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The Ballad of the Oyster Wars

The work undertaken by the fishermen and lassies of Newhaven in bringing and selling oysters to the citizens of Edinburgh.

A song called Caller Ou - which means fresh oysters - reminds me of a long running conflict in Newhaven. It was written more than 200 hundred years ago and celebrates the work undertaken by the fishermen and lassies of Newhaven in bringing and selling oysters to the citizens of Edinburgh.

Newhaven is what’s left o’ a village on the north edge of Edinburgh between the western boundary of Leith and the east of Trinity.

Since the ice melted intae the Forth 10 thousand years ago it had aye been a well-favoured place for folk tae live. A’ the necessities o’ life were readily tae hand and doubtless people settled peacefully there for centuries before it got its turn in the spotlight o’ history when Jamie IV took a fancy tae it.

He thocht it wid be a guid place tae start building ships for his Scottish navy. James liked Newhaven and was particularly ta’en by the character o’ its people. They were friendly, self-confident, guid lookin’ and — justifiably — had a guid conceit o’ themsels.

So they were prepared tae treat him as an equal. He granted the village tae the city of Edinburgh in 1510. And it might hae prospered greatly given his regard for the villagers — but Flodden put the tin lid on that.

Conflict was part o’ everyday life in Newhaven. They were aye at odds wi’ the sea — fightin’ it for a livin’. But a festerin’ conflict for hundreds o’ years was o’er The Scalps…the oyster beds in the middle o’ the Forth.

One enduring legacy that James left Newhaven was the right he gave tae the Fishermen of Newhaven tae manage these calps. Though the city had title tae them, it was their management that mattered.

The fact that the Free Fishermen of Newhaven controlled who fished them and it now meant that they could mak’ sure that they made a livin’ frae them. Though city magistrates passed regulations about oysters, they were only about what was supplied to Edinburgh — and that was provided by the Newhaveners.

Fae time tae time there were skirmishes wi’ fishermen frae Fisherrow, Cockenzie and Port Seton who sometimes invaded the City scalps.Generally, Newhaven had the right and prevailed. But because others could see there was money to be made, attempts were aye bein’ made tae wrest control from the Newhaveners.

The City started trying tae boss them aboot from the middle of the 18th century and kept up wi’ their lawyers aye challengin’ their rights. And then frae 1815 they started leasin’ access tae the City scalps and then taxin’ the oysters that were landed.

Clearly the City wanted tae make money frae an asset that they owned but did nothing tae work or tae manage or maintain. The Fishermen recognised that there was an argument for this andagreed terms for leases. But the City got greedy and wanted tae allocate leases tae whomsoever they chose — even though this was illegal in the terms of the original charter — indeed confirmed in a Judgement of an Admiralty Enquiry in 1791.

This came tae a head in 1839. The City granted the exclusive lease of the beds for £600 tae George Clark, an English business man. This was much more than the Newhaveners were paying. And of course they were officially to be excluded from fishing the beds that were their birth right.

Despite protests, Clark mobilised a fleet of over 80 boats that fished from dawn tae dusk wi’ a steam tug and dredges more than twice the weight of Newhaven dredges. No attention was paid to conservin’ the stock — oysters o’ aw sizes were harvested.

Within a year the scalps were destroyed. And Clark never paid for his lease. Instead he sued the council for breach o’ contract because they couldnae stop Newhaven’s angry fishermen tryin’ tae fish the scalps that they’d fished for centuries.

That was the first nail in the coffin o’ oyster fishin’ in the Forth. But the lid was firmly hammered doon thirty years later by the Duke o’ Buccleuch.

It’s a mystery tae me how ownership of other major scalps came into the hands of the Scottish aristocracy but the biggest of them belonged to the Duke of Buccleuch. These had also been fished by Newhaven fishermen under the same general terms as the City scalps. With the loss o’ the City scalps, they became vital for Newhaven. But yet again the greed o’ the owner led tae their destruction.

Followin’ Edinburgh’s example, in 1867 the Duke agreed a 15-year lease tae an Edinburgh fishmonger, John Anderson, for £100 a year. The same pattern o’ lying about the management competence of the Free Fishermen was used tae justify excludin’ them from the scalps. And blithely ignored the dangers made clear tae them by the Fishermen and waged a publicity campaign against the Free Fishermen.

They brought in an Englishmen tae fish the oyster beds and tried tae use detectives tae find oot what the Newhaveners were up tae. They got short shrift. The fishwives chased them and beat up a couple they caught. Anderson wisnae’ working on as big a scale as Clark before him but followed the same practices. So he wisnae quite sae quick tae deplete the stock but within a decade there was nae oyster fishery in the Forth.

The story o’ people wi a bit power daein’ doon the workers is aye wi’ us. It wisnae that the Fishermen didnae have right or reason on their side. And they organised able, honourable people tae put their cases both tae the council and the Duke o’ Buccleuch. But greed, ignorance, and bullying arrogance held the day.

This loss o’ fishin’ was ta’en hard by the village. It meant that the Fishermen had tae turn mair tae line fishin’ and travel further afield. Fishin’ has aye been the maist perilous o’ jobs and this exposed them tae even mair dangers. Yet nowhere was Buccleuch ever held tae account.

So whenever we meet this kind o’ oppressive robbery of the people’s rights we can fight it — and wi’ good local governance stand a better chance o’ winnin’.

Though Newhaven lost far mair than it should in its dealins wi’ the council — and that’s another story — now’s the time for Edinburgh tae make amends. ■

Dr George Venters, Chair Emeritus, Newhaven Heritage


Fishin’ has aye been the maist perilous o’ jobs and this exposed them tae even mair dangers. Yet nowhere was the Duke o’ Buccleuch ever held tae account



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