William Jamieson 1779 – 1848
The story of my great grandfather, William Jamieson, begins in Argyll and Bute, where he was born on 31st December 1780. He was the eldest of nine children born to Neil Jamieson and Ann Bannatyne. He was christened in Rothesay on 3rd February 1780.
William’s birth entry states that he was born in Kilmahalmag. I believe this was St Colmac which is situated just west of Kames Castle. Kilmachalmaig or Cill-math-Chalmaig, meant The Chapel of St Calmaig or St Colmac.
Neill was a tenant farmer and the family lived at Kilamchalmaig until he was seven years old. There was a farm, named south St Colmac Farm, which was mentioned in ‘The Isle of Bute in Olden Times’ written by Jame King Hewitt, 1893. The farm was situated to the south of the Kilmachalmaig Circle.
When William was seven years old the family moved to Acholter Farm where he lived until he was an adult.
In 1810, William was appointed as the Herring Fishery Officer for the port of Lerwick, in Shetland.
This was an important position as the post was a new role created by the recently formed Fishery Board. It is necessary to know a little about the complex history of the Shetland Isles and the role fishing played in Shetland life to understand the significance of his new job.
Traditionally Shetlanders were crofters and fishermen. They relied heavily on the sea to supplement their diet. Trees were a rare commodity in Shetland. Few grew, and any that did were used for firewood or building purposes. Therefore, the islanders did not build big sea-going boats. They fished close to shore in small open boats. The waters around the islands are rich in coalfish, which are easy to catch as they swim close to the surface. For centuries, the islanders relied on these fish to form their staple diet when other food was scarce.
During the period 1600 to 1800, a significant climate change occurred that caused a severe impact on the waters and climate of the Shetland Isles. Known as the ‘Little Ice Age’, the extreme cold drove the fish further from shore and forced the islanders to venture further out to sea to fish. This practice was more dangerous for the islanders who were not used to deep-sea fishing.
From the 15th to 17th centuries, the Dutch were the undisputed rulers of the North Sea. Famous for their fishing boats called busses, they used drift nets to catch herring in the remote waters far out to sea. A buss was a large double-decked boat, fully equipped to cure herring on board. These boats enabled them to remain at sea for long periods. The Shetland Isles provided a respite from life at sea, and they would frequently visit to trade and relax.
For hundreds of years, Shetlanders relied on trade with German merchants. Known as the ‘Hanseatic League’, these traders came to the islands each spring. The visits were mutually beneficial for the merchants and the islanders. The Germans brought goods that would otherwise have been difficult for the islanders to acquire, such as soap, hooks and lines, timber, hemp and tar, salt, flour, spirits and tobacco, cloth and shoes.
In return, the islanders rented shore space for the merchants to set up booths to trade their wares. They also traded woollen goods, butter and fish oil, feathers, tallow, beef and hides and, most importantly, fish. Europe’s high demand for salted fish meant good business for the islands.
Until the early 18th Century, this mutual system worked well for the Islanders. By trading with the Dutch and German visitors, they could pay their rent. The merchants paid in cash so the Islanders could pay the lairds. Then, in 1712, a new tax on salted goods was introduced by the British government. The German merchants, hit heavily by the tax, stopped coming to the islands which plunged into an economic recession.
In the 1750s, the government moved towards taking control of the fishing industry. Aware of its potential profitability, they targetted the herring industry. By introducing tonnage bounties, they encouraged the fitting of Danish style busses. In 1785, they introduced another bounty, which was paid for every barrel of herring cured onshore. Smaller fishing boats that previously could not claim the tonnage bounty began to fish for herring. This allowed the small crofter/fishers to sell their fish on equal standing with the big fish merchants. Although in Shetland the focus would remain mainly on cod and ling, the herring industry began to grow.
The Fishery Board
In 1809, The Fishery Board for Scotland was set up. The Board’s aims were to establish the standards for fish curing, conserve fishing stock and settle disputes between fishermen. Fishery Offices were established at the key ports around the coast of Scotland. Underlying this was the desire to exploit the European market for salted fish.
