Ordering a herring boat, Voe, Shetland, 1881

Sarah Adie shares some fascinating insights into her family’s involvement in the Shetland herring industry. Her great grandfather set up T M Adie & Sons in the 1830s, and the extracts from Letter Books as TM endeavours to purchase a new smack, give a sense of the urgency of his work at a time of change from sail to steam. The extracts and images are published with permission from the Shetland Museum and Archives.

When I first sailed with the Old Gaffers Association I was amazed to learn that they sailed ‘smacks’ amongst other craft – I remembered my grandmother describing fishing smacks anchored in the ‘voe’ in front of our house, but I never quite believed her. Something about her Norwegian prononciation perhaps, or ‘smack’ seemed such an unlikely name. Eventually I discovered my family’s involvement in smacks and fishing and wished I could have asked her more.

Members of the Old Gaffers Association are passionate about their boats, but sailing for us is a recreation. For Shetland fishing crews in the 19th century, it was a necessity. It is difficult to imagine how hard it must have been to face the conditions alluded to in these two articles, on sea or land, with none of the modern comforts we have come to expect.

To me, standing on the foredeck of a friend’s smack in a strong breeze with the power of the wind in the jib at the end of that huge bowsprit is a thrill unlike any other sailing I’ve ever done. Did Shetland fishermen have time or inclination for such exhilaration? I’ll never know for sure, but I like to think so.

My great-great grandfather Thomas Mountford Adie started his business, T M Adie & Sons, in the 1830s in Voe, on the West coast of Shetland. ‘Voe’ is both a placename and a geographical feature sharing the same Old Norse root as ‘fjord’. It’s a long narrow, often winding, inlet from the sea, but as it’s Shetland, there are hills on either side, not mountains.

Voe from the sea; premises of T.M. Adie & Sons, one of the firm’s smacks at right Photo: W Brown c 1900 Shetland Museum and Archives

Amongst other things, T M Adie & Sons was involved in the herring fishing in the late 1800s. Over the decades, the firm owned about 20 smacks, cutters or ketches which were provided for local crews who had the tough job of sailing them and catching the fish, while TM had the physically less demanding task of running the business, finding buyers for the fish, kitting out the boats and writing letters.

Business letters were copied meticulously into Letter Books, one of which was transcribed by my parents and donated to the Shetland Archive. Here are some excerpts from 1881, written from a rented house in Edinburgh where he spent that winter, aged 66.

As we know, smacks were not built to last, so T M Adie was always on the look out for new boats. Here he writes to Mr Alex Forsyth, Bon Accord Sawmill, York St, Aberdeen on 22 Jan 1881:

My firm want a few boats of best make and materials, and I still feel obliged of your informing me as to the one you have for sale, viz, Length of keel, stem, timbers and skin thickness of decks – sort of fastenings – If fitted for smack or lug rig – and what materials are with the boat, anchor chain, sails, etc., etc. – in short, any particulars that can enable me to judge of her

He is obviously keen to meet his crew’s preferences – to the same sawmill, 4 days later:

. . . I would have preferred a boat not exceeding 45 feet keel, and our men insist on having them smack rig. I see yours is prepared for lug sails.

Writing again on February 10th

The crew want a first class boat of 44 feet keel, smack-rigged, with everything of the best materials, ready for sea, and fitted up in the most approved modern style. Have the goodness to send me, on receipt, offer for such a boat, with specification of materials, and gear, and your lowest price – and the earliest that the boat could be ready . . .

Speedy service was important. On February 11th he writes Mr Thos. Baxter in Grimsby:

. . . they tell me that the mainsail for ‘Stour’ had not come – you were to send it to Leith, care of J.B.Leask, to go down by ‘Queen of the Isles’ – why was it not sent? The vessel must go off to Faroe in two weeks, and cannot start till she gets the sail – I did not think you would disappoint us in that way –

Success 10 days later, but still not satisfied, and with worries for the future:

I find a package came to Leith on Wednesday last, which I suppose is the sail for ‘Stour’, and is now onboard the ‘Queen of the Isles’. When it may get to Voe, no one can tell – the smacks are to start for Faroe on 1st March, and with all the bad weather, the sail should not have been 4 weeks coming from Grimsby. The railway people are very careless at times . . .

. . . Are any of the Grimsby smacks going to Faroe this season, or are they all stopping at home. The steam trawlers must be greatly against your smacks – I suspect it will end in more of the steam trawlers coming, and the smacks decreasing.

