Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Fisher Folk(lore)

The coastal communities of Angus, as in other places, long had their own customs, beliefs and superstitions, some of which were widespread among fisher communities and others which were peculiarly local.  In 1790 the minister of Arbirlot wrote that, ‘The sea-gulls are considered ominous.  When they appear in the fields, a storm from the south-east generally follows; and when the storm begins to abate, they fly back to the shore.’  But in neighbouring Arbroath the gulls were considered harmless and were called Swankie’s Doos.  The surname Swankie was common in the town and the nickname may originate in some long-forgotten jibe about one of the family.  Another theory states that the saying is linked particularly to one Betsy Swankie, a larger-than-life character in the Fit o’ The Toon at Arbroath.  This lady was prominent in the fish merchant firm of Swankie & Smith in the 1920s.  Her influence was so powerful that it was rumoured the seagulls were in her employment, hence the nickname – perhaps. (Another bird with an odd nom-de-plumage (!) was the stormy petrel, known in Angus and indeed elsewhere as Mother Carey’s Chicken, a baffling nickname which originated in the 18th century.)

  The puzzling fear of pigs among seafarers was widespread in northern Scotland and certainly common among Angus sea-folk.  Arbroath and Auchmithie crews would turn back home if some evil person placed a piece of pork on their vessel (as reported by J. M. McBain in Arbroath, Past and Present (1887)):  ‘those on board would return to land without shooting their nets rather than proceed with their fishing with the hated junk aboard.’

   Another ‘ill-fitted’ creature was the humble pigeon.  Andrew Douglas, a 19th century schoolteacher at Ferryden, was told by a returning boat crew that they had not shot their lines that day because a pigeon had landed on their boat.  Douglas scoffed at their credulity, but a crew member addressed him angrily:  ‘It’s easy for you to speak there; but, had we no’ turned in time, ye’d ne’er seen halt nor hair o’ our boat’s lines; we’d been i’ the boddom o’ the sea...’  The exhausted pigeon had landed on the mast after being chased by a hawk.  One of the men attempted to dash its brains out in his presence, but the bird flew off.  One of the crew, splendidly nicknamed Jimacks called after it, ‘Ye unearthly creature, may ye get better rest, and ne’er be see there agin, fearin’ fowk to death afore their time...This fleg’ll no be frae my heart tis twalmonth...Gudekeeps a’ frae seein’ unearthly sights – they’re nae couthie.’  Another strongly held belief in Ferryden was that no boat must go out fishing on Christmas Day.  One boat had done so on one occasion and it caught only one haddock – and that fish had no eyes.  If there was a theft in the community the older residents could divine the guilty party by opening the Bible at random and placing some keys in different directions upon it.  The letters of the words the keys pointed to were compared with the initials of villagers, and if they matched they pronounced guilty.  The custom was still prevalent when Douglas was writing, in 1855 (when he published his book, The History of the Village of Ferryden).

   Although many of the community were illiterate in the 1820s when Douglas became the schoolteacher, both education and religious gradually civilise the village to the extent that it became a fervent hotspot for the Free Church in the 1850s. But the extraordinary religious revival in Ferryden which came to a peak at the end of that decade was described by more urbane (and urban) observers as a 'vortex of mad excitement' and 'the result of mental derangement', in other words merely a more respectable continuation of fisher-folks' inbred inferior superstition. The temperance movement also all but eradicated the once rampant drunkenness and put out of business most of the six dram sops which once operated in the village.   But the economics of those who were reliant on the selling of fish, in particular the cadgers who carried the catch inland and sold it, necessitated a manner of life which did not accord with Victorian civility.  ‘I am no admirer of the cadger profession,’ Douglas wrote.  ‘A more undeserving class are not to be met with; and the filth, squalor, savagery, cheating, and lying with which they have become associated in the minds of all, will not be palliated by me.  I have seen much of their cruelty to their poor dumb beasts, and little of their good dispositions to any one, unless their indirect services to the whisky shops be regarded as coming under that head.’
   The historian A. J. Warden, whose 5 volume Angus or Forfarshire appeared in the 1880s, had a poor opinion of the fisher communities in his own county. ‘The population composing these assemblages of fishers,’ Warden considered, were,’...rude and uncouth in their manners.’  And he was at pains to point out that these coastal communities were different not only in their speech but also alien in their customs, for they almost invariably married among themselves.  ‘Indeed so clannish are the fishers of each village that they seldom go even to neighbouring fishing communities for spouses.  It is a common saying among fishers “we’ll keep our ain fish-guts to our ain goo-maws.”  The affect of so much intermarrying is to degenerate the race, and in most of the fishing villages there are generally a proportion of the inhabitants affected with scrofula or other diseases, and several having a weak intellect.’  In common with outside observers from other parts of Scotland, Warden believed that the quaint and distinct manners of these fringe societies could be explained by the supposition that the coastal populations were the descendants of Dutch or Flemish people who had settled in Scotland centuries before.  This theory was also common in other regions and is likely an erroneous explanation of the perceived ‘other-ness’ of the fishing villages.

   In Warden’s opinion the most picturesque fishing village in the county was Auchmithie, near Arbroath.  This was the model for Walter Scott’s village of ‘Mussel-Craig’ in his novel The Antiquary.  Another author enamoured of Auchmithie was James Glass Bertram, who featured the Angus settlement in his book The Harvest of the Sea (1885).  Despite a prevailing Victorian prejudice against fisher folk, Bertram acknowledged the charming politeness of the wee girls when they met incomers visiting them:

...they invariably stoop down, making a very low curtsey, and for this piece of polite condescension they expect that a few halfpence will be thrown to them. If you pass on without noticing them they will not ask for anything, but once throw them a few halfpence and a pocketful will be required to satisfy their importunities.

   Bertram also noted the ingenious manner of smoking fish practised at Auchmithie, which the inhabitants would soon bring to Arbroath and popularise as the now-famous Arbroath Smokie:

Their peculiar way of smoking their haddocks may be taken as a very good example of their other modes of industry. Instead of splitting the fish after cleaning them, as the regular curers do, they smoke them in their round shape. They use a barrel without top or bottom as a substitute for a curing house. The barrel being inserted a little distance in the ground, an old kail-pot or kettle, filled with sawdust, is placed at the bottom, and the inside is then filled with as many fish as can conveniently be hung in it. The sawdust is then set fire to, and a piece of canvas thrown over the top of the barrel: by this means the females of Auchmithie smoke their haddocks in a round state, and very excellent they are when the fish are caught in season.

   But even a casual look through the records will reveal the harsh realities of the fishing life in terms of fishermen lost at sea.  Three brothers, surnamed Spink, were drowned off Red Head, to the north of the village in June 1814, along with a man named Eaton.  Seven years later there was another tragedy, where another three Spink brothers were lost, along with two men from the Cargill family.  Yet another unfortunate Spink lost his life in 1836, along with another four Auchmithie men.  Again, in 1876, there was further loss of life when the Aberdeen steamer ‘Queen’ collided with local fishing boat ‘David and Ann’, killing one fisherman.  Further local men were killed in 1888 and again in 1918.

[Fairly recent works detailing specific coastal communities in Angus - Panbride and Usan - are the fine studies by David G. Angus, as pictured below.  Those who wish to research further afield could root out Peter F. Ansom’s classic Fisher Folk-lore and his other works.]

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