Initially, Lerwick was not considered busy or important enough to warrant the appointment of a dedicated officer. This caused some concerns for the fish curers and merchants of Lerwick, and in 1809 James Hay wrote to the Fishery Board requesting the appointment of a Fishery Officer from the port. Hay was the owner of a ship named The Don of Lerwick; which he had fitted out as a buss for the Deep Sea Fishery. The buss first needed to be inspected and approved by the Fishery Board to receive the bounty. Imagine his reaction when the Commissioners replied that they had no intention of appointing an officer and that he should take his ship to Leith for inspection. However, in Sept 1809 John Mouat, the Customs Officer for Shetland, was assigned proxy power to carry out the duty of inspection later in the season.
The trouble caused by having no officer on the islands forced the board to reconsider their position and in July 1810, they appointed William to the post of permanent Fishery Officer for Lerwick.
This appointment must have been an exciting opportunity for him. It was a completely new role and probably a step up the ladder. The Fishery Board recruited its officers exclusively from the ranks of fish curers and coopers due to their inherent knowledge of the industry. So William must have had a background in one of these trades.
William was an educated man. This fact would have been a consideration for the recruiters. Fishery Officers had to handle payments of bounties, keep records, gather statistics and make reports to the Commissioners for the House of Commons.
He had to establish the Fishery Office in Lerwick. His first task must have been to establish a relationship with the local fishermen, curers and merchants.
After taking his oath in Leith, William received the branding irons for the station. These irons were the tools of his trade and would mark the barrels of fish with the Crown Brand and his name.
The job of Fishery Officer was well paid for the time. In 1813, William earned a quarterly salary of £25. As his earnings were not over £150 he was also entitled to claim property tax. In 1813, he received ten guineas a year, back paid to 1811, covering the cost of ‘Officery’ – the setting up of the Fishery Office in Lerwick. The payment was to reimburse him for the cost of “rent of office, coals, candles and cleaning”. Coals would not only have been for warming his office but were also required to heat his branding irons. Payment would be made half-yearly on the terms of Whitsunday and Martinmas.
The Herring Cure
It seems that William was well up to the demands of the job and quickly set about the business of visiting the curing yards, checking the fitting out of busses and inspecting the nets.
It was William’s responsibility to inspect the curing of the herring catch. He had to ensure that the regulations set by the Fishery Board were adhered to and the standards met.
Amongst his duties was the inspection of the barrels which had to conform to the government standards. They had to be of uniform size and construction and marked with the date of packing and the name of the cure
The fish had to be gutted before being packed into the barrels. This task was usually done by fisher girls. Two women would gut the fish, taking out the gills, heart and bloodline, before sorting them by size and type. William would check that the women gutted correctly using a knife rather than their hands. Another girl would pack the fish into the barrels. Even this task had to meet the standards, so he would confirm that the fish were salted correctly before being sealed in the barrels.
If the cure was carried out correctly, he marked the barrels with the ‘Crown Brand’ and his name to indicate the catch met the government standards. He would then pay the fishermen their bounties for the catch. Bounty was paid at 2/- a barrel. Herring that met the standards were then deemed suitable for the European market.
This extract shows payments made by William to Andrew Patterson and Ogilvy Gifford, two Shetland fishermen in the year 1841.
The job also involved the conservation of fish stock. The 1809 Fishery Bill introduced the standard size for nets to prevent the capture of fish fry. The bill stated that nets should have a standard one-inch gap between knots to allow the young to escape easily. In the early 1800s, nets were handmade. Fishermen invested a lot of time and effort in making them, so much so that their fishing nets were often more valuable than their boats. Fishing nets tended to shrink with usage so, with the risk of a fine of £40 and confiscation of their nets, it is easy to see why this ruling was unpopular and difficult to enforce.
In 1812, William married Barbara Scollay.
Barbara was 23 years old at the time of her marriage, more than ten years younger than her new husband. They were married in Lerwick on 26th May 1812, according to the Church of Scotland.
Barbara came from a well to do Lerwick family. Her father Robert Scollay, was a merchant. Her mother, Anne Innes, was the daughter of a physician. Barbara and her sister, Ann Scollay, were the only surviving children of Robert and Anne.
Business in Greenock
When business was quiet in Lerwick William was sometimes called upon to help out at other fisheries. In 1813, he and the Fishery Officer for Thurso were directed by the Board to proceed to Greenock on the Firth of Clyde. As soon as their own season was finished.
