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Let the People Sing

Since time immemorial, Newhaven has been recognised as a village where people sang


In the 16th century, when King James IV, visited Newhaven to view the building of the Michael and take the fresh sea air at Newhaven, he was entertained by some Newhaven fisherlassies who sang to him. They were rewarded with a handful of “Scots siller.”

Charles Reade, in his highly romanticised 19th century novel about the village, Christie Johnstone, described the Newhavener as someone who was always prepared to talk to you and entertain you with a story or a song. And we still are to this day.

As well as this typifying the general sociability and friendliness of Newhaven, there were practical reasons for singing at work. The fishermen would use the rhythm of a song to keep a steady stroke while rowing over the oyster beds dredging the shellfish that were the economic mainstay of the community until the middle of the 19th century.

The fisherlassies would often be called out late into the night to gut the fish brought in at all hours by the fishermen. Singing kept them awake and helped them co-ordinate the work they did when running the machines that were introduced in the 20th century.

I remember our village patriarch, George Hackland, telling me that he would lie abed and be lulled to sleep by the sweet melodious singing of the women working through the night in the kippering sheds beside the Harbour.

It was a key feature of our education at school. I can still remember the first song we were taught to sing as infants. It was the minuet by Boccherini, “Come see where golden hearted spring” — Victoria School was quite a classy school, and still is. And part of the playtime cacophony was the children singing their own street songs as well as popular hits of the day.

The school also had a long connection with both the former famous Newhaven Fisherwomen’s and Fisherlassies’ Choirs, which broadcast worldwide and toured extensively throughout the country and Europe. Victoria School’s music teacher helped set up the Fisherlassies Choir. The separate and unconnected Fisherwomen’s Choir was formed a number of years later and one of the founder’s daughters was the school music teacher at the time and was the choir’s pianist.

It was a sore loss when the Fisherwomen’s and Fisherlassies’ Choirs disbanded in the mid and later half of the twentieth century. They encapsulated the friendliness and the mutual support that typified the community in the past.

Fortunately, eight years ago, Duncan Bremner, Citizen Curator for Leith, was seeking to foster those cultural links that promote a sociable and sustainable community and had been so well demonstrated over the centuries in Newhaven.

So, he worked with local people to re-establish a community choir in the village. It was (and is) open to all. There is no need to audition to join. In addition to enjoying each other’s company and singing together, its members have an underlying commitment to the Newhaven community as is clear from what we sing and the shows we have presented.

Certainly, at Newhaven Heritage we are very much thirled to this which is why we supported its formation and helped establish it during its early days.

Given the social dissolution of the community that has happened in recent years we want, as much as we can, to re-establish traditions that will allow us to build the kind of long-term viable caring community in Newhaven that we remember. It’s still clinging on and needs all our help.

Like most groups it has taken a long time to recover from lock down from which we all suffered. Newhaven Community Choir was no different from many others. Our new choir leader, Becky Fox, has settled in well, reprising many of our older songs and teaching new ones, which has expanded our repertoire. At the last rehearsal evening there were twenty attendees, which bodes well for the future of the choir.

Going out into the community and singing has also started well with a couple of performances in the old Victoria Primary School. On March 11 March we performed at the opening of the new community square, Station Square, at Granton. Next will be the North Edinburgh Community Festival on May 13. Following that is a very important one for us in our calendar, the Newhaven Gala Day on May 27.

We have previously sung at the National Portrait Gallery, The Scottish Storytelling Centre, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Leith Theatre and the National Library of Scotland amongst others.

In order to continue to take our music and songs to a wider audience, we need more members. Not everyone can attend every performance, due to personal commitments, so the need to have a larger group of singers increases our chances of accepting more engagements.

We’re looking at the possibility of producing a CD which would help to generate funds for the choir but, more importantly, get ourselves known to a wider audience, hopefully leading to more invitations to sing at events.

To that end, please give some thought to joining your local community choir or come along to our sessions on Wednesday evenings 7pm - 8.30pm in the annexe of the old Victoria School. Above all, we gather to enjoy ourselves and reap the therapeutic benefits of group singing. George Venters
with additional material by Dougie Radcliffe. ■

Contact Dougie on 07508029736 or

Members of Newhaven Community Choir (and the cone of shame!)

George Hackland remembers being lulled to sleep by the melodious singing of the women working in the kippering sheds



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