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The Newhaven fishwife’s lot


In the centuries before steam trawlers came into being, most fish were caught by small sailing craft going out to sea using hook and line. Herring, though abundant, was seen as bait for larger fish such as haddock or cod.

Such it was for many years with the Firth of Forth enjoying an abundance in white fish and oysters. The huge shoals of herring that had come into the area from the open seas were spasmodic and undependable.

However, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the herring had returned after a gap of about 50 years. The shoals were recognised as a worthy prey for catching, to be pickled or cured by smoking. Lines of baited hooks were used to benefit from this generous bounty.

In the wee hours of the morning, when the tides were right and dawn was not far off, the fisherlassies of Newhaven would gather on Main Street to set out towards Wardie Bay and Granton.

As they walked they could be heard singing softly the hymns by the popular American evangelists of the day, Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey, or sometimes favourite Scottish psalms and paraphrases.

They were on their way, with creels on their backs, to harvest mussels that would be used for baiting the fishing lines for their fathers, brothers or husbands who would catch fish to earn their living. Along this stretch of coastline, to the east and to the west of the village, mussels were in abundance.

There is an old Martello Tower, built at the time of the Napoleonic Wars still just about visible today half-buried in concrete on reclaimed land in Leith Docks. This used to be a significant distance offshore and was built upon Mussel Cape Rock, one of a series of rocks called the Black Rocks.

Some Newhaven fishermen made their living largely by fishing for mussels. One record shows that about 30 boats sailed from Peterhead just to buy this mussel harvest.

Once at their favoured spot, the women would set about collecting the mussels until their creels were full. The creels, now weighing as much as 40 Kg (88 lb), were carried home on their backs for the womenfolk and older children to then set about baiting the hooks ready for the next day’s fishing. This was called “redding the lines”, i.e. removing the old bait and replacing with new and took many hours.

The length of lines would bear 1,000 – 1,500 hooks that required having the mussels fixed to the hooks in such a way as to make the barbs hidden. The boats could have three or more of these lines that would be played out.

Once baited, the lines would be coiled into the creels and each layer would be kept separated by a layer of grass from Fisherman’s Park usually collected by the younger children.

It would not be the first time that these bairns would be chased from the posh gardens of Park Road or Pony Park, a small grassy field at the far end overlooking Craighall Road.

Many of the fishwives had their routes that they would walk on a routine basis selling their menfolk’s catch from creels on their backs weighing up to 50Kg (112 lbs). Certain customers were called upon on certain days of the week. This necessitated travelling great distances on foot, or sometimes by tram and train.

The districts of Edinburgh such as Barnton, Davidson’s Mains, Juniper Green and Morningside as well as Edinburgh’s New Town, were well served by these intrepid women.

Some even travelled on the railway as far afield as Broxburn, Falkirk, Lanark, Hamilton, Burntisland, and Lochgelly.

And all the time, when not actually selling, the fishwives would be knitting something for members of their family.

I t goes without saying that Newhaven’s fishwives were hard working, even when they were not tramping the streets selling their fresh fish.

Since fishing boats did not go to sea on a Sunday, no fish was caught to sell the day after. Consequently, Mondays for the fishwives was spent washing, cleaning and ironing — and not just Mondays!

It seems almost unimaginable just how much hard work the fishwife was expected to endure: it never ceased. Whatever the weather, they went out on their rounds carrying their heavy loads. The life was not for everybody, which is why a dim view was taken should a man marry outwith the village. Newhaven was predominantly a matriarchal society since the women had control of the purse. After all, it was they who actually sold the fish that their menfolk had caught.

Research of householders from 1865 to 1940 carried out by a member of Newhaven Heritage showed that a significant number of dwellings in the village were owned by women due mainly to the perilous nature of fishing.

With many of the fishwives being in the same boat (pun intended), there was a camaraderie and support network that kept Newhaven’s insular society going.

When the village was eventually demolished and rebuilt, many families did not — or were not encouraged — to return.

A sad end to a proud community. ■

Gordon Young

Info: Contact Gordon at

Fishwife and family baiting the herring lines with mussels


Surprisingly, while walking they often sang the hymns of American evangelists Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey


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