Herring are, it turns out, rather fascinating. There are more varieties than you might imagine, all with their own territories and ways of negotiating the oceans.
Such tales only get you so far, of course, so Murray sensibly focuses on how herring have shaped the cultural history of human beings. We learn about the ways herring fishing has influenced art, dialect, local ceremonies, and song. Herring are, says Murray, a source of ancestry and identity and I buy the idea that, at least sometimes, ‘we eat to remind us who we are’. It is therefore a shame that the days when herring ‘thronged the North Atlantic’ are behind us: pre-World War I Scottish harbours receiving two to three million barrels of herring every year are now a distant memory. How we deal with the present situation is therefore key and Murray has some sharp words about current international fishing policies: he understands the problem but is against overly draconian legislation.
But this is a cheerful book. Murray comes from a place that still contains ‘the spirit of the herring trade’ and his research has uncovered some gems. Scottish suitors of old didn’t bother with roses: they impressed their girlfriends with herring. More recently, the music of the Rolling Stones was used to scare shoals of herring out of a Scandinavian fjord. Well, I certainly got satisfaction from this charming book.
HERRING TALES: How the Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste and History by Donald S. Murray; Bloomsbury Natural History; £16.99 (hardback)
This review was published in the November 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine.