The Stuff of Legend
Edinburgh is often described as a network of villages, for Gordon Munro, Newhaven tops them all
Miroslav Sasek, author/illustrator of a wonderful series of books introducing the World’s great cities, ends This is Edinburgh with Newhaven village. I’ve always thought this significant, which is why I donated a copy to Victoria Primary School. To give pupils the thrill of recognition when they see their school in a world famous book.
With the same idea of ‘sense of place’, my Christmas present to my dad was Dick Gaughan’s album Gaughan. He’d never heard of him and was suspicious that this was some punk, or worse, hippy nonsense. He was more receptive when the album cover portrayed Gaughan on the slipway at Newhaven harbor, the boat behind Dick had lain unused and unloved on the slipway for years, so he was even able to guess the date the cover photo was taken…
It triggered a memory, rarely mentioned, about his Dad (who passed away when my Dad was 13 years old) skippering a boat out of Newhaven harbour. Work was hard to come by so he took night classes at Leith Nautical College to earn his skippers ticket from the Board of Trade in 1931.
I was shown two large books, long gone, showing the constellation of the sky at different times of year. Using only these, charts of the Forth, and direct hands on experience is how they worked at sea back then.
Photos given to me by my Aunt portrayed my future Grandfather’s harsh life and punishing work ethic whilst at sea.
When Christopher Garner launched his book Newhaven A Scottish Fishing Community 1928-1978, I took my Dad along. (The book is still available at Newhaven Heritage’s website, the police box at Newhaven harbour most Saturdays 10am-1pm and the David Lloyd Centre.)
George Hackland, one of Newhaven’s oldest inhabitants and a known amateur historian with a formidable knowledge of its history was there. My Dad said, “Is that Geordie Hackland?” And then, “He was my Dad’s apprentice.”
I introduced them and they went into a wee huddle to reminisce, I overheard a couple of stories, one I suspect was apocryphal, that I hadn’t heard before... About the unusual number of Hearts supporters resident in Newhaven, Geordie said it was down to Hearts player Barney Battles owning a pub in the village.
The other story – affirmed as true by George – was my Dad and his pals feeding the horses stabled at the dairy at the rear of Christopher Garner’s current house - a story new to Christopher himself.
Then Dad surprised me by producing my grandfather’s Skipper’s Ticket, which was admired by all and scanned by Newhaven Heritage for their site.
Newhaven has a prodigious history. It set up a mini welfare state, The Society of Free Fishermen, which made sure that the widows of those lost at sea were provided for and not made destitute, as well as devastated, by their loss.
Of course, Newhaven fishwives are, rightly, the stuff of legend. Whether it was hauling the daily catch in their creels to sell in places as far away as Juniper Green then a village on the fringes of Edinburgh. Or provided an ‘Amazonian Guard’ for the Suffragettes on their Votes for Women marches, often tangling with men, some in uniform, to protect the marchers. Their distinctive clothing and equally distinctive singing voices were known worldwide.
Newhaven’s rich backstory deserves a museum: A place where this rich and poignant story can be told. It had a wee unit at the harbour until Forth Ports evicted them in favour of a commercial lease.
The Council has facilitated displays at Victoria Primary School and online but it needs a space of its own to link the past with the present – including the new residents on the reclaimed land at Western harbour.
The cruise passengers who alight here don’t have to go uptown, they could go to the museum and learn about the rich history of the area and maybe even pick up unique souvenirs made locally, which would remind them of the ‘fishing village in the city’.
I want to find out the name and registration of the boat my grandfather skippered out of Newhaven. Victoria Primary School is moving soon, from its original building where the waves crashed against the school wall to a new site in what was the sea.
The pupils deserve a space where they can learn that history, ideally in the village, the Anchor building in the old school would be ideal; old and new linked and their history coming alive.
My second coup is Karen Panton, who has a poem republished in Christopher Garner’s book that she wrote in 1967, when she was 9 years old. And was about to be moved out of Newhaven when their old home was demolished.
Entitled, Old Newhaven, it ends with these lines:
As the heart’s plucked oot
and scattered aboot,
And slowly so slowly,
Newhaven fades oot.
Info: newhavenonforth.org.uk edinburghmuseums.org.uk
The writer’s grandfather, second left