People Past & Present Stories from the Islands

The Cod Hunters

The Swan – restored Shetland herring boat (Swan collection)
Written by John Goodlad

The Cod Hunters tells the story of the Shetlanders who fished for cod around the north Atlantic in their cod sailing smacks. Fishing at Greenland, Iceland, Faroe and Rockall, the boats returned with cargoes of salt cod which were then dried on Shetland beaches before being exported to Spain. Salt cod is the main ingredient for that most distinctive of all Spanish dishes – bacalao.

This book is however no dry history of boats and fish. It is a book about so much more; it is essentially the stories of many ordinary people who did extraordinary things. A very personal and readable account, it will appeal to the general reader as well as those interested in the history of Shetland and the wider north Atlantic.

The geographical scope is extensive; from the remote fjords of west Greenland to the elegant dining tables of nineteenth century 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 several 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 Livingstone and a Faroese Prime Minister have in common? They were all involved in some way in the story of the Shetland cod hunters.

A particularly interesting aspect of the cod saga was the extensive smuggling of Faroese brandy and tobacco back to Shetland. An extract from the book explains how the author first discovered the true scale of this clandestine operation from an old ledger lying in a Faroese pub.

Painting of a Faroese smack (Johanna) by Faroese artist Hans Skalagaard
Painting of a Faroese smack (Johanna) by Faroese artist Hans Skalagaard

Faroe Brandy

It was the last week of August and I was on board the Swan lying at the pier in the harbour of Tvøroyri, the main village in the most southerly of the Faroese islands, Suderoy. Although our trip to Faroe had been poor with gale force winds, the weather in Faroe was kind and we were now enjoying a beautiful day as our skipper was waiting for an up to date forecast before deciding when to sail back to Shetland.

Two of my fellow Shetlanders had been successful trawler skippers, both having fished for cod around Faroe during their careers at sea. Theo Fullerton of the Be Ready and John Anderson of the Still Waters (in Shetland, skippers are still described by the names of their boats) are both retiring and modest men. Their modesty however belies a huge knowledge of the sea and fishing. As the three of us walked through the village of Tvøroyri that sunny August morning, we began to talk about the first cod hunters from Shetland who came to Faroe to fish. We wondered if Shetland cod fishermen, maybe even some of our own ancestors, had walked these same streets more than a hundred years before.

As we made our way back to the Swan, we saw some of the crew sitting inside the pub at the head of the pier inside what had once been the Thomsen merchant house, one of the old cod companies in Tvøroyri. We decided to join them. 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 Tvøroyri 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 archives in Torshavn or in Copenhagen. She just laughed and asked me to follow her next door.

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. Although all the entries were in Danish it was fairly easy to read which Shetlanders had bought what, when and at what price. Just as I was starting to look through the ledgers, the Swan skipper, Magnie Sinclair, came in to say that a gale was forecast for the next day and we would be best to leave for Shetland now. So, having just discovered this treasure trove of information about the Shetland cod smacks, I had to leave them unread in the bar. It would be four years before I came back. I barely had time to finish my beer.

Painting – Ships Departing by Faroese artist Samal Mikines
Painting – Ships Departing by Faroese artist Samal Mikines

On my return trip to Faroe my first stop was the pub run by the Thomsen family. Anna Kirstin was expecting me and had kindly arranged for several retired fishermen to be there. Most of these men had started their fishing careers on board cod smacks, fishing with hand lines as the Shetland men had done during the previous century. One of the oldest men shook my hand and said in halting English, ‘Welcome Home, Shetlander.’ He was of course referring to all the Shetland cod fishermen who would have, at one time, regarded Tvøroyri as a second home, regularly coming into shelter and buy provisions during their many fishing trips to Faroe.

All the time I was wondering if the ledgers would still be as they were. Perhaps they had been lost or damaged in some way? After all, they had been lying in a room next to a bar that saw some large crowds and heavy drinking on a Saturday night. I need not have worried. There the ledgers were; just as they had been when I first saw them. When I eventually sat down and began to look through them, I was astonished. The scale of the purchases was staggering. Many cod fishermen some of who appeared to be the skippers, regularly purchased huge quantities of brandy and tobacco. Some of the purchases were for enormous quantities. In 1863 John Williamson of the Petrel bought brandy to the value of over £17 while Ross Georgeson of the Caroline spent more than £21. At this time the average annual wage for a cod fisherman was around £18. These were therefore no small purchases; fishermen were buying contraband up to and exceeding their yearly wage.

Painting – Faroese smacks by Samal Mikines
Painting – Faroese smacks by Samal Mikines

Even more surprising than the staggering scale of purchases was the fact that payment was not actually made until the following year. This level of credit reflected the substantial level of trust in the fishermen from Shetland by the Thomsen family and a confidence that they would be returning to fish during the following year. For the Shetland cod hunters, it was a no-brainer; this arrangement enabled the fishermen to sell their contraband at inflated prices back home before even having to pay for it in the first place. It was a unique business opportunity. There was only one problem. It was illegal.

Other purchases were more modest, ranging from £3 to £10 in value, mostly for brandy but also tobacco and occasionally items of clothing. 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 cod smack Turquoise was lost on her way back from Faroe.

John Goodlad spoke on The Cod Hunters in the 2020 Orkney International Science Festival. His book can be bought online, in hardback or paperback, from The Shetland Times Bookshop or Shetland Amenity Trust Bookshop.

About the author

John Goodlad

John Goodlad is a Shetlander who has worked in the seafood industry all his life. Having worked for the Shetland Fishermen’s Association and having been a fish farmer, he now works for a London based seafood Investment Fund. He is also an advisor on sustainability issues for several national and international fisheries bodies. He has always been passionate about history and has spent many years researching the little-known story of the Shetland cod hunters.