To D R Simpson Esq., Wick, he writes on 23rd February:

The remarks as to the two boats shall go no further – I had written my sons about them, and have today a letter from them saying they are not inclined to buy them as the men do not like the risk of steam, of which they know little. I am getting a boat built here for a crew of ours – nothing would please them but a smack rig and quite new –

And here an advertisement or specification from February:

PARTICULARS OF HERRING BOAT WANTED. LENGTH – 44 feet keel, at least 5 inches thick – OAK. Stem and stern post, oak. All timbers oak. Deadwood above keel at least 10 ins. x 7 inch. Gunwales oak, Bulwark rail Elm. Skin – 1 inch larch. at least 19 floor timbers, and 32 on each side at Gunwales sufficiently and thoroughly beamed. Fore-cabin. Decked 2 inch redwood, caulked. All the rest 1 1/8 “ flooring. Fitted with all latest improvements for 6 men in cabin, and hold fitted in best manner for net and line fishing. 2 Rudders and tillers, and 6 oars. Fitted for smack rig, with mast, boom, gaff, bowsprit. All timber to be of best quality, and no sap on it. All fastenings of sufficient strengths, and galvanized. Strong iron keel band over keel, stem, and stern post. All ironwork necessary for sailing boat. Crutch for rest to mast when laid down Strong double winch for putting down and up mast, and for working chains. 2 Iron pumps and gear 2 boat hooks Caboose and funnel fitted in cabin. Side and anchor lights as required by B of T at time of starting. 1 bell – 1 foghorn, 2 water casks and dipper. 2 buckets – 1 good compass. 2 anchors suitable size, and 2 chains, tested, each 5/8 and 1/2” short links. 1 mainsail, first jib, second jib, lug sail and gaff topsail, of suitable Number of Edin. Ropery Company storm canvas bolted to best Manilla rope. Standing rigging galvanized wire rope. All blocks of best quality All ropes needed of best Manilla rope. Topsides and bulwarks, and cabin -painted with 2 coats good paint – on also spars. Inside of boat – coated with fir tar. Outside coat of varnish, and on that Green’s Anti-fouling Comp. Name, port, and Number – in short, any thing needed ready end of April 1881.

TM is also particular about sailcloth – on April 20th he writes to his son William in Shetland:

No. 3 is too light for the Smack mainsail – you could not buy less than No. 2, I think, and you should get it as cheap made from Edin. Ropery Company as anywhere – no.5 will do for gaff topsail – but they cannot make without measurements per enclosed sketch – I shall see to make enquiry till I hear from you again as to sails – We are all pretty well here – . . . Fond love to all and I hope we shall hear news of James next mail, Your affec. Father, Tho.M.Adie.

James was his grandson and my grandfather, who was to marry Hanka Bryde Lange from Norway.

Adie's Pier, with Cod Smack, Cargo Boat and Drifter lying off in Voe Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives
Adie’s Pier, with Cod Smack, Cargo Boat and Drifter lying off in Voe Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives

Weather was harsh, and there were many casualties – here TM writes from Voe to his brother in March 1882:

We have had a very severe winter – no snow – but incessant gales – stopt everything – our Ling were sold to a House in Glasgow – we chartered a vessel in the South – she left and was never heard of again – and the one we engaged afterwards is not at Glasgow with the cargo yet unless she had got this week – we had a cargo for a London Firm for Lisbon in November – since the vessel left Shetland she has never been heard of – We had a vessel coming from Norway with 200 tons of Ice for preserving fish – she got down on the Shetland coast and was driven back to Norway with loss of mast, etc. All our vessels are ready for Faroe, but dare not start – and no knowing when they may get away – they are all better here with such weather.

Examples of fishing vessels owned by T M Adie & Sons, home port Lerwick

‘Walrus’, ketch, 76 tons, built Sandwich 1877, registered to William Jamieson Adie 1880 to 1890 ‘Stour’, ketch, 54 tons, built Sandwich 1871, registered to William Jamieson Adie 1880 to 1882 ‘Seamew’, smack, 61 tons, built Dundee 1871, registered to Thomas Mountford Adie 1880 to 1890 ‘Lady Nightingale’, 33 tons, built Aberdeen 1860, registered to Thomas Mountford Adie 1870, 1880 ‘Saucy Jack’, cutter, 32 tons, built 1845, registered to Thomas Mountford Adie, 1870 to 1879

Family tree

Thomas Mountford Adie, born 1815 William Jamieson Adie, born 1839 James Arthur Adie, born 1875 James Alexander Adie, born 1924 Sarah Anne Adie, born 1957, became an Old Gaffer 1999

Contributed by Sarah Adie, OGA East Coast member and Shetland Museum and Archives

Shetland Museum and Archives

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