The Climate of Union: The Decline of the North Sea Scottish Herring Fishing Industry 1660–1707

By Patrick Joseph Klinger. Patrick Joseph Klinger, whose research focuses on environmental and climatic aberrations and their relation to the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707 has an article in the latest issue of Environment and History (23.2, May 2017) entitled ‘Weather and the Jacobite Rebellion of 1719′

Recently, Geoffrey Parker and Sam White have demonstrated the importance of climatic and environmental change in creating rebellion and social change during the seventeenth century. My larger project is based upon those same parameters; however, by using Scotland as a case study, it asks how climatic and environmental change influenced a union. To examine this question, my current research explores the interactions between environmental change and cultural response in a case study focused on the diminution of the Scottish North Sea herring fishing industry from 1660–1707.

Herring Vessel of the period (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Based upon secondary works and primary sources of Dutch herring fish production and Scottish accounts of the herring industry during the seventeenth century, a noticeable decline in herring catch data began around 1660. This decline in the catch records has not gone unnoticed. Historians and contemporary records depict an overall decline in the North Sea and Scottish herring fishing industry during the second part of the seventeenth century. In addition, Bo Poulsen’s Dutch Herring (2008) has shown that during this period of decline in herring catches there was a significant increase in the length of fish voyages. This suggests that the cause of the herring decline was not solely anthropogenic (Anglo-Dutch and Franco-Dutch wars). This current project traces these additional causes in the decline in the Scottish herring industry, and argues that the herring decline was also driven by climatic and environmental change.

Herring catch (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In addition, I am exploring how a decline of the herring industry affected people (farmers, fishermen, laborers, merchants, etc.) in Scotland and created groups in support of and against a union. This decline of the herring industry was the first sign or signal of larger changes in the Scottish climate during the end of the global Little Ice Age (1660–1720), which made life more challenging for Scots and hindered the Scottish economy. The effects of these climatic aberrations became most evident throughout the country during ‘King William’s Ill Years’ or a series of poor harvests and famine-like conditions during the 1690s. Yet, if social responses to climatic changes occurred prior to the 1690s it suggests that decisions made at and near the start of the eighteenth century (those that fuelled union debates and overseas expansion) were influenced by longer climatic and environmental changes and did not rest solely upon political, religious or economically driven decisions, as has commonly been argued. Separating these longer climatic and environmental changes going on in Scotland from the politically charged events of the 1690s and early 1700s can provide more clarity to sides for and against a union.

In building this argument, it is important for a reader to understand the significance of a Scottish herring industry that was based upon more than just Scottish fishing and relied upon a larger network within the North Sea. I am utilising specific examples of fishing communities in Shetland and Orkney, which provide vivid examples of the Scottish herring industry, its collapse and its interconnection with the rest of Scotland, Scottish society and the larger North Sea community. In Shetland and Orkney, Scottish fishing was seasonal. Scottish vessels usually went out during the summer months after most fishermen planted their subsistence crops. When climatic changes occurred in the 1660s, the fish left and it required more time to locate fish, leaving less time for fishermen to spend on their own farms. The result was a decline in the North Sea fishing industry, fishing town economies and subsistence agriculture of many fishermen in Scotland, especially those in the peripheral zones like Shetland and Orkney. We see this at its most severe when this decline in fishing was paired with a decline in agricultural yields (especially during the 1690s).


The herring was a staple, and culturally-important, food source of the period. (Images: Wikimedia Commons)

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