Monday, 22 March 2021

It's not what you say but how you say it.

Regulations introduced following the UK's departure from the EU have delayed the export of live crustaceans to Europe, resulting in the loss of whole shipments of lobsters and langoustines in Scottish ports.

Fishing represents a relatively small part of the UK economy, but fishing rights have dominated much of the Brexit negotiations with the European Union. And as the UK escapes EU environmental protections, fishing is once again a battleground for competing marine conservation ideas.

While these debates are almost always about numbers - catch quotas, stock levels, prices and taxes - focusing on these quantifiable aspects alone can lead us to overlook the values ​​that, in the first place, keep people in the fishery.

Our research into inshore fishing in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland - a sparsely populated archipelago off the west coast - has taken us from boats to processing factories and archives, demonstrating a commitment to sustainability that never ends. not limited to legislation. We have found that respecting the culture and language of these islands is as important as protecting the flora and fauna to preserve a thriving marine environment for generations to come.

Navigating the past

About 75% of the fishermen in the Outer Hebrides speak Gaelic, which is far more than the 61% of speakers for the entire population of the islands. Scottish Gaelic is a Celtic language - related to, but distinct from, Irish Gaelic - once spoken across much of Scotland, but today mostly confined to its westernmost islands. This language experienced a decline during the 20th century and today has around 60,000 speakers.

The daily practice of the language by fishermen at work helps pass it on to the next generation, as young people soak up Scottish Gaelic when they are on the boats and in the processing factories where the catches are landed.
A whole system of "comharran" - navigation marks in Gaelic - surrounds the islands. Most of them are known only to fishermen. A "Creagan Breac" refers to a fishing spot that can be found by lining a large, clear boulder on the mountainside on South Uist with the end of a promontory on which stands a church.
“No one else has this knowledge,” said one fisherman from Uist. "Even the old peasants don't know them".

Much of the knowledge about the creatures that inhabit these fishing grounds is also recorded in the Gaelic language. A fisherman from Benbecula explained: “My father used to tell me: 'You have to go to this precise place at this precise time and there will be lobsters”. And ... that's how it works. This is what my grandfather and my great grandfather did too. "

This is what social scientists call TEK - the environmental information that are incorporated into the culture and language and transmitted from generation to generation.

Old ways, new challenges
The Scottish Coastal Fleet fishes within 12 miles and represents around three-quarters of all Scottish fishing vessels. Almost 90% of them are small caseyeur boats for two people. Our research has shown that in the Outer Hebrides, the cultural knowledge of fishermen contributes to an age-old commitment to sustainability. Some areas are unexploited during the spawning season and under-size specimens and egg-bearing females are safely discarded. This approach makes sense, as one fisherman from Benbecula explained, because: “Fishermen are not going to cut their necks for years and generations to come. "
The knowledge of fishermen here relates not only to the species they target - such as lobsters, shrimp and crabs - but also to the marine environment in general. The life stages of juvenile seagulls, the myriad species of dolphins and whales, the different kinds of seaweed found with the traps are all described in great detail by names and phrases in Scottish Gaelic.

These centuries-old links between language and the environment challenge dominant views on how best to protect habitats. The vitality of Scottish Gaelic as a living language would certainly suffer if fishing were to be curtailed, and much of the knowledge associated with it, which has helped to keep fishing in the seas of the Hebrides sustainable for generations, would be also lost.

When discussing the extension of marine protected areas by the Scottish government to limit fishing in the Hebrides, one fisherman said: “All Gaelic culture there will be gone. The Gaelic language that we speak, in the course of our work, would no longer be there. The culture, the people, everything would disappear forever. "

In our Gaelic-language feature documentary, Iorram , ( Boat Song ), we explore the heritage of these islands through contemporary imagery and previously untranslated stories and songs, archived by the School of Scottish Studies at the Edinburgh University in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Faced with the age-old image of communities battling the sea in what remains one of Britain's most dangerous professions, we hear the voices of the Hebridean "herring girls" confronted with the weirdness of English food without a word of English to complain. We learn that fishermen have been kidnapped as contract workers and taken to the West Indies. We see prices crashing, ships sinking, GPS coming in.

Despite all these changes, Scottish Gaelic binds fishing communities together. The heated debates about the future of Scottish fishing, whether it will be run by Holyrood or Westminster, and how much of a stake the fishing communities themselves have in their own future, are sure to rage as they go. and as the question of independence arises again.

But it is imperative to take into account the enduring value of the language and culture of these islands.

Iorram (Boat Song) premiered in 2021 at the Glasgow Film Festival and can currently be viewed virtually in independent cinemas across the UK. To find out where to see it, visit .

Magnus Course
Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh

Arthur Cole
Lecturer in Film Practice, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from "under a Creative Commons license. Https://

See also the short film “Our Fathers' Sea”