William proceeded to Greenock and took his young wife, Barbara, with him. In March 1813, Barbara gave birth to their first child, a daughter. They named the baby Anne Innes Jamieson after Barbara’s mother.
The port of Greenock had long played an important role in the herring industry. Most of the salted fish leaving Scotland was shipped from this port. More than half of the fish being shipped was destined for the West Indies.
The demand for salted herring in that part of the world had a disturbing explanation. Plantation owners needed a cheap source of protein to feed their slaves. They did not consider it economically viable to produce food for them locally. Barrels of salted herring could be bought cheaply, shipped in large quantities, and would keep during the long voyages. No one cared if the slaves were fed sub-quality fish. This fact is highlighted in the following statement included in the instructions presented to John Mouat when he stepped in as a temporary Fishery Officer in 1809.
“… And that the said Act does not prohibit the exportation of ungutted Herrings, but such Herrings may be exported to Ireland or the West Indies equally with Gutted Herrings.”
The unsavoury fact was that fish that did not meet the grade was not put to waste but instead shipped to the plantations (not to mention the Irish!). The following letter to Greenock Merchants Thomson and Buchanan, is further evidence that this was common practice.
‘Having laid before the Commissioners for the Herring Fishery your letter of the 7th inst requesting that a cargo of repacked Herrings which has been sent to to your care from Banff for exportation to the West Indies may be allowed to be export altho’ they have not been accompanied by a Certificate by a Fishery Officer that is 15 days intervened between the original curing and the repacking, and the Commissioners having taken the same into their consideration, together with a report thereon by the Gent. Inspector of the West Coast: I have it on command to acquaint you, that under the particular circumstances of the case the Commissioners allow the exportation of the said herrings, provided they are in other respects such as the law permits to be sent to a place outside of Europe, and that the necessary directions on the subject have accordingly been given to the Gent. Inspector.’
At the end of the season’s business, they returned to Shetland. In the following year, they welcomed a second daughter, Wiliamina Jamieson, born on 18th November 1814 in Lerwick.
In 1817, Barbara’s father Robert Scollay became ill. Robert must have known that he was about to die as, just one month before his death, he put his affairs in order and set up a Trust Estate for his dependents. Robert respected and trusted his son in law as he made William one of the Trustees of his estate.
The main aims of the Trust were to provide for Robert’s widow, his second wife Ann Bolt, and his deaf daughter, Ann Scollay. In the early 19th Century, hearing-impaired and unable to speak, children like Ann were considered disabled. Robert was concerned for her future care and welfare and placed her in the care of the Estate’s Trustees with the following instruction:
‘ … I recommend the said Ann Scollay in an especial manner to the care and protection of my said Trustees, requesting that they will employ the aforesaid annuity in her favour enhancing and supporting her in a decent respectable family, or with persons or people who will treat her with tenderness and humanity, and do all in their power for the improvement of her mind, particularly as respect … knowledge of the principles of …. Religion, as contained in the Books of the old and new testaments…’
Robert left an annuity of £40 a year for Barbara and £200 for her eldest daughter, Ann Innes Jamieson. She received this on her 21st birthday. William and Barbara’s other children were also provided for and would receive an equal share of the remainder of his estate.
On Robert’s demise, Barbara would also have received the money from her uncle, James Innes. James had been a plantation owner in Jamaica in the late 1700s. The money had come from the disposal of his assets, including slaves, when he died in 1798. Robert had been the trustee for this money and, when he died in May 1817, the total amounted to £1977. 18s. 8d. to be shared between Barbara and her sister, Ann. In 1817 this would have been a sizeable sum.
Trouble in Anstruther
In 1817, William’s work took him away from Lerwick once more. The Fishery Board directed him to take up the post of Fishery Officer for the coast between Leven and the north shore of the River Tay.
This request came in response to some trouble between the curers of Anstruther and the Fishery Officer from Burntisland. The disgruntled fishermen complained that the officer had refused to brand their fish. The disagreement had rumbled on throughout the summer. The officer accused the fishermen of disreputable practices – namely that they set their nets on a Saturday and did not lift them till the Monday. Presumably, this was detrimental to the quality of the catch.
