IT takes its name from the band of formidable young women from the Outer Hebrides who followed the shoals of herring around the British coast undertaking gruelling work to gut, cure and pack the fish for local merchants.

While away from their families, the “Herring Girls” would pass the time knitting using patterns incorporating anchors, ship’s wheels, hearts, or marriage lines that were handed down through the years.

Generations later, the 19th-century tradition is being kept alive by a small Barra-based knitting business that has flourished in the still of lockdown.


Launched in October 2019, the Herring Girl Collection is made up of a “secret” 12-strong army of knitters who are able to put their own personal stamp on each hand-crafted garment.

All the knitwear incorporates a CY code which denotes the fishing boat registration mark of Castlebay – Barra’s main town. Knitters also incorporate the name of a fishing boat connected to their family or village so they are known to their customers by their CY boat name.

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The guernseys (fisherman’s jumper), scarves, shawls, hats and gloves and bed throws incorporate the unique pattern associated with the Hebridean isle – the True Lover’s Knot.


Business founder Margaret Anne Elder, 53, is known as CY Grian nan Oir,  a trawler that was built in 2001.

A graduate in rural development and mother of four, she saw the business as a great way to raise the profile of the Herring Girls and preserve the knitting skills she learned from her late grandmother, Marion Macleod, who left home to work in the ports herself as a young woman.


Up until the outbreak of the Second World War, the herring industry was booming.

Hundreds of young women, some as young as 15, left their homes in Barra, Lewis, Orkney and Shetland in the 1880s and the early 1900s to travel to industrial ports around the UK.

The work that they carried out was gruelling, required precision and speed and would often leave their hands covered in injuries, not helped by the mass of salt that would be rubbed into them during the curing of the fish.

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“Every knitter is proud to be part of the story,” said Mrs Elder. “It’s a part of our culture and history that isn’t really out there. My grandmother said it was hard work but they had a great laugh, you were travelling around the UK with your friends. They did what they had to do, to get by.


“They were extremely important for the fishing industry because at the end of the day, they were the ones that were gutting and curing. The market was actually more Russian and Germany at that time.

“There is debate in parliament now about the export of fishing so where we are now hasn’t really changed from 1936. 

“When you listen to people now talking about the suffragettes and the debates that they had for women’s rights ... these formidable women were out there making money and sending it home.”

The wage was moderate; in 1911, Fishery Board reports show that the 704 women from Barra earned between £13 and £12 in 29 weeks, most of which was sent home to their families. The accommodation was small and cramped, and the hours were long.

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The women went on strike, twice, and were successful in achieving modest pay rises. Many of the girls met their future husbands at one or other of the fishing ports.

“When they were striking, they were sitting there knitting,” said Mrs Elder. 

Despite only launching less than 18 months ago, the Herring Girls Collection is in high demand and now taking orders from Australia and the United States.

The business is also working with several retailers in the West Highlands and Islands, including the Isle of Barra Distillers, to capture the lucrative visitor market and hopes to expand their reach.

The latest collection is a babywear range, named M’eudail, which is Scots Gaelic for wee darling. 


Every knitter has adopted one young person from the island to pass on their skills and build up the future workforce.

“When people ask when I started to knit, I can’t remember. I’ve just always done it,” said Mrs Elder.

“I wanted to have a range that was affordable for young people on the island.

“There is definitely a demand for it – the pandemic certainly has not held us back.

“I do the majority of the knitting but that’s changing as the business is growing.It’s such a fun thing to do and it’s definitely therapeutic. You are bringing money in, to a fragile economy with people that are relaxed, enjoying what they do and making money from it, so it’s a real win-win.”