 1830’s five men lost their lives whilst herring drifting, one of whom was the grandfather of Captain John Davies of Maesteg House. The vessel they were on was the Ruth and it was caught in a sudden storm at nightfall and was wrecked at Carreg Mulfran. The last vigil on Craig y Wylfa occurred in 1917 when three Borth men were lost whilst salvaging in the bay; two of whom were Betty Doyle and Ronnie Davies’ antecedents. The three bodies were never found. In the old days if the bodies were recovered they would be laid in an open coffin in their homes and a vigil called 'gwylnos' was kept with most of the village, including children, gathering in relays to pay their respects. Upon leaving, money would be put in a collection bowl for the grieving widow or parents. These tough fishermen of Borth have been described thus :

 

The men who worked in this way for a bare sustenence, buying bread for their families with their lives often, developed qualities of courage, piety, resourcefulness and thrift hardly to be met with under gentler conditions. Like the marram grass, the plant most familiar to them on their exposed foreshore, they adapted themselves, had to adapt themselves, in order to live (Morgan, 1948, p.196).

 

Historically, when the herring fishing began in September around Michaelmas, the Borth boats would cast their nets and drift south-west, aided by an ebbing tide, as far as the edge of Sarn Cynfelyn, and often, weather permitting, as far as Caergwyddno (Gwyddno's Fort, or now, The Patches). In the old days candles or lamps were lit and left in the back windows of the cottages to guide the fishermen home. If there rose a môr tir (ground swell), prior to the boats’ return, especially toward evening which falls quickly in the late autumn, bonfires were lit by the womenfolk and children along the Borth shore. In these dangerous conditions, to save foundering in the surf boats could run into the Dyfi or, prior to the 1820s, the river Leri.

 

Light easterlies blowing offshore, signalled by a dark cloud bank appearing above the surrounding inland hills are the ideal weather conditions for herring fishing. This cloud formation which can last for days, is called 'dwyren penddu' which means 'eastern black cloud-head'. Also at herring time, in late winter, farmers on the inland fringes of Cors Fochno would take advantage of these easterly winds and burn off vast areas of the fenland to encourage fresh pasture for the following spring. This was an annual event in my youth and it was an amazing sight to see a line of fire moving slowly towards the village, to eventually halt at the barrier provided by the river Leri. I recall on one of these occasions whilst fishing at night, seeing the village from out at sea silhouetted against the red glowing sky…an unforgettable experience.

 

However there was a far older reason for bog burning than merely for agricultural benefit. Malaria or the ague, was rife in marshy parts of Britain up until the 18th century. D.W.Morgan notes that Porthmadoc was built at the sea edge of a malarial swamp. As previously stated ritual burning to stamp out the source of infection gave rise to the legend of Hen Gwrach Ddu y Fegin, the Black Witch of the Bog, a device to keep people away from illness and possibly death. It should be noted that there was an outbreak of malaria in eastern England in the 1940's.

 

All along Ceredigion's coastline a great flurry of activity was engendered by the herring season. By the 1700s there were nearly one hundred fishing smacks from Newquay, Aberaeron, Aberystwyth and Borth operating in the area. The visual records of the local herring fisheries are scant except for the work of Alfred Worthington (1837-1927). Born in Kent, he came to live in Aberystwyth on his physician’s instructions in 1875. Amongst his many interests, photography and painting of local scenes were to become his main preoccupations. He undertook a series of marine paintings and his oil painting The Herring Fleet, is a rare depiction of local fishing practices. The centuries’ old sight he painted would vanish in the next few decades. Also amongst his prodigious output of local scenes was a painted panoramic view of the village, Borth from Rhiw Fawr.

