This group exhibition of newly commissioned work by young Scottish artists took the Herring Road as a basis for exploration, looking at the changing cultural geography of the region. The way we use the landscape has changed dramatically over the last century, and a walk once considered ordinary now represents an extraordinary feat of endurance and strength for the fishwives.

While researching for this exhibition, a group from the gallery, including all three artists, walked the Herring Road on 21-22 May. In the modern world, we have a very different conception of distance, and far less awareness of the journey that food takes to our plate.

The Herring Road stretches 29 miles from Dunbar to Lauder, an ancient route across the Lammermuirs once walked by fishwives with creels of salted herring on their backs. Once in Lauder, they would sell or trade their catch at market, before making the arduous return journey. Records of inland trade in fish go back as far as the middle of the 17th century, when as many as 20 000 people gathered in Dunbar for the herring fishery. Over the centuries, the Crown and, later, the Government, sought to encourage fisheries, with varying degrees of success. They granted licenses to catch and market fish and provided bounties for boat-building. From the 18th century, they also provided bounties for the curing of herring.

The Herring Road is one of several ‘creel paths’ in Scotland: trade routes for fish catches that were, to begin with, only passable on foot. While contemporary written references to the Herring Road route itself are scant, there is substantial historic evidence of the strong herring industry and its evolution over time. The lack of written documentation also reflects the lack of formal education among fisher folk prior to the 19th century, as well as the everyday nature of such a walk: it was not a story to tell.   

The industry changed in the 19th century – previously, the herring catch had been seasonal, but with increasing government support, boats and crews followed the fish from port to port, fisher lasses moving with them, gutting and packing the fish at the harbour. By the early 1800s some 30,000 boats were operating off the East Coast, serving both the local market and the continent, where herring was a delicacy. It was during this period that methods of transport changed: aided by the new railways, it was possible to get fish to market in major cities far more swiftly. The Herring Road, like so many creel paths, then became an historic route: defunct due to the newly aggressive fishing industry with its developing technologies and fast transport.   

Ross Combe recently graduated from Grays School of Art and is based in Dunbar. Ross walked blindfolded along a stretch of the Herring Road as part of his research for this exhibition. With a deep family heritage in the fishing community of Dunbar as well as the surrounding farming and mining settlements, Ross Combe is highly sensitive to the social and environmental dynamics at play in this part of the world. As a sculpture graduate, his work draws heavily on mythological and historical references in order to activate his often deliberately mundane and reductive actions.  These acts, whether they form the process of his art-making or the product itself, are dependent on his physical and mental endurance as he transcends his confines via conscious vulnerability and surrender to the elements.  In this way, he seeks to embody a universal experience, focusing on the ephemeral and transient, giving substance to things sensed but unseen.

Julia Douglas is a textile and mixed media visual artist based in East Lothian. Julia has exhibited extensively over the past eleven years, most recently in a solo exhibition called Close-Knit at Timespan in Sutherland. Julia’s triptych is entitled ‘A Fishwife’s Tail: West, South and East’, reflecting her long-standing interest in textiles. Julia started with the traditional and distinctive outfits that the fishwives wore - in particular, their striped double-layered skirts. Christie Johnstone brilliantly described these garments in 1853:

'On their heads they wear caps of Dutch or Flemish origin, with a broad lace border, stiffened and arched over the forehead, about three inches high, leaving the brow and cheeks unencumbered. They have cotton jackets, bright red and yellow, mixed in pattern, confined at the waist; short woollen petticoats, with broad vertical stripes, red and white, most vivid in colour; white worsted stockings, and neat though high-quartered shoes. Under their jackets they wear a thick spotted cotton handkerchief, about one inch of which is visible round the lower part of the throat. Of their petticoats, the outer one is kilted, or gathered up towards the front, and the second, of the same colour, hangs in the usual way.’

Extract from Groomes Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland c.1895

Julia has explored the two layered skirt, with the upper layer tucked up to form a pocket (as well as to reveal its striped lining), which may well have been used by the women whilst selling the herring or bartering them for meal and eggs, and which is similar in functionality to a traditional Jacobite kilt. Julia explores the beauty and functionality of these garments in three reductive studies, highlighting the mysterious and poetic qualities of historic costume.  

Wounded Knee is Drew Wright, a singer and experimental vocalist based in Glasgow. Drawing from a variety of influences Drew’s music ranges from stripped down folk balladry to abstract improvised vocals. The subtleties of the sound recordings which Drew took on the walk were marred by the relentless wind, and so using a mix of this and other sources, he has weaved together a more poetic ‘soundscape’, mixing field recordings, re-workings of folk songs and some original compositions of his own. Additionally he has created a visual accompaniment to the sound using maps, tweed and found objects such as sheep’s fleece and pinecones gathered along the way.

Drew was fascinated by the speculation and conjecture which haunt the Herring Road: “Did they or didn’t they?” was a keenly debated question as we walked the road ourselves. Today we tend to walk such long distances for leisure and pleasure, not through economic necessity. Drew explores the notion that in the absence of any living personal testimony we are left with the folklore, which is in itself powerful enough to stir the poetic imagination and to create a kind of reality of remembrance.