Big Fish, Little Fish..Medieval and Post-Medieval Fishing in the Northern Isles


Research conducted by Dr. Jen Harland provides a background to the excavations being undertaken at Swandro on Rousay this month. There are still opportunities to get involved in the dig and workshops by e mailing Sean at

Fish Remains from Quoygrew
Figure 1: Fish remains from Quoygrew, large cod family remains typical of the 11th – 13th centuries.

The ‘fish event horizon’ of c. 1000 AD is well recognised within the zooarchaeological record of the Northern Isles, and is matched by the human isotopic record which indicates marine protein consumption peaked between the 11th-13th centuries. The Late Norse focus on fishing for large cod family fish (Fig. 1) only lasted for a few centuries. This ongoing research explores what happened afterwards, using the fish assemblages from 3 recent excavations at Quoygrew, Skaill and Stacklebrae.

Where are the Herring Bones?

Stackelbrae and Skaill Farm are contemporary with Orkney’s herring industry, yet herring bones are absent. Herring survive well and are found in substantial quantities in other sites, so their absence cannot be attributed to taphonomic patterning. Instead, it would appear that they were either too valuable as an export, or they were simply not liked.

Herring are also absent from Viking Age and Late Norse sites in Orkney (Harland 2006), despite their contemporary popularity in other parts of the Norse North Atlantic. Historical records show the Dutch fishing for herring around Orkney’s waters, as seen in Adriaen Coenen’s Fishbook from 1580. Herring are notoriously difficult to predict and they spoil easily, so it is possible that they were deliberately avoided in Orkney, an avoidance that carried on into the recent past.

Big Cod to Small Saithe

Changing proportion of cod and sitheQuoygrew was the first site to produce a substantial quantity of well-sieved, stratified fish remains from the 15th and 16th centuries in Orkney. Unlike earlier centuries, cod (Gadus morhua) was found in very small quantities; most of the fish bones found were now saithe (Pollachius virens). The remains from Quoygrew showed a considerable shift in fish sizes too: the big fish of >80cm total length no longer dominated. Instead, these saithe were smaller, most being less than 50cm total length. The smaller size and change from cod to saithe indicates a shift in fishing grounds, from deeper, open-water fishing to shallow in-shore or shore-based fishing.

How typical were these deposits? Why had the inhabitants of Quoygrew turned away from the sea? Were there even any big fish left in the sea?

Initial excavations at Skaill Farm, Rousay involved the local community. The excavations continue this week.

Two small-scale excavations provided fish assemblages to help explore these questions. Stackelbrae was initially a high status settlement in the 15th to 17th centuries, before becoming an ordinary farm. The fish from Skaill Farm bring the chronological range into the 19th century. The assemblage from Stackelbrae in the 15th to mid-17th centuries indicated some deeper water fishing for cod was still taking place. This can be directly attributed to status: they had the resources to acquire or undertake targeted fishing for larger cod, but on a much reduced scale. However, from the mid-17th century this fishery had ceased. Cod and Saithe sizes and proportions through time, all sieved to greater than 2mmChanging Saithe sizes through time

The Rise of ‘Sillocks’ and ‘Piltocks’: the Small Saithe Fishery

Fish remains from Stacklbrae.
Figure 2: Fish remains from Stackelbrae, small saithe typical of subsistence diet in the recent past.

By the mid 17th century, saithe dominate assemblages entirely (Figure 2). Caught from small boats in-shore, or from the shore, they were an important part of the diet of ordinary Orcadians until the early 20th century (Fenton 1978). Their value extended beyond food: their livers were rendered down for oil, for lighting and for trade.

Why did the Northern Isles Turn Away from Open Water Sea Fishing?

Intensive fishing for large cod family fish peaked during the 11th -13th centuries AD. By the 15th century, ‘ordinary’ sites no longer had any large cod bones. Vestiges of the large cod family fishery are found at the high status site of Stackelbrae during this time, but by the mid-17th century, almost all fish remains found in Orkney are small saithe. Overfishing was not responsible – historical sources indicate there were plenty of big fish available (Barry 1805). So why do we see these shifts?

  • Orkney and Shetland were no longer preferred suppliers of preserved cod – the Newfoundland markets took over (Barrett et al. 2011)
  • Orkney became part of Scotland in 1468 and turned away from the Nordic maritime-oriented societies of the North Atlantic (Thomson 2001)
  • Environmental decline associated with the end of the medieval climate anomaly made the seas more stormy and fishing more risky (Oram 2014)
  • The Black Death ‘ravaged’ the islands in 1349 (Thomson 2001)
  • Shetland’s haf fishery for large cod and ling developed in the 18th century (Goodlad 1971) and similar fisheries developed in Orkney in the 19th century, but these early commercial fisheries are not yet recognised archaeologically and may be of limited local dietary impact.

Acknowledgements: ORCA excavated Stackelbrae and provided unpublished information; Historic Scotland funded the fish analysis. Excavations at Skaill Farm on Rousay were funded by Orkney Islands Council Archaeology fund, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the British Academy.


Barrett, JH, D Orton, C Johnstone, J Harland et al. 2011. ‘Interpreting the expansion of sea fishing in medieval Europe using stable isotope analysis of archaeological cod bones’, J. of Arch. Sci. 38: 1516-1524

Barry, G. 1805. The History of the Orkney Islands. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Company

Fenton, A. 1978. The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. Phantassie (East Linton): Tuckwell Press

Goodlad, C.A. 1971. Shetland Fishing Saga. Lerwick: Shetland Times Limited

Harland, JF. 2006. ‘Zooarchaeology in the Viking Age to Medieval Northern Isles, Scotland: An investigation of spatial and temporal patterning’, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of York

Harland, JF and JH Barrett. 2012. ‘The Maritime Economy: Fish Bone’ in Barrett, J. (ed.) Being an Islander. Production and Identity at Quoygrew, Orkney, AD 900-1600. Cambridge: MacDonald, 115-138 Thomson, WPL. 2001. The New History of Orkney. Edinburgh: Mercat Press Oram, R. 2014. “The worst disaster suffered by the people of Scotland in recorded history’: climate change, dearth and pathogens in the long 14th century’. Proc. Soc. Ants. Scot.144: 223-244