 

Today, adjacent to Pengoitan House where Cliff Road begins, is a little seating area and beach access which has always been known as The Slip, referred to in Welsh as Y Slip. This ramp, whose remains can be seen in old photographs, facilitated the launching of the herring boats. The situation began changing with the decline of local boat ownership and a new road being built along the front in the 1890s. For those who had no boats there was always the beach where they could set their herring nets. This was a time-honoured practice, especially enjoyed by widows and the cockle and shrimping women. In ancient times with the scarcity of boats, herring were so numerous that they were easy to catch on the beach itself. In times of such abundance, boats often anchored their nets overnight just offshore adjacent to the village, making them easier to retrieve the next morning. This was often practiced by myself and others such as Gethin and Jack Evans, Sid Clare, Alun Evans and Ronnie Davies in the 1960s and 70s, especially after several previous fruitless all night drifts. Fishing just offshore one had to ensure the nets weren’t too deep otherwise they dragged in the sand. This caused problems especially if the net was allowed to concertina during slack water at the tidal change. This encouraged crabs and thornback rays to feed on the trapped herrings, so cut down nets were used. Often old nets were the ones that were set on the beach.

 

In 1969 I caught five hundred splendid herrings just on the beach under the lifeboat station and gave many to the locals amongst whom was Gareth Raw-Rees of Tynparc. He told me they were the finest herrings he had tasted since his boyhood at Brynbwl farm. Each was coated in a silvery skin that he called paise arian (silver petticoat). According to his wife Mari he became quite covetous of these particular fish and not at all keen on sharing them, which was so uncharacteristic of him. Others who instinctively recognised the quality of these particular fish were Glenys Griffiths of Gwastad Farm and David Llewelyn Lewis, who as children remembered and appreciated what this fish had meant to the village. The herring still had a noticeably powerful hold on that particular generation. Hugh Hughes, known as Hugh ‘Boston’, recalls that in the spring of 1951, on his return from sea, his mother had kept some herrings for him from the previous November. Even though preserved in salt they were nearly disintegrating when she took them out of the pair pridd, earthenware pancheon, to fry for him. He remembers their taste with intense emotion (H. Hughes, pers. comm. 2003). The intangible hold of the herring affected Sid Clare to such a degree that even knowing the herring shoals were off Aberystwyth where he kept his boat, he would still journey north to Borth to first cast his nets. He was keeping a kind of covenant with the long past (S. Clare, pers. comm. 2003).

 

These fish could cause passions to run high, Jac Richards still smouldered with indignation 8o years after being deprived of an extra herring in his childhood. His mother, as was the custom amongst the congregation of Soar Chapel, invited a visiting preacher home for supper after an evenings service. Being November soused herring was the dish served up. The preacher had a large herring and Jac a small one. However there was an extra one left over which Jac thought would be his as surely good manners and methodistic frugality meant the preacher would refuse the extra fish. Alas it was not to be and to Jac’s chagrin his mother served the plump herring to her guest. “Rwy ddim wedi madde ir diawl hyd heddu"....."I have not forgiven the devil to this day" (J. Richards, pers. comm. 2000)

 

The totalling of the herring catches was done numerically and not by weight. A meise of herrings locally is 500 fish. However, this varies in different regions of Britain, as some included extra fish as tally devices to denote the scores and the hundreds; similarly there was a long hundred, which often meant a total of 124 fish. Youngsters in Borth were encouraged to become involved in the herring harvest by using a local system called sgadan bys (finger herrings), where a child after helping to land the catch on the beach would be rewarded with as many herrings as they were able to hold in each hand, allowing for one fish per finger. This was a maximum of 10 fish for those who could manage to carry them in the cold often freezing weather, for small children 2 in each hand was about the limit. Jac Richards often recalled receiving the sgadan bys bounty from my great grandfather David Davies. It is interesting to note that in the records of Morfa School of May 21st of 1881 some boys were absent from school as they were apparently helping in gathering blackberries and herring fishing! Herring fishing in May? No local knowledgable person would accept that. Herding unicorn would have been more believable.

 

The herring dependent villagers’ precarious existence is nowhere more succinctly described than in Brief Glory:

 

In these tenements, precariously poised between ancient bog and ancient sea, poised on a barrier of sand and pebbles which the pounding surf had raised, it was always either a fast or a feast, oftenest the former. Herring was the main harvest, for of gardens there were few if any, and bog yielded nothing but peat for kindling; and since it was decreed by Nature that even herring should only enter the Bay during the season of storm around Michaelmas it was no easy harvest-home (Morgan, 1948, p.196).