THE FISHWIVES OF FISHERROW
3 FEBRUARY 2018
Simon Fairnie is the son of a fishing family whose ancestry can be traced back to the early 1700s. He was born and brought up in Fisherrow where he has lived all his life, and is Treasurer of the Musselburgh Museum and Heritage Group and coordinator of Musselburgh Museum.
Fisherrow, once separate from Musselburgh which it now is an integral part of, is located west of the River Esk and east of the Magdalene Burn, in the past it was the home of the fisher people. Many families lived in a ‘single end’ or a room and kitchen, with only cold running water, gas lighting and outside shared lavatories Houses that were built after 1900 had better living accommodation with toilets, garrets/lofts where fishing gear could be stored, and wash-houses where the washing was done typically on a Monday.
It was the custom that a fisher girl would marry a fisher lad. So as to be prepared for work as a fishwife and in order to help her husband in his work mothers taught their daughters how to handle fish and other tasks.
White fish such as cod, haddock, plaice and sole occupy the lower waters or seabed and were fished using hooks and lines. These so-called short lines had a thousand hooks were made by the women who also baited them onshore. The bait used was mussels gathered by the women from the local mussel-beds from which using a shelling knife the flesh was removed from the shells and attached to every hook. That task was done at home so that the baited lines, now coiled in shooting baskets, would be ready for their husbands to take to sea.
After lines were fished they’d be brought ashore to be tidied up and re-baited which was a continual process.
Some women who gathered mussels boiled them and took them to Edinburgh to sell on the streets where they sold for sixpence a saucer and were a well known delicacy.
Women have been handling and selling fish for many years. When sail-driven boats – Fifies - were used to fish for white fish the fish were landed in their home ports or on the nearest shore. Once landed the fish were washed then laid out at the harbour market to be sold to fishwives and fish merchants. Once bought by the fishwives they loaded their creels and sculls with fish, travelled by electric tram from Fisherrow to Joppa, then walked up Fishwives Causeway to sell their fish in the City.
There also was an evening market open to local residents. This market was announced by a man shouting “there will be a fish roup at Fisherraw at 5 o’clock, come and buy - who will!”.
When a girl who as she was growing up had learnt all about fish from her mother would leave school aged 14 yrs to start work as a fishwife she was taken to the dressmaker, and to the basket-maker to be kitted out for work. Then she would be given some of her mother’s customers to get started after which time she would have to find her own customers. Any money earned when first starting out she would tell her mother but once she had established customers of her own what she earned was told no-one not even her husband!!
When Fifies were succeeded by motorised yawls fish was landed at the City fish market at Newhaven so the fishwives had to go there to buy their fish which caused all the local harbour markets to go in to abeyance.
When at the market women worked in syndicates of five or six with one lady buying fish for all her group. Fisherwives were never without their knitting and whilst waiting for their fish their needles would be going clickety-click and their tongues quackety-quack exchanging all the local gossip.
When fish was brought to each group it would be sorted into equal piles which were then fairly allocated by ‘casting kyles’ – that was by the placing of, by an independent person, a token onto each pile. Once allocated each woman would load her creel - sometimes weighing up to 112lb (60Kg) - ready to carry off to her customers in the City. Some women went to Fife with others to the Borders to sell their fish.
The women dressed in their distinctive navy blue serge working clothes carrying their creels were regularly seen and respected in the town and because of their hard working ethic, honesty, and forthright speaking were well thought of by their customers many of whom were prominent professional people and who became life-long friends.
Women “went to the creel” because of tradition – they followed their grandmothers and mothers before them, and/or to be the breadwinner – many were widowed in World War One left with children to bring up and no income. Also when their husbands were away fishing they did not always have regular incomes so it was the women who were the main ‘breadwinner’ of the family.
When the fishermen husbands were fishing away from home sometimes for months at a time Fisherrow was a matriarchal society with the women having another role as well as working they looked after their families and sustained the community. However it was not all work as there were occasions to partake in benevolence by dressed in their colourful Gala clothes participating in charity and other such parades and especially in September each year when the men came home between herring fishing/s they took part in the Annual Fishemens’ Walk a day of commemoration, fun and celebration.
There are no longer any working fishwives the tradition dying out when the last lady Mrs Betty Miller BEM retired in 1988. There is now only one lady alive aged 94 who is the last to have gone to the creel.
Whilst these women have all but gone they will never be forgotten.
ABOUT MUSSELBURGH MUSEUM
The volunteer-run Musselburgh Museum created in 2011 is located at 65 High Street.
Its objective is to preserve the rich heritage of the town by collecting items of relevance, mounting themed exhibitions and providing a location where locals and visitors can learn about Musselburgh.
The Museum is open between 10.30 and 16.00 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays during April-September.