THE ghost of Marley – Bob, that is, not Jacob – has done his share of haunting me during my times at sea.

On a particularly ferocious trip from south Harris to the far western isle of St Kilda, his songs spun on a continual loop, played by one of the yacht’s crew. I was reassured by continual reminders not to "worry about a thing", while the waves crashed, thunderous and white around me, lashing the back of my life jacket, rendering me wet, cold and miserable.

I looked out into the blackness of the skies and heard the words of Exodus echoing, the beat of the song a frenzied rhythm through the darkness. The lyrics made me long for the solidity of earth, even wilderness or desert, anything except this constant pitch and roll beneath my feet.

On this occasion, the waters soothed me almost as much as the music of Mr Marley. I was part of a group travelling on the Atloy, an old, restored fjord steamer from the 1930s, from the western Norwegian port of Florø to a fish restaurant located in a converted warehouse in Knutholmen, to attend the Norway Annual Herring Festival. Accompanying the thrum of the engines was the voice of Michael, lead singer of a Marley tribute band called Legend, which had come all the way from the Caribbean via, give or take a generation or two, the city of Birmingham, United Kingdom. With his backing

group, the aptly named Elaine Smiler and Celia Heavenly, joining in the lilting harmonies, he kept instructing people not to rock the boat.

The ferry companies of the world should employ this band because, true to their word, the Atloy did not rock. It barely trembled, steaming calmly around the small islets and cliffs that are to be found on the west coast of Norway. It was a glorious day, made bright and special by the company I kept, including the extraordinary figure of our Norwegian host, Per Vidar Ottesen, who sang Buffalo Soldier while decked out in a jacket stitched together from the bright green, yellow and red colours of the Marley flag.

There was, too, an Irish band who called themselves Tupelo, after a town in far-off Mississippi and the birthplace of that other musical giant, Elvis Presley. To add to my musical and geographical confusion, the first song these young Irishmen played later that evening was called Down To Patagonia, the southern, snow-smothered edge of the world. Its chorus boomed over the narrow streets of Florø where a crowd of Filipinos, Americans, Swedes and visiting Norwegians had gathered to celebrate the herring, the fish that provided the most important reason for this community ever coming into existence. As both visitors and natives stamped their feet and joined in with the singing, I could not help but look around the small island town to see how the most important meal of my childhood had been marked within its boundaries.

Florø’s municipal crest carried echoes of that of my hometown of Stornoway, the largest community of the Western Isles. Just like the one to be found in our town hall, Florø’s crest was decorated by three herring.

Later that evening, local people and visitors from other, smaller islands, sat together at long tables stretched along the main street to enjoy the biggest night of the town's year. Some people clearly planned to be ensconced there for hours – to listen to Tupelo with its singer from Dublin, its fiddler from Ballina in County Mayo; to watch the local Herring Prince having a gold medal pinned on his chest for all he had achieved for the community; to receive the free cans of (weak) beer and lemonade their hosts were handing out; to eat the huge variety of herring the people had prepared for this special day, the third Friday in June.

Young people kitted out in fisherman’s jumpers, brought to our table plastic pails with lids that had to be squeezed and prised open. Inside them was the herring that was to be our feast and fare on the sildebordet: the longest herring table in the world, according to the organisers.

There was certainly enough herring available to grant both spice and substance to that boast. It arrived in many forms and flavours: dipped in mustard; mingled with nuts; given added zest and flavour by tomato; mixed with red and white onion, carrots and herbs; sprinkled with spice; served both sour and sweet (with sherry); cooked in curry.

For an hour or two, until people had scraped their platters clean, it seemed as if the whole town had been restored to its glory days in the middle of the 19th century, when both ports and harbours were awash with what men in Scotland termed "the silver darlings", or what those in Norway called "the gold of the sea". This was riches indeed, both a transformation and a celebration of Florø’s history as a place where the herring was brought ashore, when the industry was at its height.

Florø’s time as a major herring port was relatively short. The herring did as they have often been known to do, leaving the area for waters new in1872. It was a shift of direction that had an enormous impact on the human population that had either settled or come to that area each spring. "The plight of these people over the last autumn and winter has been lamentable," wrote a local doctor. "What they have suffered through hunger, thirst and general deprivation is almost beyond belief."

While this may not have been as bad as the mass starvation

that affected Norway’s population in 1812 , it, too, had its

legacy. Like this community’s counterparts in places as close as Unst in Shetland or as far away as the west coast of Ireland, it could be seen in the ruins of curing houses, fishermen’s huts and boarding houses found in various locations not far from Florø, the wind and weather curling around their crumbling walls until they toppled and fell. The people, like the herring, moved elsewhere, perhaps in the direction of Ålesund, now the country’s most important fishing harbour, or Haugesund, miles further south in that long western coast of Norway, near bays and inlets where the fish still thronged and swam.

The latter community had, for years, a herring barrel on its crest, accompanied by an anchor and three seagulls. This was in tribute to the thousands of barrels that were stacked upon that town’s quaysides, ready to be sent to places like Russia or even the Caribbean, where the British fed many of the people there with what the slave-owners termed "slave herring", a rich source of minerals and vitamin D for a population on the edge of hunger. The herring was stockpiled and distributed when a hurricane or other storm had destroyed their usual food of maize and plantains. It was not, however, doled out in vast quantities. In 1737, John Woolman writes how "in Barbadoes and some of the

other islands, six pints of Indian corn and three herrings, are reckoned a full week’s allowance for a working slave".

A taste for herring remains a small part of the Jamaican menu even today. It comes in the form of a fish paste based on smoked red herring they call Solomon Gundy. Minced and spiced with chilli pepper, its strange name may have come from the word "salmagundi", used by the British to describe a salad. There is also a suggestion that the dish’s title may have been derived from a nursery rhyme of similar name: Solomon Grundy.

An equivalent fare from Nova Scotia, which, unlike the Jamaican variety, only involved herring, pickle and onion, is said to be linked, too:

On Monday the Herring was caught, gutted and salted.

On Tuesday the Herring rested in salt.

On Wednesday the Herring was stripped and put in vinegar


On Thursday onions and spices were added to the Herring in brine.

On Saturday the Herring, onion, spices and brine were packed in bottles.

On Sunday the Herring was eaten and given away as gifts.

And that was the end of one tasty batch of Solomon Gundy.

No doubt Bob Marley and his contemporaries would have looked wryly at both this verse and the form of sustenance. Reflecting on it, he might have been inspired to write some of the lyrics of Them Belly Full, part of the repertoire of Legend, the reggae group that would stand on the open stage in Florø during the second night of the Herring Festival. Pointing at stouter, rounder men, they might have noted that the salt herring served on the street tables earlier was part of the diet of the hungry throughout the world. It united many who came to Florø that particular evening, linking the ancestors of those whose people came from the Caribbean with the ones who came from Scotland, the Irish

musicians with the Swedes and Danes among their audience. There was a good reason for this, though one now misted over and forgotten within our collective remembrance.

This is an edited extract from Herring Tales: How The Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste And History by Donald S Murray, published by Bloomsbury, £16.99. Donald Murray will be appearing at the Aye Write! festival on Sunday, March 13, at an event titled North Sea Tales