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Celtic Cookery : Herring Soup

According to the 1881 Household Cyclopedia herring soup is a thick mix of water, barley-meal and red herring. There are several versions of this soup on other countries. Hereby the Welsh and Scottish as well.

It is now accepted and sufficiently proved that the Romans were practically unacquainted with the herring as an article of food; and even granted they should have employed a few boats occasionally on the east coast of England, from the Wash down to the Thames, it was not likely that they would fit up a regular annual fleet of smacks for following the herring fishery on the coast of Norfolk on an economic basis. Their boats were otherwise employed for purposes of commerce and naval requirements, and it is not to be supposed that the British coast tribes dared, or had the means of getting together an efficient fishing fleet; and we must not forget the great peril and insecurity, even in Roman times, of the eastern and southern shore attached in any such attempt, due to the frequent piratical attacks and incursions which required the constant watch of the Count of the Saxon shore to stem the inroads of the streams of continental marauders.

It is only when the Anglo-Saxons had got a firm foothold on British soil that the herring fishery began slowly to develop, and Swinden thinks that it must have been soon after the landing of Cedric in 495. Great Yarmouth is said to have been the resort of fishermen during the herring season, as early as the 6th Century, carried on by no other methods than drift nets. In early times the fishery was principally confined to the great rivers and estuaries, such, for instance, as the Thames and the Severn, and probably it was then the Shad the natives fished. The shads differ from other members of the herring family in their habit of ascending in big shoals some of our rivers in the Spring in order to deposit their spawn in fresh water. They are similar in appearance to the common herring, and from their larger size are called by fishermen "The mother of herrings." "The king or queen of herrings." Before the erection of weirs at Worcester and other places, shad used to ascend the river about middle of April.

The Anglo-Saxon name sceadd is probably derived in the first instance from the Britons, and from the Irish scaoth, scaoith, =a swarm, multitude; Gaelic sgaoth -a, shoal. When the Britons became seafishers they encountered a smaller form, similar in appearance to their shad, which they called sgathan, ysqgaden, Welsh; sgadan, Irish and Gaelic; skeddan, Manx, or the little shad.

The Celtic fishermen have clung to the name sgadan, while the Angles, Saxons and Frisians, who bad been great sea-fishers long before the Britons ventured on high sea fishing, brought their native name with them, calling it haering, and=hâring =herring, pointing to heri=an army (in consequence of their appearance in great shoals or swarms).

The herring does not descend beyond Normandy, and the French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italians, adopted therefore the current Anglo-Saxon name.

Another name for the herring is sild, used specifically by the Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and the Icelanders.

We thus see what an interesting light is thrown on the history and development of ancient fishing and fishery right, even by a philological examination of the various names for the herring.

Welsh Herring Soup (Cawl Penwaig)


4 herring, cleaned and boned
2 small onions, finely chopped
2 leeks, finely sliced
2 carrots, finely diced
40g butter
600ml water
60ml cider
salt and black pepper, to taste


To bone the herring, gut and clean the fish cut off the heads and remove the scales. Open the belly of the fish and place belly down on a work surface. Using your fist or a rolling pin hit the fish three or four times sharply on the back. The fish will flatted out and the backbone will be exposed. Turn the fish over and remove the backbone and as many pin bones as you can.

Add the butter to a large saucepan or stock pot and use to fry the carrots, leeks and onion gently until they begin to colour. Cut the fish into 2cm portions and add to the pan. Fry for 1 minute then add all the remaining ingredients. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce to a simmer then cook for 30 minutes.

Adjust the seasonings then serve in warmed bowls.

Scottish Herring Soup

2 small onions, finely chopped.
4 herrings, cleaned and boned.
1 oz butter.
2 oz mushrooms.
14 oz can tomatoes.
1 pint water.
3 tablespoons malt vinegar.
Salt and pepper.


Cut the herrings into 1/2 inch pieces and add with other
ingredients to water. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 30 minutes until onions are ready.

Alexander Fenton in Scottish Country Life describes the delights of a meal of herrings and potatoes when cooked in the traditional Shetland manner, in a kail-pot over the open fire, with the herrings laid over the potatoes. Nutritionally, too, this is a meal which could scarcely be bettered.

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