The Shetland fishing industry continues to define Shetland. Unlike so many parts of Scotland, fishing continues to be a major employer in the islands and still dominates the local economy.

This modern industry is rooted in an incredible history going back hundreds of years. As a boy, I was particularly enthralled by the stories of the cod smacks that fished off Faroe and Iceland during the nineteenth century. Not only did Shetlanders sail their smacks to these distant waters, they also developed a niche market for Shetland salt cod in Spain.

Many people made a lot of money – others lost their lives, including the young skipper James Smith and his mostly teenage crew. James was born and brought up on a small croft called Pund. It is a magical place, nestling right by the shore tucked under a small hill. There are no other crofts in sight and some people might describe it as lonely. And yet it is a gentle kind of loneliness: the Pund land is very green and the sea next to the croft is exceptionally calm.

All the Pund children had to do their share of work on the croft, tending to the animals and looking after the limited crops that were grown. But James’s real interest was in boats and the sea. Below the croft house is a stony beach, which is perfect for hauling small boats up and down. Every spare minute that he had was spent with his four brothers in the family’s small open boat. As soon as he left school, he became a fisherman, as did his four brothers. They all found berths on board the fleet of cod smacks.

James was ambitious – he wanted to become a skipper. He did not have to wait that long. In 1877, when he was only 27 years old, he got the break he was looking for. One of Shetland’s most successful cod merchants, Joseph Leask, offered him the job of skippering the Telegraph. She was one of the company’s largest smacks carrying a crew of 14, all of who were younger than the skipper. James Smith had been keen to prove himself and he had landed over 43,000 cod in his first year as skipper, making the Telegraph one of the best-fished smacks that year. Joseph Leask was happy - the Telegraph was making good money, confirming that his choice of the young skipper had been a good one.

It was now early September 1878 and James Smith had almost finished his second year as skipper of the Telegraph. They were fishing off north east Iceland on their last trip of the year and once more they had a good catch of cod salted down in the hold. Preparations were being made to set sail for home when word came that another Shetland smack, the Gondola, had run ashore at Iceland in bad weather.

All the crew were safe, but it looked as if the smack would be a total loss. Some of the crew were going to stay in Iceland until it had been decided what to do with the wreck of the Gondola. The remaining eight crew members needed a lift back home and asked if the Telegraph could take them. James Smith readily agreed. They spent a day taking extra food and fresh water on board and decided to leave for home on 14 September. As was the custom, they were intending to leave Iceland along with two other smacks owned by Joseph Leask, the Novice and the Destiny. The smacks owned by the same owner generally fished alongside each other and always tried to make the passage home together, if possible.

As the crew made the Telegraph ready for her long voyage back to Shetland, the wind started to pick up. With one eye on this freshening wind, James Smith wondered if the weather was set to deteriorate. He was worried but he had to balance these concerns against the need to get home as soon as possible. At least he had plenty of crew, he thought, should he need more men on watch. There were now a total of 22 men on board – the eight men from the Gondola in addition to the crew of the Telegraph.

A strong wind from the south west was blowing by the time the three smacks left, but they had all sailed through worse, many times before. The sails were fully reefed and everything on deck was tied down and made secure as the crew prepared for a rough passage. As night came down, the Telegraph plunged through an increasingly heavy sea. When daylight came up the next morning, it was clear that conditions had deteriorated. The wind had increased during the night and had now reached storm force with the seas becoming even more mountainous. Visibility was very poor and the Destiny and Novice could no longer be seen. It had started to rain heavily, and the combination of driving rain and sea spray meant that the men on deck were constantly soaked through. As one watch replaced another on deck, the cramped conditions below soon became a chaotic scene of discarded wet clothing as the worn out crew tried to get some rest in the damp berths. Rest might have been possible but sleep was out of the question.

As the day wore on, there was no abatement. The Telegraph dived violently into the depths of the troughs between the waves and then slowly managed to lift her head up on the next wave. She was sitting heavy in the water with her large cargo of salt fish. Another smack, the Robert Kirkwood, was sighted in the distance. As darkness fell, it was clear that the Telegraph and the Robert Kirkwood were now both at the mercy of a very severe storm, the like of which neither skipper had seen before. By this time, they were south of Iceland, in the middle of the north Atlantic. There was no shelter near at hand. They had no alternative but to keep going until the weather improved.

