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New finds reveal an ancient fishing saga.

Updated: Feb 25, 2019

A collection of fishing sinkers used for catching saithe were found over a period of several years whilst dredging for scallops between the islands of Unst and Fetlar
Fig 1. Sinkers top left and bottom row are made from steatite (soapstone) the remaining three are made from sandstone.

The other week I was having a meeting with Dr Ian Tait, Curator, of the Shetland Museum & Archives. My meetings with Ian are always productive and enjoyable. Ian's office usually contains ethnological treasures; these are usually found wrapped in newspaper or bubble wrap, often secreted within a cardboard box. In this instance the box in question was lying unobtrusively on the floor in the corner of the office. I hadn't even noticed the cardboard box until Ian pointed it out to me: running late, I was on the point of leaving, when Ian said "before you go I have something that you might find interesting." Ian carefully started to remove from the box these beautiful fishing sinkers, I immediately felt elated at what I was seeing. These sinkers are amazing as they are only used for fishing for saithe. Saithe are caught in fast flowing tidal strings, and these sinkers, which are are convex on one side (figure 1.) and concave on the other (figure 2) are designed not to sink to the sea bed but to float at a predetermined depth in order to keep the fishing line in the tidal string, where the fish are feeding.

The discovery of these sinkers is particularly important as it lends extra weight to the argument that saithe fishing took place not just in Dunrossness (the 19th century commercial saithe fishing hub) but also on Unst. This new saithe fishing sinker evidence supports other evidence I found when undertaking my PhD. This evidence was obtained from the first fishing boat register of 1869 in which the registration of probable saithe boats was identified. These saithe boats were 14-15 feet of keel with a total length of approximately 21-23 feet. These six-oared rowing / sailing boats were crewed by 4 or 5 men. In the 1869 fishing boat register there were 76 six-oared boats registered to Unst, and of these, 22 (29%) were saithe boats. Indeed in the Unst Boat Haven there is a surviving saithe boat called the Jemima Ann LK1004. This boat was built by Robbie Nicolson, Haroldswick in c.1892 (figure 3).

The concave surfaces of these fishing sinkers.
Fig 2. The concave surfaces of these fishing sinkers.

On examination of these fishing sinkers we found no dateable evidence, this means that these sinkers maybe 100 years old, or alternatively, they could be 1000! It is just not possible to tell. All we know is that similar sinkers have been found that relate to Viking / Norse use and their design never changed. This fact in itself is fascinating, and illustrates that this fishery was an ancient one!

Fig 3. Saithe boat Jemima Ann LK1004. Photograph: ©Chivers 2014, Unst Boat Haven
Fig 3. Saithe boat Jemima Ann LK1004. Photograph: ©Chivers 2014, Unst Boat Haven


Chivers, M. (2017) Shetland Vernacular Boats 1500-2000. University of Aberdeen [unpublished PhD thesis]

Written by Marc Chivers

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