Siglufjörður - The herring girl

Can you imagine working as a herring girl?
Listen to a story from Birna Björnsdóttir who started working as a herring girl on her 7th birthday.

In the player below you can listen to the story as well as it is available in writing further down the page.
The story is read by Birna Pétursdóttir.


"My name is Birna Björnsdóttir and I’m 77 years old. On my 7th birthday my dream came true when I was permitted to go with my mother to work and help her salt herring in barrels. As little girls we practiced arranging clothes pegs in Mackintosh boxes – we were so excited about taking part!

I was so small that I couldn’t reach into the herring barrels. Therefore, I stood on a salt box, my mum filled the bottom half of the barrel and then I took over. She taught me the procedure. On that first day, I nicked my mum’s knife while she was on a coffee break. She was not happy when she realised what I had done. But she was quick to notice that I knew how to work the knife and after that she found it hard to forbid me to it.
I was crazy about herring and I still am!

I never thought summer had truly arrived until the first herring boats came – then the town became crowded with all kinds of people. Most of the women in town worked as herring girls in the summer. The town was bustling and it didn’t hurt that it filled up with lots of handsome boys, too. It was such a fun time. Yes, we worked a lot – my longest shift was 36 hours! I had in fact planned to work 48 hours straight and my dad had a hard time dragging me home. We simply had so much fun. We went dancing, and we sang and danced every evening and into the night.

When the boats sailed into the harbour with the herring we had to be prepared to start working. The “call boys”, who were 11 or 12 years old, were tasked with waking us up when the boats came in. They walked between houses and knocked on the bedroom windows. Sometimes we were at the middle of a dance when the horns sounded and we had to go back to work. We just changed from our party dresses to work suits. We never worked by the clock and of course there were no telephones at that time.

I lived on the outskirts of town, some distance away from the salting station, so I kept my party dress at my friend’s house which was closer to the centre. Immediately after work I would go to her place, take off the boots, shower and put on the party dress. We walked along the streets in our heels and danced and enjoyed ourselves…

I love herring and I have been crazy about it all my life, and I still am. It is so much fun to participate in the herring shows organised by the Herring Era Museum in the summer—I have been involved in that for 30 years. Then we salt the herring, sing and dance and have fun, just like in the old days.

Even though I’ve turned 77, I’m in good health and for that I am thankful. I never suffered from back pain and I believe that the herring work has helped keep me in good shape. My only ailment is that one of my knees has become weak – I’m convinced that it’s because I’ve danced so much in my lifetime!"