Coopers in a coopers' yard, Fife, ca. 1889
This photograph, taken by an unknown photographer, was probably taken near Anstruther in Fife some time in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. To the left of the image is a pile of ready-to-use staves stacked in the pend (passageway), spare metal hoops are piled against the wall to the right. Coopering demanded the ability to manipulate metal and wood to create sealed containers without the use of glue, nails or screws that could be used to store various perishable commodities. The integrity of the barrel and the preservation of its contents were entirely dependent of the skill of the cooper. The men in this image are of different ages, with the young man at centre likely still an apprentice, they can be seen posing with barrels in various stages of completion. Some are holding the specialist tools needed to shape and construct the ‘dry barrels’ needed for storing fish in airtight conditions. The cooper second from the left is holding a curved trussing adze of the type used to hammer the metal hoops on to the barrel.
The production of thousands of barrels was essential to Scotland’s fishing industry, so the scene in this photograph would have been familiar in many of Scotland’s east coast fishing towns from the 1820s to the 1930s. Coopers, along with the women who gutted and packed the herrings, were the land workers who transformed the bounty of local fishing fleets into a preserved, transportable commodity. In 1808 the Scotch Board of Commissioners of Herring Fisheries was established in order to regulate and improve methods of curing. Herrings were originally packed for storage at sea, but in 1819 a new ‘Scotch cure’ improved on its Dutch predecessor by allowing the packing of herring on land, so boosting the quantity of fish landed and the on-shore coopering trade. By the time this photograph was taken Shetland’s industry alone supported 459 boats, 4,484 men and production of 104,795 barrels per year.
According to Bremner’s Industries of Scotland there were almost 2000 coopers serving the fishing industry in the 1860s, but the boom years would come 40 years later. In the early years of the twentieth century herring workers, both men and women, travelled to follow the shoals from north to south and sometimes even as far as England.