Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
The Edinburgh Fish Women


The artist has not favoured us with the name of the "Oyster Lass" whom the figure in Kay's print represents. The omission is probably a matter of no great moment, as the characteristics of individuals of her class are usually pretty much the same.

Wordsworth's description of the "Calais Fish-women"—

"Withered, grotesque—immeasurably old,
And shrill and fierce in accent"—

will not apply to the goodly fish-dames of Modern Athens. Stout, clean, and blooming, if they are not the most handsome or comely of Eve's daughters, they are at least the most perfect pictures of robust and vigorous health; and not a few of them, under the pea-jacket and superabundance of petticoat with which they load themselves, conceal a symmetry of form that might excite the envy of a Duchess; neither are they "shrill and fierce in accent." Their "cry," echoing through the spacious streets of the New Town, though not easily understood, especially by our southern visitors, has a fulness of sound by no means unpleasant to the ear.

In some of the late numbers of Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, the character and habits of the fish-women form the substance of one or two interesting articles. We quote the writer's description of the dress:—

"A cap of cotton or linen, surmounted by a stout napkin tied below the chin, compose the investiture of the head; the more showy structures, wherewith other females are adorned, being inadmissible, from the broad belt which supports the "creel," that is, fish-basket, crossing the forehead. A sort of woollen pea-jacket, of vast amplitude of skirt, conceals the upper part of the person, relieved at the throat by a liberal display of handkerchief. The under part of the figure is invested with a voluminous quantity of petticoat, of substantial material and gaudy colour, generally yellow with stripes, so made as to admit of a very free inspection of the ancle, and worn in such immense numbers, that the bare mention of them would be enough to make a fine lady faint. One-half of these ample garments is gathered up over the haunches, puffing out the figure in an unusual and uncouth manner. White worsted stockings and stout shoes complete the picture. Imagine these investments imbued upon a masculine but handsome form, notwithstanding the slight stoop forward, which is almost uniformly contracted—fancy the firm and elastic step, the toes slightly inclined inwards—and the ruddy complexion resulting from hard exercise, perhaps sometimes from dram-drinking—and you have the beau-ideal of fish-wives."

That "dram-drinking" does prevail among the sisterhood to a certain extent is a fact readily admitted, even by the parties themselves ; nor need we wonder at the circumstance, when the laborious nature of their avocation is taken into consideration. The nearest fishing stations to Edinburgh are Newhaven and Fisherrow; the former distant at least two miles—the latter upwards of five. After carrying a load, varying from one hundred to two hundred-weight, of fish from their respective stations, and probably perambulating the greater portion of the city ere they complete their sales, no one can be surprised that they should indulge in a dram. To say, however, that their potations amount to drunkenness; or that, in its literal sense, they are given to dram-drinking, would be a very bold assertion—the more especially if we compare their habits with those of other females in the plebeian grades of society. They are as far removed from the gin-swilling vixens of Bill ins gate, or the dirty, squalid fish-hawkers of Dublin, as intoxication is from sobriety; and they are not more their superiors in robustness of figure, than in respectability and morality of character.

In the Statistical Account of Scotland—parish of Inveresk—it is stated that "when the boats come in late to the harbour [Fisherrow] in the forenoon, so as to leave them [the fish-women] no more than time to reach Edinburgh before dinner, it is not unusual for them to perform their journey of five miles by relays, three of them being employed in carrying one basket, and shifting it from one to another every hundred yards, by which means they have been known to arrive at the Fishmarket in less than three-fourths of an hour." The writer (Dr. Carlyle) adds—"It is a well-known fact, that three of them not many years ago [1795] went from Dunbar to Edinburgh, which is twenty-seven miles, with each of them a load of herrings on her back of 200 lb. in five hours. They sometimes carry loads of 250 lbs."

One of the pleasantest walks we can imagine is a leisurely stroll, on a fine April morning, from Edinburgh to Newhaven. The sun, though radiant and sparkling, does not as yet oppress with excessive warmth, while around, nature is smiling in bush and flower. At every turn you are sure to meet a knot of fish-women, fresh as the morning itself, each with her " creel" and well-filled "maun" of haddocks, or codlings, or flukes, or whitings, or skate, or lobsters, dripping from the waters of the Frith, and glistening with a freshness well calculated to tempt the eye of an epicure. A flush may be observed on the faces of the women as they bend under the load, but their step is long and elastic ; and though the journey is uphill, their athletic forms appear fully able for the task. On reaching the brow of the rising ground above Newhaven, the scene is truly enchanting. The broad Frith before you is calm and tranquil—to the right of Inchkeith appear a whole fleet of fishermen, engaged it may be in dredging oysters for the evening market—innumerable vessels, with sails set, are courting the light and gentle breeze—while, with fiery speed, the various steamers give life and animation to the picture. Proceeding to the village, the visitor is impressed with the thriving appearance of the place, and the commendable industry of its inhabitants. Most of the women who have remained from market are busily employed out of doors—some in making and mending nets for the approaching herring season— others are barking sails, while the younger portion are returning with loads of bait for the lines of their fathers or brothers.

