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British Fisheries Society

Loch Broom
[58.148713901218535, -5.242990586485739]
Siobhán Beatson
Ullapool Museum

The British Fisheries Society was established in 1786 as a joint stock company, to establish a profit making commercial venture. It was intended to be a national improvement scheme designed to establish new fishing settlements on the North and West coast of the Scottish Highlands, to provide jobs and homes for the displaced poor, shortly…

In total four ‘new towns’ were established with varying success. Lochbay in Skye was abandoned shortly after its creation due to a lack of interest in the crofting communities, Pulteneytown flourished but has now been absorbed into Wick, Tobermory was chosen due to having some of the ‘best natural harbours’ in Britain, and Ullapool, established in 1788, went through many years of plenty followed by crippling destitution.

Several factors made Lochbroom the prime choice for a settlement on the western coast; Lochinver did not have the land to support a large village, yet a large portion of land was available at Ullapool Farm. Settlements on Loch Ewe were not available to be sold, but as part of the annexed Cromarty estates, the Ullapool land could easily have been negotiated, and finally Lochbroom had been famed for the size of herring fishing for centuries with Dutch, French, English and Lowland Scottish fleets making their way to Lochbroom to catch herring since the late mediaeval period.

Great care was taken in the layout and planning of the new towns, David Aitken was initially employed by the British Fisheries Society to survey and plan Ullapool, until the second phase when Thomas Telford took over the process. They attempted to improve the quality of the accommodation by making them more hygienic.  Large kale yards and wide avenues were created to ensure that waste products could be disposed of further away from the houses. Houses had to be lime washed regularly to create mould and bacteria resistance and help limit the spread of damp.

However, there was severe criticism of how the British Fisheries Society conducted business in Ullapool. Sir George Steuart MacKenzie, 7th Baronet of Coul, gave a scathing account of their naivety in focusing too much on one industry, leaving the community destitute in the years the herring did not materialise. After several years of failed fishing, the British Fisheries Society eventually sold Ullapool to James Matheson, a business man from Lairg who had recently bought the island of Lewis. Although the British Fisheries Society permanently left Ullapool, the herring hadn’t and herring fishing remained one of the main industries in Ullapool well into the twentieth century.

 1 Daniel Maudlin,’Robert Mylne, Thomas Telford and the architecture of improvement: the planned villages of the British Fisheries Society, 1786-1817’, Urban History, Vol 34, (3), (2007), p. 453-4

2  James R Coull, The Settlements of the British Fisheries Society’, Landscapes, Vol. 2, (2005), p. 83-85.

3 Jean Dunlop, The British Fisheries Society 1786-1893, (Edinburgh, 1978), p. 35

4 George Steuart MacKenzie, General View of the Agriculture of the Counties of Ross and Cromarty: Drawn Up for the Consideration of the Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement, (London, 1813),p.  243-5