A 19th Century Thriving Town

The Herring

The annual migration of herring from their wintering grounds off Norway across the North Sea and down the East Coast to East Anglia was a rich harvest for fishermen, but one that was dominated by the Dutch, in terms of both catch and market until the late 18th Century.  Fishing for herring in the East Neuk went on, but only inshore and to serve a local market. A strong stimulus was given to the local industry in the early 19th Century, when the government introduced bounties to encourage the expansion of the herring fleet, with the East Neuk being one of its main bases, in which Cellardyke fishermen played the dominant role. The coming of the railways created an opportunity to deliver fish to distant markets and by the middle of the 19th Century the Scottish herring fleet had become the most important in Europe. Scottish caught and cured herring dominated the European market.

A Growing Population

The growth of the fishery lead to other developments. Boats became bigger and harbours were improved.  By 1883 the number of Cellardyke boats had risen to 203, employing 650 men and boys. The associated prosperity also lead to a dramatic increase in population.  In the 19th Century the population of Cellardyke tripled from 1043 in 1801 to 3198 in 1881. There was a building boom not only in housing, but also in public buildings. A new school was built in 1878, a new church in 1881 and a new Town Hall 1883. This period also saw the introduction of a piped water supply and drainage system.

A Time of Opportunity

Larger boats could venture further out to sea and return with much greater catches of fish. It was a Cellardyke boat that made the first of what was to become the annual autumn parade of Scottish boats to the East Anglian herring fishing at Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, accompanied by an army of ‘herring lasses’ to fillet and cure the catch. In Cellardyke itself there was a huge expansion in local businesses, many of which served a national and international market.  By the early 20th century not only did Cellardyke support a variety of local trades and shops, but it also had 4 cooperages, 3 oilskin factories and one marine engineering works.

The end of an era

The herring fishery reached its zenith in the years before the First World War, and continued until the Second World War, after which many older boats were sold, replaced by modern boats that required fewer crew, and local fishermen moved their bases to Pittenweem, Peterhead or Aberdeen. A far cry from 1857, when the East of Fife Record proclaimed Cellardyke as ‘by far the most important white fishing station in the Empire’.

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