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Families Were Crammed Together 'Like Herring In A Barrel' During Wick Fishing Boom

7th October 2023

Photograph of Families Were Crammed Together 'Like Herring In A Barrel' During Wick Fishing Boom

Wick's herring-fishing boom is considered to have been a time of great prosperity for the town - but those living in unsanitary conditions in the streets around the harbour faced a daily struggle with poverty, overcrowding and disease.

The hardships endured by families crammed "cheek by jowl" in the Lower Pulteneytown area have been highlighted by Caithness poet and playwright George Gunn in a new recording for Wick Voices, the oral history section of the Wick Society.

It comes as a new standalone website is launched for Wick Voices' ever-growing collection of audio interviews. There are now 391 recordings, with more being added regularly.

George reflects on the life of his late mother Helen, who was born in Pulteneytown in 1922. Her mother, George's grandmother, was a herring gutter who "followed the herring" from Shetland down to Lowestoft.

In the early 1800s Sir William Pulteney, a governor of the British Fisheries Society, appointed civil engineer Thomas Telford as architect of a new town and harbour on the south bank of Wick River. In the 19th century Wick became the largest herring fishing port in Europe and the industry continued into the first half of the 20th century.

In the recording, George cautions against over-romanticising about this period in the town's past. He describes Pulteneytown during the herring era as an "industrial camp for workers" and even draws a comparison with the British army's concentration camps in the Boer War.

George explains that his mother's family were "as poor as church mice". She would go on to graduate as a midwife and eventually became the district nurse for Dunnet.

"At the height of the herring season when she was a lassie they were literally stuck together in Wick like herring in a barrel," he says.

"At its peak there were over 1000 boats. There were six men in each boat. You multiply that up through the fish gutters, the packers, carters, the coopers, the basket-makers, the rope-makers, you name it, there must have been thousands and thousands of people living cheek by jowl.

"When Thomas Telford designed Pulteneytown, it was in his original plan that every house would have a privy, a flushing lavvy. But he was a busy man, and he was building the Caledonian Canal at the same time, and various other things, so he delegated a lot of the Pulteneytown construction to subcontractors who cut corners.
"Most of the houses didn't have privies, or flushing toilets, and within five years there was a huge outbreak of cholera, typhoid, you name it. And that didn't go away. These things are waterborne diseases, and knowing what we know now they're relatively easily treatable.

"My mother saw death at first hand and it would have been quite common. I think she took to nursing because she wanted to preserve life."

In another recent recording for Wick Voices, David Carter talks about shipwrecks, smuggling, rum and an intriguing link to Robert Louis Stevenson's most famous adventure story. David outlines his theory that his cliff-top house on the outskirts of Wick was the inspiration for the Admiral Benbow inn which features prominently in Treasure Island.

Wick Voices began in 2016 and until now its recordings had been accessed through the main website of the Wick Society, the voluntary group that runs Wick Heritage Museum in Bank Row.
Local people from all walks of life are invited to share stories and reminiscences in face-to-face interviews, and these are made freely available online.

The new website -
- has been designed by Marc Farr, of Parallel 58 Ltd. Features include themed collections, a news archive and some video presentations.

Doreen Leith, who leads Wick Voices, said: "The new website is impressive, easy to navigate and has lots of potential.

"From the outset the Wick Society board has supported the proposal to establish a website dedicated to Wick Voices, allowing the oral history project to reach its full potential.

"Creating a standalone website also allows the existing Wick Society website more space and capacity to grow and expand. Also, the design of the new Wick Voices website follows current and emerging accessibility standards which means it can be accessed and enjoyed by everyone.

"Our 391 recordings by 280 contributors have been enjoyed more than 422,000 times. All recordings have been transferred to the new website.

"Marc has been a pleasure to work with. He has a wealth of experience in developing community heritage projects. He has been patient and approachable during the planning and design process."
Subjects covered range from the war years to memories of growing up on the now-uninhabited island of Stroma, with themes including school days, childhood games, snowstorms, shops and businesses, the fishing industry, sporting endeavours, art, music and voluntary work.

The youngest interviewees are primary school children, some describing their experiences of learning during lockdown and others talking about Christmas. At the other end of the age spectrum, people well into their nineties have taken part.

Doreen gave presentations about Wick Voices at the Oral History Society's annual conference in Swansea in 2019 and at the 30th annual conference of the Scottish Association of Family History Societies in Wick the same year, when she explored how "oral history meets family history". Wick Voices has also been featured on BBC Radio Scotland's Time Travels series.

Doreen regularly gives talks about Wick Voices to clubs and reminiscence groups in the local area.

George Gunn at Wick Voices Recording
Caithness poet, playwright and novelist, George Gunn recalls the life of his mother and grandmother, growing up in Pulteneytown during the herring heydays.

David Carter at Wick Voices
Shipwrecks, smuggling, rum and an intriguing link to Treasure Island are the main themes in this interview with David Carter, whose home is the former Boathaven Inn at Broadhaven on the outskirts of Wick.

Wick Voices is part of the voluntary heritage group the Wick Society, which runs Wick Heritage Museum in Bank Row, Wick, Caithness.


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