Live cod and illegal brandy - the Shetland cod hunters

26 June 2018
rough-25722.jpg Live cod and illegal brandy - the Shetland cod hunters
John Goodlad tells the strange story of live cod and smuggled brandy – one of many little known gems contained in his new book, The Cod Hunters.
Live cod and illegal brandy - the Shetland cod hunters Images

The Shetland fishing industry continues to define Shetland. Unlike so many parts of Scotland, fishing is still a major employer in the islands and dominates the local economy. This modern industry is however rooted in an incredible history going back hundreds of years. As a boy, I was particularly enthralled by the stories of the cod smacks that fished off Faroe and Iceland during the nineteenth century.

Not only did Shetlanders sail their smacks to these distant waters, they also developed a niche market for Shetland salt cod in Spain. The Shetland cure, as the salt cod from Shetland became known, gained a reputation for quality. Salt cod is of course the staple ingredient for that most Spanish of all dishes, bacalao, and it seemed that Shetland cod made the best bacalao of all.

Fresh cod to London

The Shetland cod merchants made a lot of money. And then, just when it seemed that business could not get any better, a new and even more lucrative market opened up. In the late nineteenth century the way for wealthy Londoners to impress their dinner guests was to serve fresh cod. In order to provide a supply of the freshest cod possible, London fish merchants were prepared to pay unbelievably high prices for cod that were still alive.

QUICK LINK: Scotland's secret history - the illegal distilling of whisky

The Shetland cod merchants saw this new market opportunity and began to wonder if it was possible to keep the cod, that had been caught off Faroe and Iceland, alive. 

Impossible surely? Ever the innovators, the Shetlanders installed sea water wells in their smacks into which the live cod, that had been caught by hand lines, were carefully placed. These sea water wells were in effect large storage tanks, full of water, built into the middle of the vessels. Holes were then drilled in the hull of the vessel so that sea water could freely circulate thereby providing enough oxygen for the cod to survive.

It sounds dangerous but, if properly constructed, these wells were perfectly safe and allowed these well smacks to take advantage of this niche market. The result was that earnings soared as Shetlanders supplied fresh cod to the middle classes of London for over a quarter of a century. 

It is unlikely that these refined London diners would have known that the cod they enjoyed at their sophisticated dinner parties in Chelsea and Kensington had actually been caught off Iceland by Shetlanders and then transported live to the UK on board sailing smacks. 

A boost to earnings

The cod merchants profited from the sale of salt cod to Spain and live cod to London but the wages paid to the cod fishermen were never high. Always enterprising, these Shetland fishermen found a way to boost their earnings as well. For some reason the Danish Government did not tax alcohol or tobacco in the Faroe Islands.

Faroe effectively became a huge duty free store and the Shetland fishermen began to buy Faroe brandy and Cavendish tobacco before returning home. This contraband was then sold back in Shetland at inflated prices thereby providing a neat sideline for the fishermen.

There was one small problem – smuggling was illegal. HM Customs and Excise spent a fortune trying to stop this illicit trade. They had little success. The Shetlanders were not inclined to provide the Excise Officers with any information on this clandestine business. The smacks would land their contraband at night in the many small inlets around the Shetland coast so that when they arrived in port the customs inspections would reveal nothing.

In an attempt to apprehend the smacks on their way back from Faroe, a Royal Navy cutter was based in Lerwick. But it had limited success – the Shetland skippers timed their return to Shetland to arrive in darkness. The Royal Navy was simply no match for these fishermen.

Frustration mounted and, whenever they did successfully apprehend a smuggler, a lengthy prison sentence was the consequence. But this severe deterrent never worked and the smuggling continued for as long as Shetland fishermen caught cod off Faroe.

Content continues after advertisements

Tracing the records

Since the smuggling operation was illegal, there are no official records in Shetland regarding the scale of this trade. There is no knowing if this was a small side line or a large operation? I began to wonder if there were any records in Faroe. This was at the back of my mind when I joined a group of friends on a sailing trip to Faroe. 

After a week or so cruising around Faroe, we found ourselves in Suderoy, the most southerly of the Faroe Islands. We planned to be there for a day or so before setting sail back home to Shetland. Having walked around the village with some of the crew, we decided to go for a drink in the island’s only pub.

We had only just sat down and I was beginning to enjoy a beer when the owner, Anna Kirstin Thomsen, came across and spoke to us. She said that she knew all about the Shetland cod fishermen who used to fish around Faroe. Many of them were regular visitors to Suderoy and they were well known to her family when they ran their merchant business.

She told us there were company records that showed which Shetlanders had come into their shop and what they had bought. It was mostly brandy and tobacco’ she added with a smile. I asked if these records were stored in the national archives in Torshavn or in Copenhagen. She just laughed and asked me to follow her next door.

History brought to life

We went into a room that had once been an office and there, lying on an old table, were the company ledgers from the nineteenth century, recording the trade that took place between the Thomsen merchant company and many Shetland fishermen.

I was astonished. The scale of the purchases was staggering. Many Shetland cod fishermen regularly purchased huge quantities of brandy, cognac and tobacco. Some of the purchases were for enormous quantities. For example, in 1863 John Williamson of the Petrel bought brandy to the value of over £17 while Ross Georgeson of the Caroline bought more than £21 worth of brandy.

At this time, the average annual income for a cod fisherman was around £18. Set against annual wages of this level, these were no small purchases – these fishermen were buying contraband up to and exceeding their yearly wage. This was smuggling on a massive scale.

Other purchases were however rather more modest. One particular entry that caught my eye was in April 1864, when William Goodlad bought brandy and three woollen jumpers for the comparatively modest sum of £1.65. He was one of my ancestors and was aged 19 at this time. He was drowned eight years later when the Turquoise was lost on her way back from Faroe.

About the author

John Goodlad has worked in the seafood industry all his life and has recently published the Cod Hunters, a remarkable story of the large nineteenth-century Shetland cod fishery.

This is, however, much more than a book about Shetland and fishing. The geographical scope is extensive; from the remote fjords of Iceland to the elegant dinning tables of London, from the fishing banks off Faroe to the best restaurants in the Basque country, from the taverns of Torshavn to the prison cells of Lerwick.

The stories of some very interesting people are told. What do a retired railway worker in New York, an embittered Fishery Officer in Lerwick, a bankrupt banker, the daughter of the famous explorer David Livingston and a Faroese Prime Minister have in common? They were all in some way involved in the story of the Shetland cod hunters. 

The Cod Hunters by John Goodlad is published by the Shetland Amenity Trust and is available from the publishers website, Amazon and selected bookshops. Hardback at £25 and paperback at £15.