In his time as a fisherman, James Smith had often contrasted being at sea in heavy weather with the gentle greenness of the Pund croft. A greater contrast could not be imagined, but he liked both. When at home he yearned to be back at sea but tonight, as towering seas rose out of the pitch-black night sky and as the wind roared overhead, he began to wish as never before that he was back at Pund.

The storm was at its fiercest around midnight. Although a gale was still blowing when dawn came, it was clear the worst had passed. The skipper of the Robert Kirkwood saw no sign of the Telegraph that morning but did not think anything of it. Just as the two smacks had come in sight of each other the day before, so could two smacks easily go out of sight of each other during the night. In conditions like these you could not see that far into the distance anyway.

When the Robert Kirkwood eventually arrived back in Shetland, there was no sign of the Telegraph. The Destiny and the Novice, which had left Iceland together with the Telegraph, had made it back safely although both had also suffered some damage. There was no good reason why the Telegraph should have been overdue. With each passing day there was mounting concern. After a couple of weeks, this increasing anxiety was replaced by the appalling realisation that none of the men on board the Telegraph were ever going to come home. This grim conclusion was voiced in The Shetland Times:

‘There is now no reasonable hope for the Telegraph. It is a double tragedy, as it was known that eight of the crew of the Gondola was aboard of her. The most likely cause of her end is the storm in the middle of last month when she was known to be on passage from Iceland. Her skipper James Smith, aged 28, a Whiteness man, was a promising young fisherman.’

There is no knowing what happened on that fateful night. Sailing under such severe weather conditions creates tremendous pressure on the sails and spars. Perhaps something carried away – maybe a spar broke and the main sail tore. The smack would then have immediately lost all power to move through the sea.

The collapse of the sails and rigging would have brought all the crew on deck but they would have quickly realised that there was nothing that could be done. They were at the mercy of an unforgiving tempest. The deck would have been a mess of torn sails, broken spars and loose rigging as the vessel lost her trim and started to wallow between mountainous waves breaking on either side of her. Some of these waves would have crashed onto the deck, possibly tearing away the hatch covers to the fish hold or accommodation. She would then have taken water on board and quickly developed a list. Stability would have soon been lost and the she would have mercifully have sunk very quickly.

The Shetland community was devastated by double tragedy but there was no question of this profitable fishery being curtailed in any way. The cod merchants were making too much money and the fishermen needed work. The Shetland cure, as the salt cod from Shetland became known in Spain, was gaining a reputation for quality. Salt cod is of course the staple ingredient for that most Spanish of all dishes, bacalao, and it seemed that Shetland cod made the best bacalao of all.

And then, just when it seemed that business could not get any better, a new and even more lucrative market opened up. In the late nineteenth century the way for wealthy Londoners to impress their dinner guests was to serve fresh cod. In order to provide a supply of the freshest cod possible, London fish merchants were prepared to pay unbelievably high prices for cod that were still alive. The Shetland cod merchants saw this new market opportunity and began to wonder if it was possible to keep cod, caught off Iceland and Faroe, alive.

The answer was to install sea water wells in their smacks into which the live cod, that had been caught by hand lines, were carefully placed. These sea water wells were in effect large storage holds, full of water, built into the middle of the vessels. Holes were then drilled in the hull of the vessel so that sea water could freely circulate thereby providing enough oxygen for the cod to survive. It sounds dangerous but, if properly constructed, these wells were perfectly safe and allowed these well smacks to take advantage of this niche market. The result was that earnings soared as Shetlanders supplied fresh cod to the middle classes of London for over a quarter of a century.

The cod merchants profited from the sale of salt cod to Spain and live cod to London but the wages paid to the cod fishermen were never high. Ever enterprising, these Shetland fishermen found a way to boost their earnings. For some reason the Danish Government did not tax alcohol or tobacco in the Faroe Islands. Faroe effectively became a huge duty free store and the Shetland fishermen began to buy Faroe brandy and Cavendish tobacco before returning home. This contraband was then sold back in Shetland at inflated prices thereby providing a neat sideline for the fishermen.

