The Sked Barrows

21 06 2015

The visit to Stornoway of the RAF’s Red Arrows Display Team has reminded us of the long forgotten Sked Barrows Display Team which used to grace manys a Carnival and County Show in the 1920’s.

A ‘sked’ of course, is Stornowegian for ‘herring’. The herring industry in Stornoway was hard work. Although it made a name for the town, the work involved was difficult, labour intensive, back breaking, prone to accidents involving sharp gutting knives and very very smelly.

The working day was long and conditions were poor and so the workforce had to turn to various means of passing the time and taking their minds off the daily drudgery (except Sundays). Some of the Herring Gyurls would pass the time in song, the carters would recite scripture and the skiving bleigards would play cards under the pier.

One way of passing the time and making a long day more bearable was devised by the enterprising youths of Stornoway who were tasked to transport the fish guts in large wooden barrows from the pier to Tigh na Guts.

The young boys would shovel up fish heads and fish guts from the pier into large wooden barrows. They would then skilfully negotiate the rows of barrels and weave in and out of carts and wagons, and make their way to the Gut Factory.

To pass the time the boys would show off their skills with their barrows, dodging through tight spaces, running up and down ramps and criss-crossing each other as they did so. The blood from the various fish parts soon stained the barrows red and the sight of bright red barrows zooming around the pier soon became a common sight.

So much so, that at the 1910 Stornoway Carnival Procession, the boys were asked to join the parade as a mark of how appreciated their work was. The boys bedecked their barrows with bunting and decorative fish heads and dressed up in their finest bobban chumpers. They decided to call themselves The Sked Barrows for the Parade.

They formed up behind the Stornoway Guild of Fishbox Artificers (with their float ‘Kaiser Bill’s A Big Bleigard’) and just in front of the Honourable Association of Dawn Squaders (with their float ‘Pile of Empties’). Just before they set off, the Parade Marshall went round and told all the floats that smoking was strictly forbidden. The Sked Barrows hastily removed their Woodbines from their mouths and cunningly attached them, still lit, to the handles of their barrows.

And so the Carnival Parade set off along South Beach and towards Castle Street. Just past No2 Pier, a sudden gust of wind from the harbour flared up the smouldering fags and set fire to the trailing bunting on each of the barrows. The bunting, seeped in herring blood and guts, gave off a variety of colourful (and pungent) smoke.

Instead of causing alarm and consternation, the brightly coloured smoke added to the occasion and the appreciative applause and shouts of the crowd urged the Sked Barrows to start doing all sorts of twists, turns, leaps and lurches. This proved so popular that the Sked Barrows were asked to do an impromptu display of their dexterity on Cromwell St.

The Gazette featured them on the front page the following Thursday and this helped cement their place in Stornoway legend. The Sked Barrows appeared on many occasions over the next four years; at Carnivals, Village Fetes, Highland Games, Funerals and Orduighean. They came up with ever more exciting routines and were able to the best barrows money could buy.

But the shadow of war was lurking behind the fame and fortune they had found. Shortly after War was declared, a visiting Colonel spotted the boys doing a display outside the Clachan and immediately thought of a way they could help the British war effort. As well as helping shift dirt from the trenches at the Front Line, the Sked Barrows could also help boost the troops’ morale. The boys were of course full of patriotic enthusiasm and signed up right away. They were formed up in a special unit called The Ross Mountain Barrowy and were given armour plated khaki barrows.

Soon the gallant bravery of the Sked Barrows was known along the whole of the Western Front. Between them, the 20 coves from Stornoway and their barrows had dug out most of the trenches in France. Their fascinating displays had entertained thousands of troops and all the boys had their chests bedecked with medals.

However, the Germans had noticed them too. A fierce rivalry arose between the Germans’ crack Barrow Squad led by the infamous Red Barrow, Manfred Von Richthovansnahovano. His barrow of choice was a red Fleekker Triwheel and he had the reputation of having the most ‘digs’ of any German barrow operative.

The Sked Barrows’ ongoing struggle with the Red Barrow caught the imaginations of the troops and the British public. Many of the boys acquired nicknames reflecting their fishing backgrounds, including Big Gills, Algae and carrot-topped barrow-fixing expert The Bodach Ruadh. Local Stornoway butcher Willie E. Johns also wrote several books based around the exploits of the Sked Barrows, including:

Big Gills and the loose handle Big Gills at the Front (of the barrow) Big Gills Spills His guts Big Gills Cacs His Drarsh

The demise of the Herring fishery ended the Sked Barrows’ domination of the world of fish barrowbatics, and it was left to other nations to take up the baton. America’s Blue (Sea)Anglers team remain a force to be reckoned with today, as do Italy’s dashing Pesce Tricolori.

Sadly the once-mighty Russians have dropped off a bit since the days of the Cold War, when the crews of visiting Soviet klondykers would astound the crowds at Number 2 pier by performing 90-second vertical handle stands while barrowing 5 cran of mackerel at a time in their top secret MoG-29s.

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