As a Scot, it came as such a surprise to discover that a deep, long and complex relationship existed between my country and the Native oyster (Ostrea edulis) which has only faded from view in recent times. I think it is fair to say that most people alive today in Scotland were / are in the same boat as me, and have no knowledge of this rich history.
If this is a universal human trait or a function of modern Scotland and what that even means is an open question. Still, that is a question for another time and perhaps for some other more appropriate forum.
Instead, in an attempt to shine some light on the past relationship, this is going to be the first in a series of small articles that cover the fascinating and colourful history of Scotland’s most famous oyster bed in the Firth of Forth.
At the very end of the series, there shall also be some news about hopes for the future, and perhaps a wee role for ourselves!
The Firth of Forth
So what is a Firth and where is the Firth of Forth?
A Firth is an narrow inlet and the word is generally thought to have entered Scottish speech via Norse, in that it is basically the same word as Fjord. You can find Firths all around the Scottish coastline but the best well known examples are found on the east coast.
The Firth of Forth is one of the east coast Firths, it meets the North Sea with Fife on the north and Lothian, and of course that includes Edinburgh, on the south. The word Forth comes from the Gaelic Foirthe which itself is likely derived from Pictish and may mean ‘slow flowing’.
An interesting mixture of Celtic and Norse which is quite apt for a lot of things Scottish.
If the name and location is not familiar then hopefully the following is:
This is the famous Forth Rail Bridge which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and spans the Firth. The new road bridge, Queensferry Crossing is something special too.
Pre Industrial Revolution - Oysters gu leòr (galore)
Please note, the information presented here is derived from:
Fulton, T.W. 1895. The past and the present condition of the oyster beds in the Firth of Forth. Fishery Board for Scotland Annual Report, 14, 244-293.
And discussed in the excellent (the blockquotes are from this report):
D Donnan · 2007 — Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No.251 - Conservation of the Native Oyster Ostrea edulis in Scotland
Stretching over 25 km of the southern shoreline and covering over 166 km2, the oyster beds in the Firth of Forth were the most prolific and, from the 13th century, the most commercially important in Scotland. Ownership of the rights to gather oysters in the Forth was divided among private individuals, corporate bodies, local government and the Crown. Forth oysters had a reputation of such good quality that they were in demand not only by local markets but also throughout Scotland, England and Europe. Fulton (1895) stated that at a very conservative estimate, at the turn of the 19th century the Forth fisheries were landing 30 million oysters annually.
It has to be said, 30 million oysters is a colossal volume and as way of comparison total Scottish production for the Rock oyster (A Non native species and faster growing) was only approximately 5 million oysters in 2021.
Early signs of trouble
It was not long before there were tensions and early signs of trouble with the oyster bed.
From the 13th century, oysters were very cheap and were widely consumed. In the 16th century, the price of oysters started rising, prompting the commercial exploitation of the stocks. Exports of oysters to “foreign” markets were common, and were blamed repeatedly for the depletion of the Forth beds. In the 1660s, the Town Council of Edinburgh was forced to prohibit fishing by, and sales to, other European countries, in particular the Netherlands, in attempts to protect the beds. Intense exploitation again became problematic in 1742, when it was noted that “…unless a stop be put to such spulzies, and the theftnous practices timeously, that the very breed of oysters may be quite extirpate and carried off, to the great and irreparable loss, both of this country and the community”. The Council again issued regulations. These included restrictions on selling to other countries, including England, without official approval, fishing only by local boats (not including those from Fife), the introduction of a closed season (10 April – 4 September), a minimum size for exported oysters and the oyster fishermen were to aid in the enforcement of the restrictions. As occurred in 1660s, the regulations were complied with for a short time allowing the beds to flourish before the old practices were resumed.
The beds exploited by the “East Country” fishermen (Fisherrow, Cockenzie and Prestonpans) were the first of the Forth beds to become exhausted. These beds were public grounds or leased from proprietors. Landings by this group in the 1780s were estimated at around 18 million per season for 40 boats working a 4-day week. The majority of these were juvenile oysters, which were exported to the English and Dutch markets. In 1786, the East Country fishermen had exhausted the public and leased beds that they regularly fished and were exported to be exploiting oysters unlawfully from the City beds. Legal proceedings followed where the titles and rights were officially confirmed for the different sections of the oyster beds. The regulations of 1742 were reiterated in 1788 and, in addition, a minimum landing size of 1.5 inches diameter was imposed for market oysters in an attempt to regulate the exportation of juvenile oysters.
The City of Edinburgh owned one of the most valuable fisheries for which the Newhaven fishermen had leased the fishing rights since 1510. The Newhaven fishermen were responsible for exporting great quantities to “foreign” markets, in particular the Netherlands and England. When, in 1751 it became apparent that the regulations on exportation were ineffective, the Council revoked the fishing rights of the Newhaven fishermen and transferred them to a Leith merchant, on the condition that the oysters were sold only to the Edinburgh market. By 1786, the Newhaven fishermen had re-gained the fishing rights. Over the period 1773–1786, daily landings in the Forth had fallen from several thousand to 400–500 oysters per boat. Exports were blamed for this decrease in oyster productivity, but these had also declined on account of the scarcity and rising cost of oysters.
So from as early as the 17th century it was known that unregulated harvesting was having an impact on the bed and efforts (which were shown to work) were made to protect the oysters. However, it was somewhat of a losing battle and the long decline was underway and would only accelerate with the coming of the Industrial revolution which we shall look at in a future article.
It is hard to get your head around the scale of this activity, and given all that we have learned we now know that this was the start of an exploitation that would see the oyster become extinct in the Firth of Forth. If this happened today it would be considered an ecological catastrophe.
How should we judge this and the people involved? I do not think we can. I do not think we can apply our current values to people in the past. We can not really understand their outlook nor the pressures they lived under.
What we can do is learn from that past, and this has real meaning in the 'here and now' with current industrial fishing practices. There are plenty of echos of the past in the resistance of many in the fishing industry to quotas or restrictions and the seeming underlying belief that the sea is a universal resource and ‘shall always provide’.
If nothing else, the oysters of the Firth of Forth show this to be false premise. Fishing is not a bad thing per say but it is our view that it has to be controlled. It is a sad state of affairs, but if it is not controlled then human nature in combination with the power of commerce shall more than likely lead to very poor outcomes.
In the next article we shall continue our journey and look into the working class men and woman who worked on the oyster bed. They are often overlooked and their story deserves to be told.