The herring business on the East Coast was becoming increasingly important and the ports in the East Neuk of Fife were the base for the fleets of open fishing boats that operated from that coast. The fish curers appealed for the establishment of a fishery district in the East Neuk of Fife and the appointment of a Fishery Officer.
Initially, the post was temporary. The Fishery Board did not intend to appoint a permanent officer.
William arrived in late summer and quickly set about dealing with the business in the port. He commenced sorting out the improper methods of the fishermen. One of his first tasks was to ensure that the nets were legal. This was challenging for him, as the fishermen concealed their undersized nets and presented only those that met the standards.
‘ … I have no doubt that some of the fishermen here are at times in the habit of working small nets, which is out of my power to detect, as when they haul in the morning they conceal the nets, and bring their best nets in the care that they may come under the inspection of the office, and at some of the small villages where they are very rood, particularly the women, which I have already experienced on seizing the above net…‘ William Jamieson Officer of the fishery
The task at times led to menacing encounters with the fishermen and their wives one of which William described in a letter to the board.
‘Sir, I have herewith sent you a return of one net signed by me at Pittenweem on the 11th Inst from David Anderson, fisherman after a great dale of abuse and threatenings, particularly from one of the fishermen, John Goldie, who attempted by violence to cut the net to pieces before I should be allowed to take it – this however I prevented but not without danger of being treated in a very unbecoming manner. I, therefore, beg leave to state that without being armed or otherwise protected among a set of illiterate fishermen aided by an assembly of fishwives I dare not attempt to take nets even of illegal size. At present, I am surprised at their using the small nets as the herring are very large and of a superior quality….’ William Jamieson 1817
His frustration with the fishermen and determination to eradicate bad practices was clear.
‘ .. Yesterday I was round the whole coast from Anstruther to St Andrews and give all the directions and information in my power. It is almost impossible to make them understand the regulations required, and some of them will not be instructed. Mr Nicolson has been at very great trouble and pains instructing them (even by their own confession) and still they are much at a loss. I expect in a little time to see all these careless practices done away as any thing in my power shall not be wanted that I can attend to…’ William Jamieson 1817
He was intent upon ensuring the board’s standards were adhered to.
‘ … Yesterday I was informed that at Stonhose and its neighbourhood the curers are in the habit of taking the small herring (which set in this season) by a drag or trawl net hauled on shore, carting them to their closses and curing them in barrels not exceeding 25 gallons some had been gutted without any attention to separate broken or spoiled herrings. I know not whether they intend to present their gutted herrings at any port for bounty where an officer is stationed, but I know they are intended for the Con’t (Continent) which is of itself sufficient to hurt the credit of the British fishing.’ William Jamieson 1817
William did not shirk from his duties, and was most determined to rid the East Neuk of its problems. He at least had the backing of the curers of the district who were keen to encourage the fishermen to meet with the Board’s regulations. One idea was to employ men to assist him in finding illegal nets by going amongst the fleet as they hauled their catches.
‘…If I had to be here and to employ men occasionally so as to go amongst the fleet, when their nets are shot, it would be the effectual way to put a stop to them. men could be got here and the curers are very desirous that such should take place. I shall leave this matter for the Honourable Board to determine. in the meantime, I shall exert myself to the utmost of my power to detect nets of illegal size if they come under my eye.’ William Jamieson 1817
Ultimately the fishermen and curers welcomed his presence and asked that he be made the permanent officer for the district. The Board were happy with his performance and glad that the undisciplined fisher folk of Anstruther were causing less trouble. They made him the first officer with joint responsibility for two fishery stations, Lerwick and Anstruther.
With his stay in Fife prolonged, his wife and children, Ann and Williamina, joined him in Anstruther. There, Barbara gave birth to two more children, Margaret Barry Jamieson, born in March 1819, and Barbara Mary Jamieson, born in April 1821.
Return to Lerwick
William remained in the post, working between Lerwick and Anstruther until 1821 when the Fishery Board decided that it was necessary to appoint four new officers to the Shetlands. William was appointed as the Principal Officer for Shetland.
At that time, the herring trade in Shetland was growing. The Hay and Ogilvy Company were investing in the business. They built a new dock, today known as Hay’s Dock, where the Shetland Museum and Archives now stands. They also built quays, curing yards and stores. They increased their fleet of herring boats, and their investments were helping the town of Lerwick expand. In 1821 they supported the setting up of the Shetland Bank of which they were major shareholders.
