Posts tagged ‘Musselburgh’

February 13, 2020

When Buckhaven was nearly the Torremolinos of Escocia: herein lies a fishy tail

Buckhaven

Scotland’s European credentials are well established but it may surprise you to know that Buckhaven in Fife just missed out on being the Torremolinos of, well, Spain when Philip II of Spain took a liking to the place and a boat-load of Spaniards were so fixated gazing at this little Fife gem their ship ran aground. Might have been part of the plan for they don’t appear to have left but struck up relationships with the Fifers who were soon speaking with Spanish accents and conversing in Spanish, shouldn’t it have been the other way round? So taken were Buckhaveners and Spaniards they kept marrying each other, tell me any old fishing community which didn’t, and evolved their own distinctive dialect.

And it wasn’t only Buckhaven that Phillip II was interested in. To be fair he was mainly interested in extending his empire – but he recognised quality when he saw it. On the west coast, Ailsa Craig, (now famous for its granite curling stones) whose natives paid their land rents with solan geese, seabird feathers and rabbit skins and caught an awful lot of cod was where Philip thought he would begin his annexation of the British Isles by having a castle built. Why start with Ailsa Craig. Well, why not?

Spanish wrecks littered the seas and beaches of Scotland. Their love of the place was second only to the Dutch’s. Their links with northeastern Scotland are long. Aberdeen’s sold salt herring and cod to the continent as far back as the 12th century and of such importance was this trade the Dutch word for salt cod is Labberdaan, its old spelling was haberdien – a corruption of Aberdeen.

White fish and pink. For hundreds of years salmon, fished out of Aberdeen’s two rivers, the Dee and Don, was exported, at first to the Continent and then around the whole world, in mind-blowing quantities.

In 1705, two years before the union, the Scottish parliament copied the Dutch example and remitted duties on everything herring-related, and other fish taxes. Fortunes were accumulated. Amsterdam is said to have been founded on the bones of Scottish herring (the stone for its Stadthouse was quarried and shipped out from the Firth of Forth but that is another story.)

With the waters around Orkney and Shetland teeming with fish they attracted the attention of European fishing boats. Don’t say I’m not contemporary. In 1633 1500 herring busses (vessels) protected by 20 armed ships and a further 400 dogger-boats went about in convoy as they fished. They were looking for cod, not difficult then, and caught them by rod and line. Sounds a slow business but tens of thousands were employed fishing. So thick on the water were these fishing vessels in what came to be known as the North Sea an area off England was named Dogger Bank.

Dutch dogger vessel

It’s as if fishing wars have always been with us. Post-union government bounties were offered to encourage more vessels take to sea to catch ever more fish, such was their value to the economy. The trouble was, and oh, how redolent this is of today, preferential treatment was provided to the biggest vessels over small fishing boats. After union with England, Scotland fishing trade declined, partly through the application of a salt tax (fish goes off quickly so must be cured for export and salt was one means of curing it.) Regulations surrounding the tax were complex and cumbersome. Salt was also difficult to acquire without having red tape attached. The setup was so confusing and risky potential fishers were put off from signing contracts.

When in 1720 an attempt was made to resurrect Scotland’s languishing fishing trade cash was paid to 2,000 of what were described as Scotland’s principal people. They failed but pocketed the cash. Similar failures followed, under royal patronage. Each one cost money. Each failed. Commissioners appointed to oversee every new scheme were richly rewarded. Always the same people. For them failure meant hardship for someone else, not them. They pocketed the cash. A lot of it.

Scotland’s water were then as now sources of incredible wealth, not always well-handled in the best interests of the people of Scotland. Bressay Sound at Shetland had one of the finest harbours in the British Isles in 1800. The fishing grounds here were almost monopolised by the Dutch; like those folk down the east coast many Shetlanders could communicate in Dutch. English vessels, too, headed north to fish for herring, ling, tusk, sea otters and seals. Sponges were sought and ambergris – a secretion of the bile duct in sperm whales that is disgorged into the sea and once used as for medicines, although Charles II loved to eat this stinking waste product. Whalers passed through this busy area on their way to and from Greenland and the Davis’ Straits from Dundee, Aberdeen, Arbroath and Peterhead.

Herds of grampuses (dolphins), sea otters, whales, fish of every description from round to flat were fished off Orkney including coalfish. Coalfish was a mainstay food for many of Scotland’s poorest folk. In Orkney the youngest fish were sillocks, year-olds were cooths and, I think, mature ones, Sethes. Orcadians preferred these wee fish to herring. They also harvested lots of sponges, corals, corallines, large oysters, mussels, cockles etc. and all kinds of unusual things washed ashore from the Atlantic including Molucca or Orkney beans. How they used these mimosa scandens seeds I don’t know – they might have roasted and eaten them or made them into drinks, used them as soaps or threw them at each other. Beyond exotic seeds many varieties of fish were landed. And the odd man. At least once a fin-man or Laplander turned up in his skin canoe.