There was one small problem – smuggling was illegal. HM Customs and Excise spent a fortune trying to stop this illicit trade. They had little success. The Shetlanders were not inclined to provide the Excise Officers with any information on this clandestine business. The smacks would land their contraband at night in the many small inlets around the Shetland coast so that when they arrived in port the customs inspections would reveal nothing. In an attempt to apprehend the smacks on their way back from Faroe, a Royal Navy cutter was based in Lerwick. But it had limited success – the Shetland skippers timed their return to Shetland to arrive in darkness. The Royal Navy was simply no match for these fishermen. Frustration mounted and, whenever they did successfully apprehend a smuggler, a lengthy prison sentence was the consequence. But this severe deterrent never worked and the smuggling continued for as long as Shetland fishermen caught cod off Faroe.

Since the smuggling operation was illegal, there are no official records in Shetland regarding the scale of this trade. There is no knowing if this was a small sideline or a large operation? I began to wonder if there were any records in Faroe. This was at the back of my mind when I joined a group of friends on a sailing trip to Faroe. After a week or so cruising around Faroe, we found ourselves in Suderoy, the most southerly of the Faroe Islands. We planned to be there for a day or so before setting sail back home to Shetland. Having walked around the village with some of the crew, we decided to go for a drink in the island’s only pub. We had just sat down and I was beginning to enjoy a beer when the owner, Anna Kirstin Thomsen, came across and spoke to us. She said that she knew all about the Shetland cod fishermen who used to fish around Faroe. Many of them were regular visitors to Suderoy and they were well known to her family when they ran their merchant business. She told us there were company records that showed which Shetlanders had come into their shop and what they had bought. ‘It was mostly brandy and tobacco’ she added with a smile. I asked if these records were stored in the national archives in Torshavn or in Copenhagen. She just laughed and asked me to follow her next door.

We went into a room that had once been an office and there, lying on an old table, were the company ledgers from the nineteenth century, recording the trade that took place between the Thomsen merchant company and many Shetland fishermen. I was astonished. The scale of the purchases was staggering. Many Shetland cod fishermen regularly purchased huge quantities of brandy, cognac and tobacco. Some of the purchases were for enormous quantities. For example, in 1863 John Williamson of the Petrel bought brandy to the value of over £17 while Ross Georgeson of the Caroline bought more than £21 worth of brandy. At this time, the average annual income for a cod fisherman was around £18. Set against annual wages of this level, these were no small purchases – these fishermen were buying contraband up to and exceeding their yearly wage. This was smuggling on a massive scale.

Other purchases were however rather more modest. One particular entry that caught my eye was in April 1864, when William Goodlad bought brandy and three woollen jumpers for the comparatively modest sum of £1.65. He was one of my ancestors and was aged 19 at this time. He was drowned eight years later when the Turquoise was lost on her way back from Faroe.

The Cod Hunters

Although this is a book about the Shetlanders who fished for cod during the nineteenth century, it is no dry history of boats and fish. It is a story about ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

It is also much more than a book about Shetland and Shetlanders. The geographical scope is extensive; from the remote fjords of Iceland to the elegant dinning tables of London, from the fishing banks off Faroe to the best restaurants in the Basque country, from the taverns of Torshavn to the prison cells of Lerwick.

The stories of some very interesting people are told. What do a retired railway worker in New York, an embittered Fishery Officer in Lerwick, a bankrupt banker, the daughter of the famous explorer David Livingston and a Faroese Prime Minister have in common? They were all in some way involved in the story of the Shetland cod hunters.

The Cod Hunters by John Goodlad, is published by the Shetland Amenity Trust and is available from the publishers website, Amazon and selected bookshops.


For many years John Goodlad was the voice of the Shetland fishing industry when he represented the interests of Shetland fishermen in Edinburgh, London, Brussels and beyond. He now works for an international seafood investment fund in London and advises a number of seafood companies and organisations. During the past few years he has found time to write his compelling account of the cod hunters.

‘I have always been fascinated by this fishery’ said John, who continued, ‘and I have loved the experience of bringing to life this interesting period of Shetland history through the experiences of the many characters involved. There is also a personal reason insofar as many of my own family were involved in this fishery.'