Though Newhaven is now a place of considerable importance in its way, and can boast of a population greatly exceeding the number employed in fishing, a marked distinction is maintained betwixt the two classes; and the fishermen pride themselves on the exclusive intercourse which has distinguished their community from time immemorial. The Buckhaven fishermen, on the opposite coast, are said to be the descendants of settlers from the Netherlands; and even yet they adhere to the wide trousers and long boots of the Dutch; but there is no reasonable ground for believing that either the 'fishers of Preston-pans, Fisherrow, or Newhaven derive their origin from a foreign stock.

It is rather curious, in villages so nearly connected by locality and avocation, that any marked difference should be found in manners or habits. This is the case, however, both in regard to dialect, dress, and several other particulars. Thus the Newhaven women are distinguished from those of Fisherrow by the arrangement of their head-dress, particularly in the disposal of their hair. Formerly, and the feeling is not yet entirely extinct, much rivalry prevailed among the various communities of fishermen on the coast. About forty years ago an inveterate feud existed betwixt the Prestonpans and Newhaven men. The bone of contention was the right to certain oyster beds which the latter claimed as the tacksmen of the city of Edinburgh. Many conflicts resulted from this misunderstanding, as will appear from the following extracts:—

"On Wednesday, March 19 [1788], a sharp contest took place at the back of the Black Bocks, near Leith harbour, between a boat's crew belonging to Newhaven and another belonging to Prestonpans, occasioned by the latter dredging oysters on the ground alleged to belong to the former. After a severe conflict of about half an hour, with their oars, boat-hooks, etc., the Newhaven men brought in the Prestonpans boat to Newhaven, after much hurt being received on both sides. This is the second Prestonpans boat taken from them in the same manner by the Newhaven men."

"Some time ago five fishermen from Prestonpans were imprisoned for dredging oysters near Newhaven, contrary to an interdict of the Judge-Admiral. In order that the public, particularly the lovers of good oysters, may know the reason of granting this inderdict, the following state of facts is submitted.

"For more than a year past a cause has been pending in the Court of Admiralty, between sundry fishermen in Newhaven, as tacksmen of the town of Edinburgh, and Lady Greenwich, on the one part; and certain fishermen in Prestonpans, etc., on the other. The point in dispute is certain oyster-scalps, to which each party claims an exclusive right. Accusations of encroachment were naturally given and retorted. At dredging, when the parties met, much altercation and abusive language took place, bloody encounters ensued, and boats were captured on both sides. It would require the pen of a Drummond (Hawthornden) to describe, in a proper manner, the many bloody conflicts of those sons of Neptune, in which as much enterprise and heroism were frequently displayed as would have done honour to a more important cause. A scarcity of fish at first gave rise to these disputes: but it would appear that the combatants afterwards fought not so much for oysters as for victory. And, indeed, what with vinegar on the one part, and pepper on the other, the oysters upon the whole were highly seasoned.

"The Newhaven fishers contend that the community of Edinburgh, whose tacksmen they are, have the sole right to the Green Scalp on the breast of Inchkeith, and to the Beacon Grounds lying off the Black Hocks. To instruct this right, they produce a notarial copy of a charter from King James VI., and likewise a charter from Charles I., 1636, wherein ' fishings' are expressly mentioned. There was also produced a charter in favour of Lady Greenwich, in which ' fishings ' are comprehended.

" On the other hand, the Prestonpans fishers contended that the Newhaven men have encroached on the north shores belonging to the Earl of Morton and burgh of Burntisland, of which they are tacksmen. They accordingly produced an instrument of seisin, dated November 10, 1786, in virtue of which his lordship was infeft, inter alia, in the oyster scalps in question. They also condescended on a charter granted by King James VI., 1585, to the town of Burntisland, which is on record, and which they say establishes their right. They further contend that the Magistrates of Edinburgh have produced no proper titles to prove their exclusive right to the scalps they have set in tack to the Newhaven fishermen. The charter of King James VI. was resigned by the town in the reign of Charles I., and the new charter, granted by the latter in 1636, gives no right to the oyster scalps in dispute. The word 'fishings' in general is not contained in the dispositive clause, but only occurs in the Tcnendas, like 'hawkings,' 'huntings,' or other words of style, which is of no signification.

"After various representations to the Judge-Admiral, his lordship pronounced an interlocutor, ordaining both parties to produce their respective rights to these fishings, and prohibiting them from dredging oysters in any of the scalps in dispute till the issue of the cause.

