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The Story of Orkney Herring

Immortalised by fishermen as Silver Darlings, herring have been harvested from the waters around the Northern Isles since Viking times.

In days gone by, so many herring boats anchored in the sound between Stronsay and Papa Stronsay, you could walk from island to island – stepping from deck to deck – with no risk of getting your feet wet.

Those days were ended by the Second World War. They earned their own chapter in the history of Orkney's long links with the sea and they inspired Ken Sutherland to make the words Orkney and Herring synonymous once more.

As a former Merchant Navy captain, Ken is proud of his family's links with the men who set out in small boars in search of the silver darlings.

His great-grandfather, George Sutherland, was an engineer who returned from building railways in South Africa to oversee the construction of the pier in Stronsay where the fishing fleet landed their catch.

Ken and his father, Gordon Sutherland, often talked of the days when hundreds of fishermen braved the cold waters of the North Sea to bring in fish famed for their quality and flavour.

On a holiday together in a mountain hut in Norway, another link fell into place in the chain of events leading from the building of the Stronsay pier to the creation of the Orkney Herring Company.

Enjoying a glass of Aquavit, they sat down to a supper of marinated herring. The taste, virtually unknown in Britain at the time, was a revelation. The rest, as they say, is history.

Father and son were convinced that the herring they savoured – softly textured, delicately flavoured – would prove popular in the UK. Their enthusiasm persuaded a Danish Company to share the recipe with them.

Ken modified it to his own satisfaction and was delighted when his Danish friends conceded that he had improved the taste and texture. In 1987, he and his wife Mary established the Orkney Herring Company in Stromness, a historic port with strong ties to the pre-war herring era.

Now the final link in this story of fish and fishing fell into place. Ken's father was remembered fondly as a friend and neighbour by Tiny Morison, the legendary lady who landed Britain's heaviest fly-caught salmon. Caught in 1924 on the River Deveron in Abedeenshire, the giant fish weighed 61lb and was well over 4ft in length.

In her will, Mrs Morison left the mounted salmon – and a small inheritance – to Gordon Sutherland. The money was sufficient to get the Orkney Herring Company up and running and to this day, the record-breaking salmon is proudly displayed at the new headquarters in Stromness.

As the Company went from strength to strength, it developed new products using new ingredients like salmon, crayfish and scallops. That is reflected in the change of name to the Orkney Food Company – and in the move to new and bigger premises in Stromness.

But herring, sweet cured in Orkney to that secret recipe, will always be the mainstay of the business. A tradition, forged over 10 centuries ago by Viking fishermen, remains as strong today as ever.

And if you ask Ken Sutherland why Orkney Herring have proved so successful, he has a simple – and typically modest – answer.

The real secret," he says, "is that people seem to like them".