Stornoway, Lewis, 11 June 1883 - James Mccombie

JAMES M'COMBIE, Fish-Curer, Peterhead (42)—examined.

17156. The Chairman.
—You come here prepared to make a statement?
—Yes.

17157. Will you be kind enough to make it?
—I appear here as a delegate of the ratepayers and inhabitants of Stornoway, for the purpose of bringing before you the great necessity of extending the telegraphic system to the islands of the Hebrides, which is so much required for the proper conducting and development of the fisheries. I need not point out that the fish trade of the kingdom is the largest contributor to the telegraph revenue, and that being so, it proves of itself how much it is required for the conduct of the fisheries ; and if I can bring before your notice places in the Hebrides which are yet without its advantages, I think you will see at once the great necessity of an extension to these parts. The fisheries of the Hebrides comprise the herring fishery—a very important fishery, the quality of which is supsrior to any in the kingdom except the small fishery at Loch Fyne. There is also the cod and ling fishery, a very important fishery of itself, but for the want of telegraph and other facilities for the market, it is confiued to the salting instead of the fresh trade. This is a very important trade in its present state, but it cannot be utilised or taken advantage of. Then again we have the haddock fishery, a fishery which I am informed could be carried on with considerable advantage in this island ; but for want of transit and of the telegraph system, it cannot be utilised or carried on. Again, we have the salmon, lobster, and oyster fisheries, all of which I am informed by competent persons could be carried out to a great extent, if they were only fostered as they should be, and as they are in other parts of the kingdom and in other countries. I produce a financial statement of the herring fisheries for the last ten years in the Stornoway section and Barra section, and also a statement of the cod and ling fisheries for the last ten years.

It is as follows :—

STATEMENT showing the Number of Boats Fishing, and the Total Catch of Herrings at each Section of Stornoway District, in each year from 1873 to 1882.

Stornoway section
Year.    No. of    Total      Estimated
    Boats     Crans of value
    Fishing    Herring
1873    599    39,642    £99,105 0 0
1874    666    36,383    90,957 10 0
1875    711    33,446    83,615 0 0
1896    803    7,434    18,585 0 0
1877    688    57,708    144,270 0 0
1878    581    53,743    134,357 10 0
1879    750    41,291    103,227 10 0
1880    832    65,088    162,720     0 0
1881    691    28,309    70,772    10 0
1882    691    42,996    107,490 0 0

Barra section
Year.    No. of    Total      Estimated
    Boats     Crans of value
    Fishing    Herring
1873    435    35,258    £105,774 0 0
1874    670    27,900    83,700 0 0
1875    542    10,108    30,324 0 0
1876    268    7,911    23,733 0 0
1877    398    23,855    71,565 0 0
1878    290    11,360    34,080 0 0
1879    334    24,225    72,675 0 0
1880    549    36,758    110,274 0 0
1881    594    13,641    40,923 0 0
1882    609    2,984    8,952 0 0

STATEMENT showing the Total Number of Cod, Ling, and Hake landed in Stornoway District, with the Weight thereof Cured dried in Cwts. for each year from 1873 to 1882.

Year.    Number of    Weight in    Estimated value
    Cod, Ling &c    cwts
1873    481,570        19,629        £24,586 5 0
1874    325,141        13,402        16,758 15 0
1875    471,611        20,611        25,145 0 0
1876    195,818        9,074        11,342 10 0
1877    484,811        20,381        25,476 5 0
1878    623,567        26,018        34,522 10 0
1879    829,807        28,489        35,611 5 0
1880    498,474        19,967        24,958 15 0
1881    304,230        12,978        16,222 10 0
1882    358,951        15,524        19,405 0 0


