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Fittie Fowk

18th Century Fittie
The remote enclave consisted of several rows of low thatched cottages, running from east to west between the high road and the Harbour, or, as it was called, the "tide," which at high water came up even to the ends of the houses. Nothing could be more apparently comfortless than the exterior of these dwellings, each fronting the back of the opposite neighbour, and the narrow space between forming a line of dunghills, crossed over with supported spars, from whence hung lines, bladders, and buoys, intermixed with dried skates and dogfish.  The prospect within was not more alluring to a stranger, and yet the inhabitants seemed quite contented.  The earthen floor, dirty and uneven - the smoky roof, whose only ceiling was a few old oars and pieces of drift wood - with the bare rough walls, unconscious of any washing save what the sooty drops afforded, were objects far from pleasing.

The furniture in every way corresponding. Two clumsy black bedsteads were placed under the 2 small windows, of which there was 1 on each side of the door; and a small table, 2 or 3 chairs, and some low seats or sunkies, with the requisites of the fishing occupation, viz., lines, creels, sculls, murlans, etc., formed all the rest of the visible movables. There was no 'press' (cupboard) or keeping-place whatever, except a chest or locker in which the Sunday clothes and any stores were kept, and the saut-backet suspended in the chimney.

The Fishermen were in general hardy and industrious, but ignorant in an incredible degree on all subjects unconnected with their own business.  Few of them could read, and none of the grown up people could write. The elderly men wore broad bonnets, blue jackets, and canvas kilts or short trousers. The younger men were rather good-looking, smarter in their dress, and more good-humoured; but going to sea in the night, and taking their repose by day, was not favourable for the development of the social faculties, and there was scarcely an instance of intellectual talent or a tendency to any art or science among them. They were indeed fond of music, in as far as having a fiddle at their merry meetings, and a few of the lads could sing but a little, but their collection of songs was not extensive.

A fisherman, at work ‘redding’ or preparing, the fishing line. This lengthy and painstaking job involved cleaning 100s of hooks on the line and then baiting them with mussels or lugworms.

Here lines were baited in preparation for line fishing by attaching lugworm or mussels to the “huiks” (hooks) and was an everyday sight. First they a hook to the “want”. A scoop at his side would contain marram grass which was used to layer over the line after baiting to stop it snagging. 

The Fishing Industry is generally viewed as a solely male occupation; however women have always played a central role in Scotland's fishing communities. It was unusual for a fisherman to take a wife from a farming or non-fishing background since such women would have none of the necessary skills nor knowledge to support her spouse's work. Fisher women were often regarded as having equal status to their men and in many households they were the ruling partners.  More often than not the family's economy would be controlled and directed by the women, with most of them known by their maiden names.

The females of this small community laboured under great disadvantages, both moral and physical; their incessant toils left no time for mental improvement, and their constant exposure to the weather without any sort of bonnet, together with their frequent immersion in salt water, gave a hardness to their features and coarseness to the skin, with a far-from-pleasing expression of countenance. The figure also became early bent from the weight of the creel. The middle-aged women wore a stuff gown with a large flowered calico wrapper or short gown over it, the young girls a stuff wrapper and petticoat, with the hair in a most unbecoming fashion, either thrown back with a large comb which reached from ear to ear, or put up in a very slovenly manner, with a "head lace" of red worsted tape. The boys under 15 were the worst clothed; they ran about in a very tattered condition in old garments of their fathers', "a very world too wide," and seemed to be kept waiting until their strength could enable them to gain a decent covering. The little children were the most comfortable, those of both sexes being clad in a simple dress of white plaiding, called a "wallicoat," which, with their white curly heads and rosy countenances made them look very pretty as they puddled with their mimic boats in the trapped tide pools of water.

Clothes handed down within a family were always referred to as Cast-affs
were footless Stockings worn by the Fisher Fowk - warmth without any wear.

There was still another class, who, though fewer in number, formed rather an interesting part of the society. In several of the families there was, in addition to the husband, wife, and children, an old man or woman, known by the appellation of Lucky-daddy or Lucky-minnie - the Grandfather or Grandmother of the family. These, when unable to work for themselves, went to live in the houses of their sons or daughters, and seemed to be kindly treated by them.  Some of the men were very old, born in a former century, and appeared to take little interest in what was passing, sitting in a chair in the sun outside the door, or led about by 1 of the children. The Grandmother had her place by the fire, and assisted in many of the lighter domestic labours. Her dress was somewhat peculiar; she always wore a blue cloth hood or "trotcosie," and a man's coat over the rest of her attire, with a large pouch or pocket by her side. These old women were often skilled in the medical arts, and their advice sought in preference to Doctors; but some individuals of them were also dreaded as being an "unlucky foot," and possessing other powers which made it dangerous to offend them.

Trading Community

From the circumstance of most of these Fishers some being employed as Pilots, and from their immediate association  with the Harbour, and constant commercial intercourse with the inhabitants of Aberdeen, there is in them a greater degree of Civilization than is observable in most of the other Fishing communities of the North-east. At the same time, their joint employment as both fishermen and pilots is by no means favourable to their religious, moral, and domestic habits.

