Teams of knitters from across the North East will send a strange vessel down the east coast of England to celebrate the “unsung heroines” of the fishing trade.
The Follow the Herring project will retrace the steps of fish gutters and packers who followed the herring fleets every year from Scotland to the Kentish coast.
The “herring lassies” – who could still be spotted in North Shields in the 1960s – were up at the crack of dawn to gut, salt, sort and pack at a speed of 60 herring a minute.
The project’s artistic director Fiona MacPherson said: “This was a group of strong, independent women whose stories we may not have heard before, who were crucial to getting this fish out into the local and international economy.
“They were migrant workers – they would leave one fishing village and arrive on the train on the Friday night at another, following the route of the herring during the spring, summer and autumn.”
In researching the project, MacPherson even found she had an ancestor in the trade: Maggie MacPherson, who had children but was never married.
She said: “Herring lassies travelled in groups and worked together, so she felt she didn’t need to be part of another economic unit. There was a sense of financial independence and, with that, a sense of freedom that these women had.”
The festival will follow their route through Berwick, Hartlepool, Hull, and Margate to Hastings, stopping in South Shields on May 19.
Local folk will load up the boat with knitted herring at every stage, while community choirs are learning songs based on traditional shanties sung by the women as they worked.
The songs will form part of play by Ann Coburn called Get Up and Tie Your Fingers – named for the call-to-work of the lassies who wrapped their hands in cloth bandages called “cloots” in case their knives slipped in the briny mess. The women worked in threes to gut and pack up to 100,000 herrings a day in spiral tiers.
As they worked they would sing, often in their native Gaelic, and guest houses would force them to stay in separate rooms because of the almighty stink they brought in.
The trade died out in the 1960s when herring stocks began to dwindle, making the “lassies” obsolete.
Ms MacPherson said: “This is about putting women’s voices, women’s stories, centre stage, and we’re getting a sense of how those communities developed down the coast.
“The language and the accents will change, but the stories will be similar.”