I may call your attention to the fact that in the Stornoway district the fishing has to a certain extent increased and developed; while in the Barra section, where we have not those facilities which we have at Stornoway, it is rather declining. I attribute that largely to the want of telegraphic facilities. I think, if you will look at the cod and ling statistics, instead of developing as the fishery should do, and as it is doing in other parts of the kingdom, you will find it is rather on the decrease instead of on the increase. This I do not attribute to the deficiency of cod and ling on the shores of the Hebrides, but to the want of proper prosecution, supported as it should be by proper assistance from telegraph and steam communication at the nearest point. The ports or stations to which I recommend the extension of the telegraph wire are Barra, embracing Castle Bay and Vatersay, two very important stations, and at Carloway on the west side of Lewis Ness on the north, and Portnaguirin on the east. I think that the extension of the telegraph to these stations would, in the first place, add greatly to the development of the fisheries, not only the herring, but to the other fisheries which I have enumerated ; secondly, would enable Barra and Ness to be utilised as signal stations ; and thirdly, it would afford an opportunity of establishing meteorological stations. We have now a report from Stornoway every day, and that proves that a report from this island is very important to the meteorological office; and I am strongly of opinion that if reports were obtained from Ness and Barra, it would be far more important. Again, the extension of the telegraph to the stations I have mentioned is of great importance to the conduct of the herring fishery ; and I draw this remark not only from my own observations in this country, but from the result which has been obtained in Norway, where the Government has gone into the matter very exhaustively, and has placed stations at every point of the coast with a head office reporting where shoals of herring are to be seen, and thereby enabling the boats of a district to know where the shoals are, and to secure fish which would otherwise be untouched. Not later than last year at this island we had a very important and successful fishing going on in this district, while at Barra it proved almost a failure. Now, if we had had telegraphic communication to Castle Bay and Vatersay, boats might come here and secure the fishing, whereas they were obliged to remain there and do nothing. You will find from statistics that the fishing varies very much from year to year at particular places, and this is very much the case at Barra. Last year it was a comparative failure, and now we have a very successful fishing going on, so much so that certain of the fishermen have been considering whether they should not go from Stornoway to Barra, and complete the remainder of their time there instead of here. So much for the fluctuation of the fishing, and so much for the necessity of the extension of the telegraph wire in order to the proper conduct of the fisheries at this island. Then again we have a sort of telegraph system on this island. I do not speak as regards Stornoway, but as regards the middle part of the island from Lochmaddy and Lochboisdale. There they have a sham telegraph system. They have only the single needle instead of the Morse instrument, and it takes three or four hours befce you can receive a message from these stations, apparently from the style which is carried on, there being that old and antiquated one of the single needle. In addition to that, a good many of the curers at Barra have arranged this season curers' messengers from Castle Bay to Lochboisdale, arriving there in the afternoon with probably twenty or thirty messages, and it often happens that it is not till eight o'clock or later, and often next morning, that we receive those messages. The consequence is that our arrangements are entirely useless, because we are unable to send a reply that night—the messenger leaving after eight o'clock. So while we have endeavoured to help ourselves, our endeavour has been entirely set aside by the inability of the offices there to undertake the work when brought to them. I have some messages here to prove what I have stated. Not later than Saturday a message arrives at Lochboisdale 6.40, and is sent out at 8.37 ; another arrives at 5.40, and is sent out at 9.10. The consequence is that we are unable to send a reply on Sat. Again I have to complain, as a representative of the trade, of a still greater grievance, namely, erroneous messages which are conveyed. These do immense harm to the fishing interest, because messages and reports are often sent which are not correct. One message was to the effect that there was a large heavy fishing, so much that the curers were not able to undertake it. That was not the case. It may have been that the boats were loaded, but the curers would have been glad to undertake all they had. That I account for by the telegraph being at such a distance from the station, and the party having imperfect knowledge of the case. I would refer now to the report of the Royal Commission of 1878, in which evidence is given in reference to the extension of the telegraph to Castle Bay. The recommendation of the Commission is upon pp. 51, 52, and 53. Again, in the report of the Select Committee of 1881, it is stated and recommended that the extension of the telegraph wires would be of great advantage and service to the fisheries. Though a report was given in 1878 and again in 1881, we are still in 1883 without this extension. The matter was brought before Parliament by Mr Barclay asking a question of the Lord Advocate as to the extension of the telegraph wire to Castle Bay and Barra, and to the Orkneys and Shetland. Various sums are mentioned for the various extensions, but at the same time it is stated that these cannot be carried out without the necessary guarantees. Now I ask, if you consider that Government is in possession at this moment of £40,000 of a direct tax on the fisheries, how can they ask that a guarantee should be given in connection with the extension of these wires so much required for the proper development and conduct of the fisheries? I think it is admitted that it is about that sum which stands at the credit of the fisheries drawn from the brand. If we contrast this with the interest that is taken by other nations, such as Norway and Sweden, where they give their best attention and encourage their best scientific men to study and help the fishings; if we take Germany, which of late years has expended a deal of money in encouraging
the fisheries; if we take Holland and Belgium, where the Government gives the matter serious attention and assistance; if we take France, where it has received every assistance the Government can give; and again America, that gives it not only their attention but their assistance ; we are inclined to ask, not only in the Hebrides but in the whole of Scotland, why is this injustice done to Scotland in asking guarantees at our hands, when at the same time they have funds in their possession, the proceeds of a direct tax drawn from the trade itself? It is high time that Government should see it their interest not to seek these guarantees when they have such a sum in their hands. It is also time that these recommendations should be given effect to, so that the fisheries may be properly developed and carried out. I may add, in conclusion, that in addition to the telegraph, the acceleration of the mails, the buoying of sunken rocks, and loans of money at interest to build fishermen's houses, would all contribute to the improvement of the fishings. In reference to the buoying of rocks, I may mention that representations have been made for a number of years back to have that very dangerous rock the Chicken Rock buoyed, but these have been taken no notice of. We have also several rocks down in Castle Bay, in reference to which it took several years to bring the matter before them before it was done ; and on one very important rock in Castle Bay, the beacon was washed down and remained so for three years, and I was only told a fortnight ago that they were now in the act of putting it up.

