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The Story of Leith
XIX. Newhaven: A Fishing Village


At what period Newhaven became noted for its fisher population it would be difficult to say. A persistent tradition tells that the fisherfolk came from the Netherlands. We have already seen that a goodly number of the gunners and shipwrights introduced by James TV. in the earliest days of Newhaven’s history came from both the Netherlands and the northern shores of France, especially from Normandy and Brittany. Hans, the king’s master gunner, was a Fleming, while Jacques Terrell, who as James’s master wright played so great a part in the building of his navy, was a Frenchman. That the original population of Newhaven had a considerable Flemish element is undoubtedly true, but the tradition that its fisherfolk are the descendants of Flemish refugees, who settled here during the life-and-death struggle of their nation against the might of Spain, we may at once set aside as mere legend.

Fish has always formed a large part of the food of the people of our district, and, down to the early days of the nineteenth century, was almost the only meat the poorer classes could afford. Newhaven was in early days, and still is, the chief source of this supply. For centuries then, before the days of railways, the fishwives of Newhaven travelled to their Edinburgh customers by Whiting Loan (now Newhaven Road), through Broughton village (for Pilrig Street and Leith Walk are modern) and up Leith Wynd, where, after paying the petty customs on their fish, "new drawn frae the Forth," they entered the High Street by the Netherbow Port. For safety they always travelled in company in these law-less days, beguiling the long and toilsome journey by singing in chorus the songs their grandmothers had sung before them.

New Lane, Newhaven

Accustomed to an outdoor life from their early years and in all weathers, the fisherwomen are well known for their strong and healthy figures. Yet even in our days of trains and trams their strength must often be sorely taxed as they bear their burden of fish up the steep streets, and still steeper stairs, for which Edinburgh is notorious. A fishwife’s ordinary load varies from half a hundredweight to a hundredweight, and, incredible as it may seem, heavier loads are sometimes carried. A well-known song by James Ballantine, an Edinburgh poet who might be called the children’s laureate, takes its name and refrain from an incident that bears out what has been said about the heavy loads the Newhaven fishwife is often accustomed to carry. Ballantine happened to be passing when a fishwife was about to hoist on to her back her heavily laden creel. He very gallantly went to her assistance, and after doing so remarked with astonishment on the weight of her burden. Her cheery reply as she adjusted the strap against her forehead showed a happiness and contentment with her lot as unexpected as was the beauty and poetry of the words in which it was expressed—" Oo, ay, but ilka blade o’ grass keps its ain drap o’ dew."

But the Newhaven fishwife has other praiseworthy characteristics besides a happy contentment with her lot. As the creel becomes lighter, her industry and thrift are very much in evidence on her journeys, for she usually knits whenever her hands are free, and thus keeps herself and family well supplied with good warm stockings. As they ply their trade with creel on back, the fishwives of Newhaven are, from an historical point of view, the most picturesque figures met with in our streets. Not only are they the last of our old street traders, who formed such a prominent part of the street life in days gone by (as it is mirrored for us in the poems of Dunbar, Fergusson, and other Scottish poets, and in some of the novels of Sir Walter Scott), but they ply their trade to-day in almost the same garb, and in pretty much the same way, as they did centuries ago, when the Stuarts held court in Holyrood.

The fishwives of Newhaven are in our day the only old-world figures still to be seen in our streets, and as such they form a link connecting us with the figures in the bustling crowds that thronged the thoroughfares of Edinburgh and Leith in far-off days. The dress of the fishwife is familiar to all. Henley, the poet, has described it in his sonnet entitled "At Fisherrow," and Charles Reade has given it several paragraphs in Christie Johnstone, his well-known novel on Newhaven fisher life of sixty years ago, named after its heroine, a Newhaven fisher lass. Charles Reade spent some weeks here in the autumn of 1852. His picture of Newhaven fisher-folk and their ways is hardly a true representation, and, like most English novelists, he is not very happy in his Scottish dialogue. The best thing in the book is the portrait it draws of Dr. Fairbairn, so long Free Church minister here, whose church Reade attended while residing in Newhaven. The great majority of the congregation were fishermen and their families, who were always keenly appreciative of the manner in which Dr. Fairbairn prayed for those exposed to "peril on the sea."

The Newhaven fishwife’s dress is admirably adapted to her calling. Its most noticeable feature is the multiplicity of short petticoats, the home-knitted stockings, usually black, and the neat shoes. The numerous petticoats are a necessity of her vocation. Secured round her waist by broad bands, the bulging flannel forms a saddle for the creel, without which it would be equally difficult to balance and to carry, while their numerous folds form a protection both against wet weather and the drip of the creel.

