The fishing village of Auchmithie, three miles north of and inextricably linked with Arbroath, remains a living community, albeit vastly changed from its origins as a place which subsisted entirely on one centuries old trade. The pulse of the place still beats, albeit its character has changed. (Compare it, if you will, with the ghostly desertion of the Fishtown of Usan, to the north.)
Fishing’s heyday in Auchmithie coincided with its incidental fame as a setting in Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary. But more lasting fame has been guaranteed the village for being the birthplace of the renowned Arbroath Smokie. By the time that the wider British public deigned to become interested in the hitherto invisible fisher folk their way of life was likely on the wane. Yet the descriptions of intrepid Victorian writers are still fascinating for what they reveal of the commentators no less than the ‘natives’. James Bertram had a keen interest in the conditions of the coastal communities around the entire British Isles. Here is his impression of Auchmithie from his book The Harvest of the Sea:
One customary feature observed by strangers on entering Auchmithie is, that when met by female children they invariably stoop down, make a very low curtsey, and for this piece of polite condescension they expect 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...
|Are we looking at them, or are they looking at us?|
Bertram was impressed by the inhospitable geography of the village as well as its fisher-folk:
Entering the village of Auchmithie from the west, and walking through to the extreme east end, the imagination gets staggered to think how any class of men could have selected such a wild and rugged part of the coast for pursuing the fishing trade... there are in all about seventeen boats’ crews at Auchmithie. Winding roads with steps lead down the steep brae to the beach...there is no harbour or pier for the boats to land at or receive shelter from, and this the fishermen complain of, as they have to pay £2 a year for the privilege of each boat...Fisher-life may be witnessed here in all its unvarnished simplicity...I have seen the women of Auchmithie “kilt their coats” and rush into the water in order to aid in shoving off the boats, and on the return of the little fleet carry the men ashore on their brawny shoulders with the greatest ease and all the nonchalance imaginable, no matter who might be looking at them.
In the same author’s The Unappreciated Fisher Folk he writes in broader terms about the society of the coastal community. The settlement of Auchmithie, Bertram wrote, had hardly changed for many generations when Walter Scott visited in the early 19th century and still, in Bertram’s own day, provided a unique opportunity to study a particular lifestyle:
It is certainly in Scotland (and in Cornwall as well) that the life and labour of this hardy and industrious class of persons can be studied to the greatest advantage, and in some places even yet their daily round of existence rolls on much as it did a century ago. In Scotland, the patriarchal system of work is still largely maintained; in many Scottish fishing villages the family fishing boat is as much an institution as a family walnut-tree is in France...In Scotland, the fisher communities seldom receive any accession of new blood...The fisher folk intermarry in their communities, and so preserve those traditions of labour and the observance of those social customs which have become stereotyped among the people who go down to the sea in fishing ships.
This extreme insularity in a small community obviously brought problems, both inside the isolated village and those who looked on from outside, even in a kindly way. Speculation was that the inhabitants of Auchmithie, and indeed other Scottish fishing villages, were so different from the locals further inland that they must have originally come into the country as a distinct, foreign race. But there is absolutely no proof that this is the case. The strangeness of the fisher folk in all the Angus communities was picked up by the county historian, Alexander Warden, focusing on their reluctance to associate socially with others:
The several communities almost invariable intermarry amongst themselves, and it is a rare occurrence for the son of a fisher to take an alien to the craft to wife, or for a daughter to marry outwith the fraternity. Indeed so clannish are the fishers of each village that they seldom go even to neighbouring fishing communities for spouses...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.
This insularity, in terms of marriage, was undoubtedly a fact and not a misconception by others regarding fishing communities. The anonymous contributor to Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal, who visited Auchmithie in the autumn of 1843, was of course inspired in his journey by Walter Scott. He was rightly impressed during a boat trip around some of the nearby coastal caves, but less so with the actual conditions in Auchmithie, both in terms of the physical state of the place, but also the inhabitants:
I took a survey of the village, and am forced to own that such places are most endurable in novels. Imagine a narrow street of low and irregular cottages, the whole way, excepting a very narrow crooked passage, being occupied by groups of men and women engaged in preparing fishing lines with bait, the latter being in the most revolting state of filthiness and dishabille, while heaps of fish offal, and the refuse of the nets, lie tainting the air in all directions. The people of the village are quite isolated from general society, and their tribe-like history is attested by their being only four names or so amongst them. But one instance is remembered of an intermarriage with the neighbouring rustic people taking place, and in that case the female, who was the daughter of a fisherman, was cut by the whole fraternity, and regarded as a lost person, though the disadvantage seems to have chiefly been on the other side, as this poor woman was totally unfitted by her previous habits, and by her ignorance of house-keeping, for acting as a plough-man’s wife. The whole economy of this village impresses one of a surviving example of society at the hunting stage, the first in advance from pure savagery. And of this the broadest and most unmistakable feature is the slave-like condition of the women. These poor creatures have to gather and carry bait, dress the lines, carry their husbands on their backs out to the boats, and back again when they return; and finally, to them falls the duty of transporting heavy back-burdens of fish to the neighbouring towns, in order to convert it to money. Under such circumstances the softness of the feminine constitution, bodily and mental, is extinguished at an early age, and they become as hardy, ungainly, and muscular as the men.