17158. Mr Cameron.
—After the very full statement you have made, it is unnecessary to make further explanations on the subject of the telegraph, but we should like to know what you propose in reference to acceleration of the mails?
—What I propose is that, starting the night mail from London at nine o'clock, it would arrive at Strome Ferry at half-past three, adding to the acceleration which is promised ; and instead of the mail passing to Ullapool, the steamer should cross direct to Strome Ferry, and leave immediately with the mails and light goods. Giving it six hours to arrive here, we would have the mail at ten or eleven o'clock at night ready to be delivered next morning, instead of getting the letters at six or seven o'clock at night when business hours are over.

17159. You say that something has been promised: what has been promised ?
—Acceleration. I gather that from the evidence given by Mr Dougal.

17160. Has anything been promised in reference to the Ullapool route?
—Nothing.

17161. That is, I presume, the chief thing you would like to get?
—Yes.

17162. Have you made representations to the Postmaster-General?
—I am not aware it was done, but there was a public meeting last week at which resolutions were carried and ordered to be forwarded.

17163. Would it suit you if the mail were to call at Portree on the route ?
—I do not see why it should not suit us, if they would not detain the steamer by working goods too much. My opinion is, that one boat would be sufficient to carry the mails and goods, and to convey fresh fish from here.

17164. Would it not be possible for the post office to carry out such a contract at a very moderate rate in consideration of the large amount which would be derived from the carriage of fish by the persons who took the contract?
—I believe it would take a much less rate than at present.

17165. And you think the carriage of fish would continue almost all the year round ?
—I do.

17166. You talk of haddock: do they catch much haddock here?
—No; they do not catch much, because they cannot get them despatched in time.

17167. We heard the other day at Ness that they used turbot for bait ?
—I believe they do.

17168. By this arrangement could turbot and haddock and such valuable fish be conveyed, packed in ice of course, to London ?
—Yes, quite safely.

17169. How do they catch the haddock?
—With small lines.

17170. Do you believe there are plenty of haddock about ?
—I believe there are.

17171. Where is there any oyster fishing ?
—I believe there is oyster fishing in Loch Roag, though not properly cultivated. So far as my inquiries have gone, if carried out on the principle of farming, it would be a very important fishery, and I believe the oysters there are of a very improved quality.

17172. Is it East or West Loch Roag that you mean ?
—I do not know which part; my information is rather general.

17173. Do you believe that the deep sea herring fishing has any effect in preventing shoals of herring going inland, so as to injure the autumn fishing in the bays and creeks?
—That is rather a puzzling question. In Norway, where the best men have been engaged upon it, they have not yet been able to arrive at the habits of the fish, and their habits are so peculiar that it is a very difficult matter to give an opinion.

17174. But the fishing on the mainland in the various arms of the sea has fallen off in late years, contemporaneously with the increase of the deep sea fishing ?
—Generally speaking, it has.

17175. You are not in a position to give an opinion as to the one being the cause of the other?
—No; I am not prepared to give an opinion, though I have studied the question.

17176. The Chairman
—With regard to the influence of the telegraph in developing the cod fishery, would the price of cod be increased if the telegraph went to Barra and Carloway and those places?
—Coupled with the acceleration of the railway, the prices would be increased 100 per cent. We could send the fish in fresh.

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