Orkney beans

Situated between Orkney and Shetland is Fair Isle. Writing about 1800 one commentator described islanders living ‘almost in a state of nature’, whatever that means. His point was that crews on those fishing vessels from Holland and England fishing in the seas around the island raided not only their waters but stole everything they could lift from the island, leaving the people with next to nothing.

In addition to sea fishing carried out on an industrial scale, local communities fished in bays off their villages, in rivers and lochs. At the Solway Firth four distinct methods of catching fish were employed.

  1. Leister – a 4-pronged fork, its prongs turned slightly to one side, and attached to a long shaft of about 20 -24 feet was run along the sand on its edge or thrown at fish. Some expert fishers could spear fish from galloping horses, at great distances. This method was, apparently, very successful.
  2.  Haaving or hauling where the fisher stood in the current trapping fish with a small hand net.
  3.  Pock or small nets were fixed to stakes in rivers to catch fish swimming downstream.
  4.  Boat nets were used to catch salmon.

Fish provided food, oil for lamps and goods to barter for other items. Because fish was readily available it was an important source of income all around Scotland’s coasts. In the Black Isle or Ardmeanach to give it its old name, Rosemarkie’s salmon fishers preserved their catches in ice stored in an ice house near the shore , a deep, dark, dank echoing play place for local children that is now locked up, probably wisely. Avoch was a thriving fishing port taking large quantities of herring until recent times. Cromarty was another Black Isle fishing village, and Munlochy on the Moray Firth also had an excellent fishing station.

West Kilbride was known for its cod and white fisheries. Loch Leven for perch, pike, char, eels and especially its trout. Hebridean waters were rich sources of fish. Lewis took vast quantities of white fish, herring, trout and salmon as well as shellfish. Creeks around the rocky island of Muck provided shelter for fishing boats landing ling and cod. There, oil was extracted from cearban or sunfish – basking sharks. This oil was once popular as medicine and sold to Glasgow merchants. Seals were killed for their oil, too.

In addition to fish fish, shellfish were gathered from pools, off rocks, trapped in the water. It is patently obvious mussels were gathered at Musselburgh and there and Fisherrow were associated with good quality shellfish. Not only there, of course. Dornoch, Cramond and Inchmickery Island had their own enormous oyster beds, until overfishing of them put an end to that. Burntisland oysters were renowned, as were/are those from Loch Fyne. Loch Fyne also operated hundreds of herring boats. The harbour at Inverary at the head of Loch Fyne was called Slochk Ichopper, the gullet where vessels bought or bartered fish. Bartering herring for French wine took place at an area given the name, Frenchman’s point.

Men fished on boats but women and children were involved in all other aspects of the trade; preparing lines and nets, baiting lines, cleaning and processing fish and selling it. Local trading was hard graft for the wicker creels women carried on their backs were heavy before being loaded with wet fish and fishwives would walk long distances to make sales. As a point of interest, we often hear about fishwives but women hawkers sold all kinds produce in towns and country – kailwives sold vegetables and saltwives sold salt, for example.

The diversity of Scotland’s fishing trade began to dwindle when it stopped being a collective activity and became increasingly concentrated into fewer hands, of major businessmen. In addition, back in 1800 some small communities struggled to keep boats at sea and in rivers because their villages were targeted by the British Navy, eager to take away their fit and healthy young men who were able seamen. As with the army when men were needed all eyes turned northwards to Scotland. London could never get enough of Scots men, not only fit and strong but obedient. This was especially true during times of war – which was most of the time. Johnshaven, south of Aberdeen, lost many of its men to press-gangs.

Back in the day fishing was a community enterprise not confined to the handful of billionaire interests that we have now in the white fish industry but, as we’ve seen by the 18th century, public money found its way into the pockets of the rich through subsidies and enticements. During Scotland’s independent centuries fishing as a trade flourished, it was an important source of revenue for the nation, despite the attentions of Spaniards, Dutch and, yes, English seamen. Post-union whaling was for a fairly brief period enabled by virtue of larger vessels capable of sailing to inhospitable places such as Greenland and the Davis’ Straits. Risks were great, though not for the moneyed men behind voyages to harpoon the whale who waited in the warm comforts of their homes for the expected huge profits to further inflate their fortunes. And there was part of that that went straight into Westminster’s coffers; Scotland’s first oil bonanza went the same way as its second. It is hard for us to appreciate the degree of wealth generated from whaling, white fish and salmon. Good riddance to whaling and as for fishing, Scotland’s waters are no longer stuffed with fish as they once were; greed and overfishing have diminished stocks in our seas, rivers and lochs – denial, greed and short-termism has afflicted the trade of fishing for a very long time.