Buildings sprang up across Lerwick; cooperages, warehouses and accommodation for seasonal workers.
‘Sir, I received your letter of the 28th ulto No.20 stating that the board having been authorised by the Lords Commissioners of his Majesty’s Treasury to recommend 4 Officers of the Fishery for the Shetland Isles and that the Honourable Commissioners have been pleased to appoint me Principal Office for that District. I beg leave to offer my humble thanks to the Honourable Board for the preference and shall in compliance with your letter hold myself in …ness to proceed thither so soon as I shall receive the board’s orders to that effect. I shall make it my study to have the books and accounts of this station to be brought forward until my departure from Anstruther, or until my successor may arrive here to take charge.‘ William Jamieson 1821
So William and Barbara returned to the islands, and the family settled once more in Lerwick. The decade began well when, in 1822, Barbara became pregnant with their first son, Neil Jamieson. He was born in May of the following year and would become my 3rd great grandfather.
However, the twenties were to bring both trouble and tragedy to the Jamieson family.
Although William was a respectable and law-abiding member of the Lerwick community, he was also known to have a furious temper when drunk. It was this weakness that caused him to have a run-in with the law in March 1823. He was reported to the Sheriff of Orkney by the Procurator Fiscal of Shetland, following an altercation with his friend and neighbour, Dr Arthur Edmonston.
Dr Edmonston was a well-known doctor and a naturalist but he was also a gentleman with a reputation for controversy.
“Arthur was a colourful character: despite, in 1818, being made the Senior Baillie or Chief Magistrate, he fell foul of the law and became embroiled in many legal disputes. At one point, he was sued for libel by the Procurator Fiscal.” (Alistair Hamilton)
On the day in question, the 27th March 1823, the two gentlemen spent an afternoon drinking together. The doctor invited William to his house for a ‘potluck supper’. After dinner, the two men drank some toddy and fell into a heated discussion. The doctor then said something regarding religion that seriously upset William’s sensibilities. The argument grew heated, and the doctor left the room and asked the maid to see his visitor out. William seems to have continued ranting on until the doctor returned with his ‘fowling piece’. This action further enraged William, who snatched the gun and threw it into the drawing-room. It is not clear what exactly happened next, but it seems the two men began to fight, and the doctor, or possibly both men, fell down the stone steps.
Dr Edmonston most certainly came off worst from this altercation. The maid fetched the sheriff officer who arrived with his son and together with William, they carried the doctor to his bed.
The Sheriff dismissed the case against William even before it reached the court. He felt that both men were too drunk to provide reliable accounts and because Dr Edmonston had seen the other witnesses’ statements, the case would never be acceptable to the examiners.
William was perhaps lucky not to receive a criminal conviction, and he continued to work for the Fishery Board for many years afterwards.
Sadly for William and Barbara, the latter half of the decade brought tragedy, with the deaths of three of their children. In 1826, their second son, Robert Scollay Jamieson, died in infancy.
In Jan 1828, Barbara gave birth to a daughter, Isabella Harriot Jamieson.
This happy event was sadly followed by the death of their seven-year-old daughter, Barbara Mary Jamieson, in August 1828.
Then, in January 1829, little Isabella also died.
By the 1830s Lerwick was seen as the capital of Shetland. and proclamations began to be read from the Market Cross on Commercial Street rather than from the gates of the Scalloway Castle.
In 1834, William and Barbara’s daughter, Williamina, married Thomas Mountford Adie. Thomas had founded a successful business in Voe and employed 400 fishermen. He also ran a hosiery business.
Two years later, their eldest daughter, Ann, married Dr Johannis Gerardus den Bouivermeister. Johannis who was known as John was a surgeon.
William’s reports about the state of the Fishery in Shetland was included in the 1837 Report from the Commissioners Volume 22.
From these reports, we can see that despite the investment during the twenties the herring fishery was still very much in its infancy. The Dutch busses were still fishing the waters and causing problems for the local fishermen.
