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Life Jottings of an Old Edinburgh Citizen
Chapter Five


" Wha'll buy my caller herrini,
New drawn frae the Forth."
- Lady Nairne.

"The damsel's knife the gaping shell commands,
While the salt liquor streams between her hands."
- Gay.

1840-70

WHILE on the subject of costume, it seems right to call attention to a class whose dress is different from that of the community, particularly as it has a tendency to disappear. One of the most picturesque sights upon the streets of Edinburgh in my young days was the fishwife of Newhaven. he women were a class entirely by themselves, retainirig a garb not worn elsewhere, and showing by their appearance that they were not of the race to whom they sold their fish. It was an appearance of which they had no cause to be ashamed. What racial stem they came from I know not, and leave it to the learned in folklore to inform the inquirer. But they were splendid specimens of humanity, clear-complexioned, bright eyed, and while strong and vigorous, carrying heavy burdens, they were neat-handed, and their small feet, always in well made shoes, might have been envied by many a lady of what are called the refined classes. Wearing red and white, or blue and white short striped petticoats, and dark blue panmered skirts, with a bright handkerchief round the neck, the younger girls bareheaded, and the head covered in the case of the other women by a cap that seemed to indicate a relation with Normandy or Brittany, they were a most charming feature of life on the streets. Strong and healthy, they carried their "creel" with its basin-shaped basket above land bore their heavy load by a strap crossing the forehead, walking two miles from the fishing station, and climbing many a stair to sell their fish, as the song says: "New drawn frae the Forth." "Caller hernn'"—"Caller cod" were called sonorously during the forenoon, and "Caller ow-oo" at night, when the oysters were offered for sale. Must I say for the English reader that "caller" means fresh, and that the vowelled word was the cry of oysters; I despair of expressing the delightful sound of it. The first syllable was as the "ou' ;n "hour," and the last syllable as the "oo" by which "you" is sometimes expressed in dotfng language. How often when the "Caller ow oo" sounded in the street was the fishwife brought into the entrance hall, to open her fresh oysters by the dozen for delightful impromptu supper.

A well-known song by our Edinburgh poet Ballantine takes its name and retrain from an incident which brings out in strong relief the characteristics, both physical and moral of the "bonrre fishwife" of Newhaven. Ballantine happened to be passing when a fishwife was in the act of hoisting on to her back her heavly loaded "creel," and he gallantly gave her assistance, expressing his astonishment at her being able to carry such a load all the way from Newhaven. Her cheery reply, as she adjusted the strap against her fore head, showed a strength of character as her heavy "creel" demonstrated her strength of body: "Oo, ay, but ilka blade o' grass keps its ain drap o' dew. One wonders whether the thought was original, and would fainhope it may have been, but whether orginal or not, it was a charmingly poetical expression of a noble contentment with her lot, strenuous though it might be.

Alas! all this charming spectacle of the "bonnie fishwives" is changed in character. The "Caller ow-oo" is heard no more, and though the fishwives still sell fish, they do not bring it fresh from Newhaven. It is rather a sad thing to one who remembers the old days when the fish came straight ;n the "creels" from the boat.

What does one see now? A train arrrves at the Waverley Station and out step the fishwives in the characteristic dress. But they have no fish with them, ''hey go to the end of the train and take from a special van their empty "creels," and disappear. Later, one sees them going about with fish. Rumour says that all their husbands' and brothers fish is contracted for by the fishmongers before it is caught, and that t is brought to Edinburgh in bulk—that the fishwife on reaching Edinburgh goes to the fishmonger and takes what he gives out to her for sale. Does the "creel receive the fish of yesterday which was left over unsold: I know not, but if it is so, then is it not strange that there is no cry of "caller" heard as the "creels" are carried round daily. If this be true, then "pity t's 'tis true." The romance and the freshness of the bright, cheerful Newhaven fishwife's personality and work have been brought down in standard under the at times, kilhng breath of what is called modern.

Besides the fishwives, who were ornamental as well as useful, there were other hawkers of special goods, who had nothing to commend them except the usefulness of their wares. In addition to the china mender, to whom I must refer more particularly later, there were two that I remember. There was a regular calling at houses for the purpose of offering matches for sale. I mention this because it is an indication of how long a time it took before the lucifer match became common, these vendors came with large bundles of roughly-shaped sticks about the size and length of an ordinary pencil, both ends of which had been dipped in melted sulphur. They were used for ordinary lighting purposes, the light being obtained by inserting


NEWHAVEN FISHWIVES

the match in a bottle of prepared phosphorus. It must have been as late as 1844 or 1845 that the use of the phosphorus bottle was practically superseded by the friction match. I he other haw ker sold sand from a cart, for use on stone floors, and his cry of "Saund, saund" was a dreary wail. One day a superfine gentleman spoke to the hawker, and said. "My good man, you ought not to say saund, saund,' you should say 'sand, sand,'" emphasizing the "a;'  The man looked at him, and holding out his spade said, "Jist you tak' the spade and see if ye can dae it ony better.' The superfine gentleman went his way, and the little fellows looking on laughed.

I am just old enough to remember the change from the expensive to the penny postage. The General Post Office for Scotland at that time was a comparatively paltry building in Waterloo Place —now Cranston is New Waverley Hotel. If any one will look at the hotel and at the present Post Office, both of which he can see from the North Bridge, he will get some idea of the enormous increase of the postal service which followed the introduction of Rowland Hill's system of penny postage. Looking at the setwo buildings, the small and the vast, and remembering how the proposed system was denounced and Rowland Hill sneered at by men high in the postal service—who made reports to the Government and published pamphlets, conclusively proving, as the authors thought, that failure was certain to follow the change in postage rates—one is furnished with a strong commentary on the want of foresight so often displayed by those in high place in denouncing any idea which has not been born from their own brain. When I was still a boy I read strong statements by able men, saying that the old system should be re-established at once. Perhaps it is not realised by many to-day that when the penny postage was introduced the change, as is so often the case, was not made whole heartedly. I have seen letters paid for in coin in Waterloo Place, the. clerk making a great mark in red ink With a broad pen. It was only when the use of the Queen's head became established as a success that the affixing of stamps was made compulsory. The many advantages of the penny system were soon recognised. One inconvenience of the old system can be appreciated by a generation which has the privilege of despatching four ounces for a penny. I have seen in my childhood many letters, written on the thinnest of paper, and the writing crossed not once but twice, the second crossing being diagonal, making them as difficult to decipher as a cuneiform inscription. And as for envelopes, they were not used, as the weight had to be kept down to half an ounce.

Of course all the increase in space occupied by the new buildings is not to be attributed to letter postage only, as the telegraph called for considerable accommodation in the offices. But the main building of the Post Office was erected solely for ordinary postal business, as it was begun in 1862, six years before the Government took over the telegraph service; and also before the postage in parcels was introduced.


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