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Some Highland Fishermen's Fancies
By Mr. A. Polson


Fishermen of all ages and of all places are said to have been superstitious, and, when the nature of their calling is considered, it is no wonder that they should be so.

In most people there is a superstitious vein, and the means by which people se^k to pry into the unknown and unknowable-future, to ward off danger and. misfortune, and to ensure safety and success, are very varied and intensely interesting to those who themselves neither use these methods nor entertain these beliefs. It is no wonder that Highland fishermen should have strong and peculiar notions as to how luck is ensured, when they sometimes find that boats within a stone’s throw of them on either side have in the morning large hauls of fish, while they themselves are blank; and that this happens day after day, when to all human appearances there is no difference in the circumstances.

Though the origin of most of these superstitions is lost, a few can still be traced. One of their most peculiar fancies is, that it is unlucky to meet a minister on their way to sea; and if they see one, they take some trouble to get out of his way. They also have the strongest aversion to take ministers aboard or to give them a passage from one port to the other. On inquiry, it has been found that some Caithness sailors of long ago, took a number of ministers to Leith to attend a General Assembly, and that the passage was exceedingly stormy. But when Leith was reached, and as soon as the ministers were landed, the wind ceased. The sailors, from this circumstance, formed the belief that the prince of the power of the air thought that while they were on the waters he might, by exercising his power, get these men, who were the enemies of his kingdom, out of the way. Similarly, a fisherman who gets a minister’s blessing on going to sea will have the prince of the power of the air as his enemy, and it is therefore questionable if ever he may come ashore again.

It must not, however, be concluded from this that northern fishermen are irreligious, for they certainly are not, and a great number of them trust in God and do the right and after having shot their nets at night, many crews have worship, and the plaintive Gaelic singing borne over the waves is peculiarly effective.

In common with nearly all seafaring men, Highland fishermen believe that whistling will be followed by wind. This, it is believed, must have arisen from the knowledge that like gives rise to like; just as when one imitates the cry of a bird the mate will respond. There is, however, no accounting for the notion that striking a knife in the mast is quite as effective as whistling, and can be resorted to by the sailors without the knowledge of the skipper when they want to have a few extra days ashore.

There is another strange way of raising the wind, believed in chiefly by the inhabitants of the Western Islands, and which Caithness fishermen do not like, as it affects their catch of herring. It seems that when the men leave the Lewis for the Caithness fishing in July, some of the women left at home put a number of knots on a woollen thread. Towards the end of the fishing or earlier, if they are not successful, they undo these knots one by one, with the result that the wind begins to rise, and the boats not being able to get to sea, the “hired hands” are sent home. They take great care not to undo the knots at too great a rate, lest the wind should arise too suddenly, for the loss of the loved ones might in this way be brought about if they happened to be at sea when the last knot was being undone. A shorter way for these women to make the weather stormy is to draw the cat through the fire; and, though how it came to be supposed that pussy’s sufferings have an influence on the weather would be interesting, it is not ascertainable. At home, the fishermen’s wives must be careful not to blow any meal off oatcake they may be baking, if they wish to avoid a hurricane which would similarly blow their husbands’ boats off the sea; and if they happen to let these cakes bum even with the meal on them their husbands can expect little luck. These two strange beliefs ought to make the wives attentive to their cooking and careful of waste; as ought also the belief that to throw any part of a fish—even a bone— into the fire, will cause fish to be scarce. To count the boats as they go to sea, is also, in some Sutherlandshire folks’ estimation, a wicked thing, as the consequence is likely to be the loss of one of them.

It is, however, for the purpose of ensuring luck that the grosser superstitions are practised. Luck has always been regarded by most people as an exceedingly fickle thing; but in fishing, because of the inequality of results, and the apparently blind hand by which the harvest of the sea is given, most fishermen do rather strange things to ensure that abundance shall fall to their share. To this day they, more than any other class, believe in witchcraft. The ways by which a woman can get such a character is quite simple. She needs to be somewhat old, of a masculine type, with hair enough on her face to make the bigger schoolboys envious, and it is preferable that she live alone. Let a fisherman give such a woman a “fry” or a present of herring from his boat—say forty fish—and let her, in thanking him, wish that he may come ashore with a shot of as many crans in the morning; and then let it happen that he comes ashore with a shot of about that number, the woman’s character as a witch is firmly established. Such a character is found to pay, and is, of course, kept up.