It was true that there were very few names in the settlement: the predominant families were Smith, Swankie, Cargill, and Spink. (In the Aberdeen Journal in December 1859, it was reported that 123 out of Auchmithie’s total population of 375 were surnamed Cargill.) The Chamber’s correspondent noted the difference between Auchmithie and the nearby, smaller community of the coastguard station: ‘...where all is neatness and propriety, the children clean and fully dressed, and gardens are cultivated in front of every house. But the most of these strangers are English, and that amply accounts for the difference.’
The fisher town of Auchmithie was given to Arbroath Abbey by King William, the abbey’s founder in the late 12th century, and after the reformation the lands of Ethie, including the bvillage, passed to a series of lay owners, and eventually the Northesk Carnegie family. The first record of the village is in 1434. In the nature of things, no-one was much interested in Auchmithie or indeed any other fishing village in the British Isles until the modern era. Walter Scott published his novel The Antiquary in 1816, and it was his own favourite as well as one of his most acclaimed work. Set in the late 18th century, Auchmithie features as Musselcrag in the book, while Arbroath is Fairport. Allegedly Scott wanted to set another novel in the area, but this never transpired. The Antiquary is only partially set in our area. The incidents surrounding the Mucklebackit family in the novel, and particularly the description of one of their number, has been much praised.
Movement of Fishermen to Arbroath
The virtual bondage of the inhabitants of Auchmithie was challenged by some of the inhabitants who burnt their houses down in the late 17th century. Nearby Arbroath managed to entice some fisherman, most from the Cargill family, to move there in 1705. But the Earl of Northesk successfully legally challenged the movement of his fishermen to Arbroath and the Lord Advocate, Sir James Stewart, backed his authority to keep his vassals where they were.
There was a possibly apocryphal story, recorded by William Fraser (and later by local historian Alexander Fraser), that the fisher people of Auchmithie lived in worse than mortal fear of their feudal superiors. Rather than be confined in the vast and dismal dungeons of nearby Red Castle if they seriously transgressed, they begged the Carnegie lord to cast them into the sea off the cliffs of Red Head. Despite the recent vassalage (or possibly because of impending freedom of movement), the English traveller and cleric James Hall found excited crowds of villagers thronging to meet him in the early part of the century – but only because they mistook him for a much anticipated cobbler. He ungallantly commented that the women’s feet were habitually bigger than the men’s.
Following a change in law in 1799, fisher families were allegedly free from the old bondage system and could, in theory, go where they pleased. The author of Arbroath: Past and Present stated that migration from Auchmithie to Arbroath began in earnest in 1929-1830, and before that period there were only around 6 fishing boats in Arbroath. The settlers lived in the Fit o the Toon in Arbroath. Another source states there were only three fishing vessels active in Arbroath in 1826 (double the number there were in 1772). There were, in 1880, still 40 boats working in Auchmithie (a number confirmed by the author of Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal, who noted between 30 and 40 boats in 1843), but only 10 were active by 1929. Even the provision of a proper harbour in the last decade of the 19th century failed to halt the decline.
The Mystical Smokie
No-one can agree on the origins of the Arbroath Smokie, other than the fact that it originated in Auchmithie. The same fallacy that regards the inhabitants as Auchmithie as undoubted immigrants, albeit possibly medieval ones, says that the smoked haddock here is a relation of similarly smoked Scandinavian fish. Other names for Smokies have included
The classic method for Smokie preparation is described by Bertram (The Harvest of the Sea, p. 346):
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 in 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.
Apart from the dodgy Scandinavian origin myth, the most widely believed tale about the beginning of the Smokie states that it began accidentally when a cottage containing drying haddocks burnt down and the smoked fish were found in the ruins of the building, as a kind of compensatory culinary miracle next day.
‘A Day Amongst the Scenery of “The Antiquary”’, Chambers Edinburgh Journal, No. 617, 25 November, 1843, 357-8.
Bertram, James, G., The Harvest of the Sea (London, 1885), 344-6.
Bertram, James, G., The Unappreciated Fisher Folk (London, 1883), 2-3.
Fraser, William, History of the Carnegies, Earls of Southesk, and of their Kindred (volume 1, Edinburgh, 1867), lxxxii.
Hall, Rev. James, Travels in Scotland By an Unusual Route (volume 1, London, 1807), 283-6.
Hay, George, History of Arbroath to the Present Time (Arbroath, 1876), 376.
McBain,J. M., Arbroath: Past and Present (Arbroath, 1887), 71-78.
McBain, J. M., Eminent Arbroathians (Arbroath, 1897), 37-38.
Nadel-Klein, Fishing for Heritage, Modernity and Loss Along the Scottish Coast (Oxford, 2003), 27, 29, 47, 58, 60, 82.
Neish, J. S., In the By-Ways of Life (Dundee, 1881), 55-58.
Warden, Alexander, Angus, or Forfarshire (volume 1, Dundee, 1880), 109-12.
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