To the lay mind all fishwives seem dressed alike, but there are several marked differences that distinguish those of Newhaven from those, say, of Fisherrow. The Fisberrow fishwife has a greater length of skirt and her creel band is always of leather, while that of her Newhaven sister is usually of canvas, which is well scrubbed every week to match her usual trig appearance. The girls generally go bareheaded, and the married women often follow their example and have no other head-dress than their own abundant hair brushed close and smooth.

Four Generations, Newhaven

Frequently, however, the married women wear a frilled cap that seems to indicate that old connection with the fisherfolk of Flanders, Normandy, and the coasts of Brittany.

Such are the fishwives of whom, when driving through Newhaven in 1872, the late Queen Victoria saw "many very enthusiastic, but not in their smartest dress." In their smartest dress the Newhaven fisher girls are undoubtedly the golden butterflies of their kind. As such they have been invited to concerts in many large English towns, and a dozen of them were sent as attendants to the great London Fisheries Exhibition of 1883, when they were hospitably entertained by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, and by the Prince and Princess of Wales (afterwards King Edward VII. and Queen Alexandra) at Marlborough House. As a result of this visit the fisher girls’ garb as a costume for ladies became fashionable all over the country, silks and finer cloths being substituted for the more common and more durable material. As we notice the brightness and colour added to our street scenes by the fisher girls of Newhaven when in gala dress we cannot but regret that so few of the old-time national costumes survive among us to-day.

Baiting the Line, Newhaven

Until recent years the inhabitants of Newhaven rarely married outside their own community. Their marriages have been aptly described as a union of talents as well as of hearts. A woman of any other class would be almost useless as a fisherman’s wife, unacquainted as she would be with the baiting and the preparation of lines and the mending of nets, and unable to assist him in the maintenance of the family by donning the creel and disposing of his catch. Sir Walter Scott, who knew the Newhaven people and their sayings well, is referring to this in The Antiquary when he makes Steenie’s mother, Maggie Mucklebackit, say to his sweetheart Jenny, "You’ll no dae for Steenie, lass; a feckless thing like you’s no fit to mainteen a man." The Newhaven fishwife is indeed the head of the household, ruling her husband along with the. other members of the family, and believing with Maggie Mucklebackit that "Them that sell the goods guide the purse; them that guide the purse rule the house." And how well she guides the purse is borne out by the fact that Newhaven is reckoned to have the wealthiest fishing community on the Forth, many of the houses being owned by their thrifty occupants.

A wedding in Newhaven, until some thirty or more years ago, used to be a very notable event, and as most of the inhabitants were more or less known to each other, if not related, it was generally attended by a large number of the younger members of the community. The bride in her braws, accompanied by her sweetheart, went round some time before and invited the guests personally. On the wedding day they walked in couples from the bride’s house to the "Peacock," the "Marine," or other hotel, where the marriage was to be celebrated.

"And a’ the boats wi’ flags were decked,
Frae Annfield to the pier;
And Doctor Johnstone, worthy man,
Had twa three hours to spare,
Sae he toddled to Newhaven,
And spliced the happy pair."

The Old Willow TreeAs many as one hundred couples have "walked" at a Newhaven wedding, the male guests frequently, as in the old-time "penny weddings," paying their own and their partner’s share of the wedding supper. Such wed. dings, like other old fisher customs, have gradually gone out of fashion, as the younger generation are no longer following the vocation of their parents, and the prophecy of the old spaewife anent the great willow tree that once grew and flourished at Willow Bank so many long years ago,

"When that tree shall decay,
The open sea-boat fishing trade shall also die away,"

seems fast coming true.

The young men are now either joining the trawlers or entering some trade, while the majority of the Newhaven girls will no longer carry the creel, and, discarding the picturesque fishing costume, follow other walks in life, many of them being employed in Messrs. Devlin’s net factory at Granton and other public works in the neighbourhood. Though such a sight was common a generation ago, it is only on rare occasions now that one sees fisherwomen baiting and preparing lines at their doorstep in Newhaven. The day of the small trader in the fishing industry, as in most others, is over, and thus the old-time fishing boats, with their tall, straight masts and brown sails, than which nothing could be more picturesque, are not so numerous in Newhaven harbour as they once were. The trawler has almost driven the line fisher from the fishing grounds, just as the fish shop, and more especially the fish cart, even in Newhaven itself, is driving the fishwife out of the market. The cry of "Caller herrin’" is seldom heard in our streets, and soon will be remembered only in the touching words of Lady Nairne’s fine song, whose beautiful air was composed by Nathaniel Gow from a blending of the music of St. Andrew’s church bells with the notes of a fishwife’s cry, as she hawked her fish along George Street when that fine thoroughfare was a residential and not a business quarter as it is to-day.