A few years ago, on the Caithness coast, a fisherman gave an old woman a piece of rope for a tether. She measured it, and said “You will have a cran for every fathom of this, this very night.” The prophecy was fulfilled, and further tribute was sent to Jean. She regularly, thereafter, came to the quay, and every fisherman she exhorted to give to her “royally" and this they did, believing that their future success depended on their liberality. As a consequence, “Jean Royal,” as she came to be known, flourished as one who was believed to be able to give or withhold a good fishing, ought to. She was pompous and authoritative, and kept up her character by dressing in as “mannish” a style as possible, wearing generally a man’s jacket and a plaid of shepherd’s tartan. When herring were plentiful she received large quantities, which she passed on to the curer, and so turned into money. This, together with the money she received for “consultations,” kept her in comparative comfort, until she was no longer able to walk to the quay, and nobody is now known who can openly take her place; and, let it be added that there are few fishermen of the present time who would accredit any who pretended to such powers.

What superstition there still remains is not openly professed, and if there be any rites practised they are done in secret for fear of the youthful scoffers, who have been educated at some of our schools. It is because they are afraid of being held up to ridicule by the modern scoffers, and, perhaps, because the efficacy of their methods may be impaired by the telling of them, that it is almost useless to seek any information regarding them from fishermen themselves. The only person who. would give the writer any information was an old fisherman who had abandoned his former occupation, and was therefore, independent of their powers. He candidly stated his own belief in witchcraft, giving, as his reasons, certain dealings which he had with a reputed witch. He had been unsuccessful for a long time, and, therefore, went to consult a lady who practised the diabolical art. She frankly told him that she had sold his luck to an acquaintance, and that this was done beyond recall for that season. She, however, expressed her willingness to arrange with him for next season if he promised secrecy, as without that nothing could be done. This he promised, and she then gave him a sixpence which resembled all other sixpences except that it had the letters “G. L.” printed on it. When asked if these letters stood for “Good Luck,” she said it was not his business to ask any questions. He was told that he was, at the opening of next season, to get this coin spliced in the rope which ties the fleet of nets to the boat. This he did, and began to make a splendid fishing. Although he knew that the first Monday of the quarter was a critical time, he neglected to watch his boat, and when he looked he found that the sixpence was gone. He scarcely expected to fish much after that; “and,” added he, “as sure as death a fortnight passed before another scale was seen in the boat.”

Fishermen tell a story of a youth who called on a witch more for the fun of the thing than because he believed in her powers. After receiving some silver she asked him how much herring he would like. He replied. “More than you can give me.” She asked again, and he replied, “as much as you can give.” This answer he repeated. Next night the young man went to sea. Before the following morning his nets were so filled with herring that they sank, and he was unable to recover a single loop of them.

But without resorting to witches, there are several other means by which fishermen and their relatives try to induce fickle luck to step their way. A small silver coin fixed somewhere among the nets, or a small piece of silver hidden in the boat on the first day of the year in very useful. It seems strange that fishermen should regard it as lucky that mice should nibble at their nets when they are stored away during the winter. Some, indeed, so strongly believe this that they put oats among them to induce the mice, although the result of their nibbling entails their working several weeks to repair the damage. It is also considered lucky to throw a broom or an old shoe after a fisherman on his way to sea; and in strange contradiction of a widely accepted superstition it is very lucky to have salt, thrown after him.

As in other businesses, the first person met by him on his way to sea is a lucky or an unlucky person. If lucky, he deserves, and gets, something handsome out of the catch. If unlucky, the fishermen evidently entertains him a grudge thereafter. It is matter for regret that among a few it is believed to be particularly lucky to go to sea very drunk on a certain day during the fishing —the drunken crew believing that the bigger the spree the bigger the catch.

But just as there are a great number of things which fishermen do to secure them luck, there are nearly as many things which he must be careful not to do if he would retain that luck.

He must not start for the first time with a new boat on a Friday. When at sea he must be careful, if he belongs to the Banffshire coast, not to speak of salmon. If he does, he can retain his luck only by shouting “cold iron” at once. Caithness fishermen, who attribute no superstitious importance to this fish, delight to tease Banffshire men, by shouting to them some such expression, “There’s a salmon in your pump.”

It is commonly believed to be all that a boat’s luck is worth to give anything away out of a boat at sea. Suppose a crew runs short of water they will get a drink from another crew quite readily, but not a drop to carry away, let water be ever so plentiful with the givers. If a fisherman suspects that his fishing goes to some one else, and when none of his devices bring him back his

luck, and when casting his nets from either side of his boat is of no avail, he is quite sure of this; he then takes a mouthful of water from a running stream under a bridge, “where the living and dead pass” (the latter on their way to burial) and sprinkles it over his nets. If this should happen to bring back his luck he must be particularly careful not to give it away by lending anything out of the boats or even by giving a “fry” out of his earlier catches. He must also be particular not to speak of any four-footed animal, particularly a hare, while at sea. If he does, he must touch some cold iron, which is by preference the horse shoe, which is sometimes nailed inside the stem of the boat, and which would nearly always be there if it were not for youthful scoffers, and but for the fact that a small piece of mountain ash nailed in the same place is equally efficacious in keeping off the adverse witches. And who can doubt this?


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