Scots like to smoke or salt them. The Dutch love them raw. Swedes look on with relish as they open bulging, foul-smelling cans to find them curdling within. Jamaicans prefer them with a dash of chilli pepper. Germans and the English enjoy their taste best when accompanied by pickle's bite and brine.
Throughout the long centuries men have fished around their coastlines and beyond, the herring has done much to shape both human taste and history. Men have co-operated and come into conflict over its shoals, setting out in boats to catch them, straying, too, from their home ports to bring full nets to shore. Women have also often been at the centre of the industry, gutting and salting the catch when the annual harvest had taken place, knitting, too, the garments fishermen wore to protect them from the ocean's chill.
Following a journey from the western edge of Norway to the east of England, from Shetland and the Outer Hebrides to the fishing ports of the Baltic coast of Germany and the Netherlands, culminating in a visit to Iceland's Herring Era Museum, Donald S. Murray has stitched together tales of the fish that was of central importance to the lives of our ancestors, noting how both it – and those involved in their capture – were celebrated in the art, literature, craft, music and folklore of life in northern Europe. Blending together politics, science, history, religious and commercial life, Donald contemplates, too, the possibility of restoring the silver darlings of legend to these shores.
Donald S. Murray comes from Ness at the northern tip of the Isle of Lewis and now lives in close proximity to 'the Ness' at the southern end of Shetland. His poetry and prose is often about islands and the wildlife on and around them. The Gannet features strongly in his prose accounts, The Guga Hunters and Praising The Guga, books inspired by the men who hunt the guga (or young Gannets) each year on Sulasgeir, which is off the north-east coast of Lewis. Gannets also feature in his wonderfully eclectic collection of prose and poems, The Guga Stone; Lies, Legends And Lunacies Of St Kinda, illustrated by his friend and collaborator, Doug Robertson. The Guga Stone was shortlisted as one of The Guardian's nature books of the year in 2013.
"The story is told with great charm, and tinged with a spirit of loss and yearning. [...] Herring Tales offers a fascinating view of the coastal cultures of northern Europe, of how a 12-inch fish has affected human activity there for hundreds of years."
– Philip Marsden, The Spectator
"Murray's account of the herring industry has almost as many facets as his slippery subjects have scales [...] and offers fillets of history, culture and zoology, with an emphasis on the eclectic. [...] Mr Murray is a gregarious and engaging raconteur as he flips between the diverse aspects of this versatile little creature."
– The Economist
"It's a fascinating book and worth a read."
– The Glasgow Herald (magazine)
"Like the herring, this is a book that darts across time and oceans. It gleams with story. A wonderful read."
– Sally Magnusson
"[Murray's] book defies genre, taking us into history and memoir, geography, environmental science, and the realms of spirit. [...] Herring Tales is the story of close-knit communities based around a particular kind of fishing, a world that is both present and, alas, fading. I strongly recommend this eloquent and finely detailed book. [...] Donald S. Murray takes us to places we've never been before as he explores the world of herring in a sweet, pellucid, often poetic prose that shimmers with what he calls "the gleam and turmoil in water" – a sign that shoals are near."
– Jay Parini