"A petition was presented to his lordship on the 6th of January last [1790], by the Newhaven fishers, stating that by the late interdict, they find themselves deprived of the means of supporting themselves and families; while the Prestonpans fishers are pursuing their usual employment by dredging on other scalps than those in dispute; and praying his lordship would recal or modify said interdict. "Which petition being served on the agent for the East country fishers, his lordship, by interlocutor of the 5th February last, 'allowed both parties to dredge oysters upon the scalps they respectively pretended right to; and, before going to fish, to take with them any of the six sworn pilots at Leith, to direct each party where they should fish, to prevent them from encroaching on each other's scalps, or taking up the seedlings.' "

This cause was finally decided by the Judge-Admiral against the Prestonpans fishermen; but no damages were awarded, and each party had to pay their own expenses.

On the breaking out of hostilities with France, the danger which threatened the coast had the effect of diverting the attention of the Newhaven men from their local quarrels ; and they were the first to offer their services as a marine force, to guard against the encroachments of the enemy. This well-timed manifestation of public spirit was so highly appreciated, that on the 10th of May, 1796, the president of their Society, at a meeting convened for the purpose, was presented with a handsome silver medal and chain, in presence of several gentlemen, by the Duke of Buccleuch, who delivered an appropriate speech on the occasion. On one side, the medal contained the following inscription:—"In testimony of the brave and patriotic offer of the fishermen of "Newhaven to defend the coasts against the enemy, this honorary mark of approbation was voted by the county of Mid-Lothian, November 2, 1796." On the reverse side was the Scottish Thistle, surmounted with the national motto, "Nemo me impune lacesset;" and underneath, the words, "Agmine Eemorum Celeri."

Speedily formed into an effective body of Sea Fencibles, they did not allow their gallantry to evaporate in mere words. Besides at all times keeping a watchful look-out upon the coast, upwards of two hundred of them volunteered, in 1806, to man the Texel ship-of-war, then lying in Leith Boads, and instantly proceeding to sea, gave chase to some French frigates by whom the coast had been infested, and numerous depredations committed on our trade. A subscription, amounting to upwards of .£250, was raised in Edinburgh, and distributed among the men, as a reward for this important service. "With the Texel, the gallant band of Sea Fencibles were next year engaged at Copenhagen, and had the good fortune to capture a frigate named the Neyden, which they brought as a prize to Yarmouth Koads, from whence they returned with much eclat to Newhaven. Some of the old hands still survive who were in this expedition, and delight in spinning a yarn on the subject—"as how, when I was on board the Texel"

Newhaven, small though it be, is a place of some antiquity. So early as the reign of James IV., certain burghal privileges were conferred on it; but these at an after period were bought up by the Town Council of Edinburgh. "Coeval with the erection of this suburb, James built a chapel, which he dedicated to St. Mary, and from this fabric the little haven was sometimes called 'our Lady's Port of Grace.'" The coincidence of name has probably given rise to a belief among the simple inhabitants, that the village was designated "Mary's Port," from the circumstance of Queen Mary having landed there on her arrival from France. In confirmation of this, they point to an ancient looking house near the centre of the village, said to have been erected in commemoration of the event, with a tabular stone in the wall, bearing the date 1588, and surmounted by a thistle. The centre of the tablet contains the figure of a vessel of peculiar form, said to be the Spanish polachre in which the Queen arrived. Underneath are the words, "In the neam of God;" also the figures of two globes, with compass and square, etc. Unfortunately for the authenticity of this tradition, the young Queen of Scots, according to our historians, lauded at Leith twenty-seven years prior to the above date. Her mother, Mary of Guise, first came to Scotland in 1538; an event which, could we suppose the mistake of a figure, might be assumed as the occurrence referred to; and, in 1550, a small squadron of ships having been brought to anchor at Newhaven, the Queen Dowager embarked from thence on a visit to her daughter in France.

The Society of Newhaven Fishermen, which serves the purpose of a benefit society, while at the same time it protects the civil rights of its members, was instituted by a charter from James the Sixth. There are at present about two hundred and sixty members. A noble feature in the character of the Newhaven men is their sturdy independence of spirit, and the respect which they enforce as due to old age. They maintain their own poor. Members above sixty years of age are exempted from all burdens connected with the Society, without depriving them of any of its privileges. Every aged pauper, if he fulfils the letter of the regulations so far as to appear on the shore at the lauding of a boat, whether he lend his assistance or not, is entitled to a small allowance from the produce. Even in their jollifications the aged are treated with the utmost care by the younger portion of the convivial party, a certain number of whom are appointed, on great occasions, to observe when the old fellows are sufficiently in their cups, and to see them conveyed safely home and put to bed. On the annual choosing of office-bearers for the Society, the newly elected box-holder, as he is called, treats the old men to a dinner and drink, when the veterans usually enjoy themselves pretty freely. On an occasion of this kind some years ago, the united ages of the five individuals who sat at the convivial board amounted to four hundred and thirty years.

