"The Salt Roads: How Fish Made a Culture" by John Goodlad is the fascinating and beautifully written history of the impact of the salt fish caught and preserved by Shetland's fishermen on Shetland itself: and on parts of the wider world too. Histories can come in many shapes and sizes, and they can assume many different styles. "The Salt Roads" feels as authoritative and superbly researched as you'd expect and hope for from an author who was the CEO of the Shetland Fisherman's Association for many years and has been a fish farmer and an adviser to national and international seafood organisations and companies.
But knowing about a subject and being able to communicate about it in a way that will appeal to a broad audience can sometimes be rather different things. There's no such problem here. John Goodlad's approach to the story of salt fish and Shetland feels rather like a masterclass in how to make history approachable, accessible, readable and entertaining.
It is also dramatic and compelling, largely because of the author's use of individual accounts - sometimes real and sometimes necessarily reconstructed by the author - to bring vividly to life what it was like to be struck by a violent Atlantic storm, or to hunt for cod off Fair Isle or in the Faroe Islands or off Greenland. He also draws extensively on his own experiences of places that feature in the book, especially the Faroes; and on lessons learned by those who have built replicas of craft associated with catching and salting fish. This is a book we'd highly recommend to anyone who's ever been enthralled by a harbour and its fishing boats; and in particular to anyone with an interest in Shetland.
You get a broader feel for the contents of the book from the publisher's blurb: "The salt fish industry powered the economy of Shetland for more than two hundred years, and herring and cod from here was a staple food throughout Europe. This book tells the extraordinary story of Shetland’s most enduring export. It ranges from the wild waters of the North Atlantic and the remote ice filled fjords of west Greenland to the Basque country, from the fishing grounds of Iceland to the Jewish shtetls of Poland and from the mountains of Faroe to the flat coastline of the Netherlands. In addition to the economy, fishing has permeated the culture of Europe and has inspired artists, musicians, film makers and writers. Their work is effortlessly woven into the book, presenting the salt fish trade through a different lens. As well as following the historical thread and exploring how very different cultures were drawn together by the salt fish trade, John Goodlad meets those whose lives revolve around the industry in the twenty-first century and addresses today’s pressing themes of sustainability, climate change and food choices."