Then, in 1839 the herring industry failed catastrophically in the North Sea. One reason for this was that the fish abandoned the waters. It was known that herring shoals could suddenly desert waters that they had frequented for centuries. The reasons for their disappearance was unknown and fishermen often came up with their own explanations. In Shetland the fishermen believed that herrings would not remain anywhere near a whaling- station; in St. Monance in Fifeshire the church bell was silenced during the fishing season as people believed it drove the herring away. The cause was more likely a change in the migratory route of the fish as the Fisheries further to the south were still doing good business.
The disappearance of the fish coupled with a string of terrible storms that caused damage to boats spelt disaster for the Shetland Fishery.
Hay and Ogilvy with so much invested in the herring trade became bankrupt in 1842. This had a knock-on effect causing the collapse of the Shetland Bank.
I believe these events had a major impact on William’s life. Certainly, between 1840 and 1843, his name appeared on several court summonses for debts owed to local businesses in Lerwick. One of those summonses was for the Hay company itself. Like many other people in Lerwick at the time, William probably banked with the Shetland Bank. Following its sequestration, he, and many others, would have been summoned to pay back money borrowed.
The 1841 census reveals that he lived in Main Street, Lerwick and was still employed as a Fishery Officer. He was by then 60 years old.
Living with him was his unmarried daughter, Margaret, 20, and his son, Neil, 15, a clerk.
This census entry also reveals that Barbara’s sister, Ann Scollay, was still living with the family. Ann was 45 years old and the census confirms that she was a woman of independent means.
Williamina’s mother-in-law, Margaret Ann Adie, 55, and her sister in law, Margaret Adie, 20, were in the house on Main Street on the day of the census.
The census also shows that William and Barbara employed two female servants, Elizabeth Dabister, 40, and Lilias Cogle, 15.
Barbara was not present in the home at that time the census was taken, June 1841. This was because she was at the home of her daughter, Williamina, in Hillend, in Delting. She may have been visiting Williamina following the birth of her latest baby, Anne Innes Adie, who had been born in April that year.
In the following year their son, Neil married Mary Hunter. Mary was already expecting their child, William, who was born in September 1842. He was to become my 2nd great grandfather.
In August 1843, William’s daughter, Ann was widowed when her husband died at the age of 29.
The herring fishery did recover in Shetland but not until the 1880s but William did not live to see it. He died on the 27th of May 1847 at the age of 79. He had worked for the Fishery Board since its beginnings and this was recognised in his obituary which appeared in the Greenock Advertiser on the 6th June 1848.
After William’s death, Barbara continued to live in Shetland. She appeared in the 1851 Census when she was once again in the home of her daughter in Voe. Interestingly, she listed her occupation as a Nurse. What did that mean? Is it possible Barbara was a trained nurse? A fever hospital, the Knab Hospital, was established in Lerwick C.1850. I feel it is unlikely that at the age of 60, Barbara would have worked there. In the 1800s, hospitalisation for treatment was extremely rare. Patients were usually attended at home by a doctor and nursed by female family members or servants.
Barbara suffered from liver disease for many years. She died in October 1856 at the age of 67.
· Reports from the Commissioners. (1837). United
· Hibbert, S. (1822). A Description of the Shetland
Islands: Comprising an Account of Their Geology, Scenery, Antiquities, and
Superstitions. United Kingdom: A. Constable and Company.
· Dutch Herring An Environmental History, C. 1600-1860By Bo Poulsen · 2008
· A history of the Fair Isle crofters – Carol Tweedie
· Camphor, Cabbage Leaves And Vaccination: The Career Of
Johnie ‘Notions’ Williamson, Of Hamnavoe, Eshaness,
Shetland B. Smith,* Shetland Archives, 44 King Harald Street, Lerwick, Shetland
· Naturalists and doctors – a successful combination by Alastair
· Shetlanders and Fishing: historical and geographical aspects of an
evolving relationship. James J.A.lrvine and Ian A.Morrison
· The Scottish Continental Herring trade 1810 -1814 – David
· The Rise and Fall of the Herring Fishery – The Angus Macleod
· ‘Chasing the silver darlings’ by Laurie Goodlad 1921
· Poulsen, B. (2008). Dutch
Herring: An Environmental History, C. 1600-1860. Netherlands: Aksant.
· History of Banking in Scotland –
Chapter XVIII – The Close of Free Banking
- A Description of the Shetland Islands – Comprising an Account of Their Geology, Scenery,
Antiquities and Superstitions By Samuel Hibbert ·1822