Though not greatly famed for their knowledge of books, sacred or profane, the people of Newhaven have long maintained a church-going reputation. "Within the bounds of the parish of North Leith," says the author of a History of Leith, "the old church, in Dr. Johnston's time, was much frequented by the primitive natives of that celebrated village, who, being naturally gregarious, generally formed the majority of its congregation, in which they constituted a marked and not un-pleasing feature; nay, it was a sight of no ordinary interest to see the stern and weather-beaten faces of these hardy seamen subdued, by the influence of religions feeling, into an expression of deep reverence and humility before their God. Their devotion seemed to have acquired an additional solemnity of character, from a consciousness of the peculiarly hazardous nature of their occupation, which, throwing them immediately and sensibly on the protection of their Creator every day of their lives, had imbued them with a deep sense of gratitude to that Being, whose outstretched arm had conducted their little bark in safety through a hundred storms. The fishermen of Newhaven and their families were always looked upon by their worthy pastor with peculiar kindness. He considered them in an especial manner under his charge and protection, and accordingly treated them on all occasions with the most marked attention. This urbanity and condescension produced on their part a feeling of the deepest veneration and respect for their beloved minister." "The esteem in which Dr. Johnston was held," continues the writer, "is characteristically illustrated by the exclamation with which the women, when selling fish to a higgling customer, attempted to destroy all hopes of a further abatement in price. 'Na, na,' they were wont to say, 'I wadna gie them to the Doctor himsel' for that siller!'"

The memory of Dr. Johnston is still cherished with the utmost veneration. He officiated amongst them for upwards of half a century, and in many families had "performed the ceremonies of marriage and baptism through four successive generations." Some curious anecdotes are told, illustrative of his homely manner and the primitive character of his parishioners. A fisherman, named Adam L------, having been reproved pretty severely for his want of Scripture knowledge, was resolved to baulk the minister on his next catechetical visitation. The day appointed he kept out of sight for some time; but at length, getting top-heavy with some of his companions, he was compelled, after several falls, in one of which he met with an accident that somewhat disfigured his countenance, to take shelter in his own cottage. The minister arrived, and was informed by Jenny, the wife, that her husband was absent at the fishing. The Doctor then inquired if she had carefully perused the catechism he had left on his last visit, and being answered in the affirmative, proceeded to follow up his conversation with a question or two. "Weel, Jenny," said the minister, "can ye tell me what was the cause o' Adam's fall?" By no means versed in the history of the great progenitor of the human race, and her mind being exclusively occupied by her own Adam, Janet replied, with some warmth, "'Deed, sir, it was naething else but drink!" at the same time calling to her husband, "Adam, ye may as weel rise, for the Doctor kens brawly what's the matter; some clashin' deevils o' neibours hae telt him a' about it! "

On another occasion of pastoral visitation, the "gudewife o' the house," Maggy, had just returned from market, and in her hurry to meet the minister, whom she found in possession of her cottage, deposited her basket, which contained certain purchases from a butcher's stall, at the door. After a few preliminary observations, Dr. Johnston began by putting the question—"What doth every sin deserve, Margaret?" "God's curse------the dowg's awa' wi' the head - and -harigals/" she exclaimed as she bolted after the canine delinquent, who had made free with the contents of her basket. "Very well answered," said the Doctor on her return, "but rather hurriedly spoken."

Another of the fish-dames, named Maggy—for Margaret and Janet are the prevailing names among the females of Newhaven—happening to take a glass extra, was met on her way home by the minister. "What, what, Margaret!" said the Doctor, jocularly, "I think the road is rather narrow for you." "Hout, sir," replied Maggy, alluding to her empty creel, " how can I gang steady without ballast! "

The late erection of a church at Newhaven, we understand, has been attended with the best results. The fishermen and their families consider this place of worship more peculiarly their own, and take a pride as well as pleasure in assembling under its roof.

The political agitations of nearly the last ten years, too, have not been without their influence on the character of the fishermen. Many of them now discuss State questions with all the nonchalance of thorough politicians. By the Reform Bill, a measure in which they greatly rejoiced, not a few of them obtained the parliamentary franchise, and it was altogether a new and flattering thing to be solicited by a candidate for their suffrage. The chief spokesman of the community, Thomas Wilson, was presented with a handsome silver snuff box by the Reformers of Edinburgh, in approbation of his conduct. He was also gratified by a visit from O'Connell, during his visit to Edinburgh. Mr. Wilson is a shrewd, sensible, hard-working man ; is landlord of a small public house, and when not out at the fishing, presents his box for a pinch with much sociality, not unfrequently accompanied by some remark about his friend the "member for Ireland."


Return to Book Index Page