Book review: The Cod Hunters

Book review: The Cod Hunters John Goodlad’s book The Cod Hunters charts the history of the Shetland cod fishery

The Cod Hunters is an exploration of the cod fisheries of Shetland from the early nineteenth century. There are few people better qualified to chart the history of Shetland’s fisheries than John Goodlad with his remarkable depth of knowledge.

With a career behind him that includes serving as chief executive of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association, chairman of Shetland Catch and numerous other roles, today he acts as an advisor to various national and international fisheries organisations, writes Sylvia Bates.

This is a handsome book, eminently readable and interspersed with relevant and interesting pictures. It’s clear that the author has a comprehensive understanding of both contemporary and historical fisheries in not only Shetland but across the Atlantic region. In this book he successfully conveys this with accurate and concise information, presented through the stories of individuals and communities, linked with the bigger events of trade and politics. These stories, often personal and always relatable, engage the reader while simultaneously communicating the facts and atmosphere of these times.

The Cod Hunters opens with the first Shetland cod fishermen in 1818, detailing the discovery and early fishery, right up to the sinking of the last Shetland smack in 1909, and further on to the legacy of the Shetland and Faroese cod fishery until the late twentieth century. These chapters reveal not only the individuals and communities of Shetland, but go further afield to the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland.

The reader follows the birth of the Shetland cod fishery and over subsequent chapters the up and downs of this industry over the course of the 19th century is explained through the stories and experiences of the key figures. We see how the cod fishery became the backbone of a community’s prosperity, and are told the tragedies of its failure in lean years. The fishery is placed in the larger context of its European role and role in export markets, and demonstrates how it compared to other fisheries during the same period. It is when the book delves into the personal stories of fishermen and of the lives of the boats that the reader gets a personal sense of the people behind the great events.

The decline of the Shetland cod fishery is not the end of the story, merely the jumping off point for a new chapter, the rise of the Faroese cod fishery. The importance of the Shetland smacks and their new lives in the Faroe Islands forms the narrative leap from Shetland to the Faroes, and the reader is led into a new chapter not just in the book but in the history of the cod fishery. As the story diverges, the Shetland fishermen continue to play a role, their legacy still a part of the cod fishery and having a role to play with a new generation of fishermen in a different land. Having led us through a chronological journey, the book spends some chapters introducing the reader to different aspects of the cod fishery and the role they played. We find out more about the importance of navigation, railways, smuggling, the salt-curing methods used, and the gear used. We also find out much more about the individuals involved in the cod fishery; from the well-intentioned businessmen and their investors to the everyday work routines of the boys and men who worked the boats and docks.

Other chapters recall the special relationship between Shetland and the Faroe Islands, in particular the strong bond formed between these two communities. One chapter of note tells the story of a fisherman who moved to America - his account of growing up and fishing at the turn twentieth century is an intriguing and exciting chapter made poignant by its survival as a recording made in the 1950s.

As the reader comes to the end of the book the cost of the cod fishery is expounded on, as the dangers and losses at sea are told through the lives of the men who were lost. The final chapters of the book explore the Faroese cod fishery, again emphasising the personal relationships forged between the Shetland and Faroese fishermen from the beginning of the twentieth century. The author takes the time to explore and present stories from the Faroe Islands alongside those of the Shetlanders. The historical story of the cod fishery in the Faroe Islands and the individuals that helped shape it are told by looking at the everyday working lives of the people and boats at the time.

This book ends with a reflection of the significance of the cod fishery, not to the modern world in general or its role in history, but to the small island communities that relied on it during times of great change.

The Cod Hunters succeeds in presenting the everyday lives of many ordinary individuals who would otherwise go unnoticed or uncelebrated. The details of day to day life are often so easily neglected, however this book conveys this alongside the large-scale historical facts and context, showing how these two aspects make for a compelling and interesting telling of history.

The Cod Hunters is available from Amazon and from the Shetland Times Bookshop.

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