From the gay and romantic times of James IV. down to the boyhood days of our grandfathers many fisherwomen earned their livelihood by the sale of shellfish. The cries of "Cockles and mussels," "Wulks and buckies" are no longer heard. The vendors of these, however, now reduced to some half-dozen fisherwomen and girls, still remain, and form an interesting picture of Old Edinburgh street life. They are all, with the exception of one, who has her stance in Leith Street, to be found in the Old Town—in the High Street, Bristo, and St. Mary Street, and near the very spots occupied by their predecessors of four hundred years ago. These fisherfolk are usually to be found on Saturdays only, and all come from Fisherrow. No Newhaven fishwife would now condescend to sell shellfish on the street, for by her it is no longer considered a fish trade of the first class.

In the evenings during the months of May, June, and July the Newhaven fisher girl, with creel on back and rather more trig in her get-up than usual, though not in her smartest dress, may be found at some busy centre such as the Theatre Royal or the foot of Leith Walk. Here towards sunset the cry of "Caller partans" may fall pleasantly on the ear. It is usually rendered "Caller parte-e-e," for the fisher lass seems to take pleasure in prolonging the last syllable to make her cry more effective, and to save herself its too frequent repetition.

The season of partans used to be followed by that of oysters.

"September’s merry month is near
That brings in Neptune’s caller cheer,
New oysters fresh;
The halesomest and nicest gear
O’ fish or flesh."

During every month with the letter "r" in it—that is, from September to April—the cry of "Caller ou" (that is, Caller oysters), the most beautiful of all the fisherwomen’s cries, was frequently heard on the streets after "the aucht hours’ bell." Evening oyster parties were fashionable in old-time Edinburgh and Leith, and many a "snell repartee" used to be exchanged between the oyster lass and her customers. The supply of oysters in the Forth, from overdredging and other causes, is now extremely limited.

Oyster dredging employed the local fishermen from the close of the summer herring fishing off the north-east coast until the opening of the winter herring fishing in the Forth, and the sale of oysters was a lucrative source of income to the fisherwomen. The Forth oyster beds are slowly recovering themselves, and the time may again come when the melodious cry of "Caller ow-ooh," as it was pronounced, which even yet is occasionally heard on autumn evenings in our West End squares, will once more become familiar to our ears, and the picturesque form of the Newhaven fisher girl, as in days gone by, be more frequently seen in our streets.

An important institution of Newhaven that was wont to bring itself more frequently into public notice than it does now is the Free Fishermen’s Society, which is said to date from 1572. The annual election of the boxmaster of this society, Until a very few years ago, gave Newhaven its annual gala night, when a great torchlight procession was formed for the "lifting of the box" and its conveyance to the house of the new boxmaster for the year. This event was followed by a supper noted for its flowing bowl. In more temperate days this supper became a soiree, when the Rev. Dr. Kilpatrick usually occupied the chair, and on these occasions was generally in his best story-telling form. The soiree, like the supper, is now among the things that were. The Society, for the nominal rent of ten shillings per annum, has perpetual lease from the Government of the Free Fishermen’s Park, which is all that remains of the once extensive Newhaven Links.

Main Street, Newhaven

We have now followed the outline of Newhaven’s history from its earliest days to our own times. At first it seemed destined to become a great shipbuilding port, but the untoward death of James IV. on Flodden Edge ended those hopes, and it gradually declined into the little fishing village it remained down to the Close of the eighteenth century. After the Turnpike Road Act of 1751, which did so much for Scotland’s progress, and the consequent great development of the stage coach, Newhaven became the busiest and most important ferry and packet station in Scotland; but its somewhat primitive pier and breakwater could not possibly hold out against the magnificent docks and piers which in 1848 drew the railway to Granton, and it sank once more into a fishing village as we know it to-day.

Once again, however, the stir and bustle of trade have invaded it, and, as a fishing village, it now seems about to regain the fame it has lost as a port. Yet, strange as it may seem, it is as the little fishing village that Newhaven has achieved its greatest distinction, for, by sending its musical cries of "Caller herrin’" and "Caller ou" sounding over the globe, it has become known to fame wherever the English language is spoken and Scots songs are loved.

"New Drawn Frae The Forth."


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