The unavoidable want of regularity in their hours, the general practice of giving allowances in drink for any particular service, and their custom of dividing the Pilotage money among the boat's crews generally on Saturday evening, all tend to lead them to the Ferry Boat Inn on Pocra Quay, where sometimes a large portion of their earnings were spent. Yet drunkenness, though prevalent among them, is by no means universal, and the number of exceptions seems to be increasing of late.  A fisherman who is a Pilot will earn as much as £1, 10s. or even £2 per week during Summer, but not half so much during Winter. On an average, however, they can make fully as much as any other Labourers in the same class of society, and of this money the Husband has the possession and command, while the wife retains possession of all the money arising from the sale of the Fish. It is not often that either party manages these gains to the best advantage.

A powered Coble crosses the Dee Estuary near the Torry Shore

The Fisher Fowk are a hard-working people and extremely honest, and they deem it the greatest possible reproach to cast a doubt on their integrity, which they are the more easily enabled to maintain as unimpeachable, because all their bargains and transactions are for ready money.

They seldom marry with persons not of their own community, except in a few instances where the daughters of fishers have married with seamen and ship-carpenters. This may arise not so much from any dislike to form connections out of their own craft, as from the fact that, on the one hand, a fisherman would find a woman of any other class wholly incapable of giving him any assistance in this occupation, and unable to perform the hard work devolving on the fisherwomen; and, on the other hand, a fisher-woman, from the irregularity of her occupation, and want of leisure and opportunity to attend to her daughters, unless when they follow her in her fishing employments, cannot educate them so as to be useful wives to persons of any other class.

Post card  -  Three generations of Newhaven Fishwives  -  George Washington WilsonHard Times -A grandmother chastising a young lass for complaining of some little duty to be done -

"Lassie, ye dinna ken fit it is to be livin'.   When I wis your age I had tae start fae Finnan, wi' a bir'n that took twa tae lift on my back, at 3 o'clock on winter mornin's, wi' the blin' drift i' my face, an' tramp in tae Aberdeen by the Brig o' Dee Road, which wisna sae steep nor slippy as the Suspension Bridge Road; then a' foreneen it i' the Market; syne we filled oor creels wi' groceries or mussels, an' startit hame in the aifterneen, and aye, sirs, it wis a stiff road hame.  On the frosty nichts we ees'd tae pick the middle o' the road, where the horse feet had chippit the ice, but fin' the hill wis sae slippy we had tae tak tae the ditches, an mony a nicht the tangles on oor frozen petticoats wad hae oor legs cut an' bleedin' an' frozen again, afore we wisn hame. Then there wis the fish to carry up the lang steep Finnan braes, the mussels tae shell, an' the lines to bait, the fish to clean an' smoke, syne the hoose tae tidy up, an' the bairns tae look aifter, an' awa tae Aberdeen again.

Aye lassie! lassie! mony a week oor een never steekit on a pillow; an' in the simmer time, besides the ither wark, awa tae the moss, 3 weary miles, tae cast peats, an' when they were dry an' ready, to carry them hame again, Lassie, dinna complain o' your wee bit wark bein' a fash."

Occasionally considerable quantities of shrimps are caught in pools left by the tide on the sands; and the fishermen who reside in Fittie use as bait great quantities of sand-eels, which they collect by turning over the sand after the tide has receded.

Fishing Villages of the North-east
Being among a Coastal community naturally the Sea has been a major source of industry and food. Navigation skills were taught at the Balmedie Parish school in 1840, reflecting the importance of the nautical occupation. Salmon fishing and pearl-fishing have also played their part in supplying the inhabitants with food and commodities. There were 5 Coast Salmon Fisheries established at Black Dog, Millden, Balmedie, Blairton and Menie, working with stake-net or bag and fly nets which could only be attended tide-permitting. The Blairton fisheries were Crown property. Already in 1840 Reverend Forsyth noted the unpredictable supply of fish, and by 1957 they had indeed become scarce and the Industry declined by the end of the 20thcentury. Remains have been found of 3 'ice houses' on Millden, Eigie and Menie Links. The one at Millden is located at the Burn mouth on Hatton of Millden farm and functioned as a partially subterranean store for Fish from the Salmon fishery that was based at the Burn mouth. The dangerous currents along Balmedie beach made net-fishing a life-threatening occupation. On 23 July 1930 - 4 fishermen set out from a Salmon bothy near the natural feature known as 'the Black Dog' to check their nets, but only 2 returned. One of the survivors was a Belhelvie man, Alexander Moir, and the other 3 were from Johnshaven, Tarves and Gourdon.

A free school was established some years ago by Mr John Davidson, goldsmith, exclusively for the white-fishers, and it has been the means of doing a great deal of good among them. It is taught on the plan of the 'sessional' school, and its effects are manifest in the decided and progressive improvement of the manners and habits of the fishers. The children who attend the school re-act on their parents, and, as it were, shame them out of their indifference to useful knowledge and habits.  The fishers are, generally speaking, a long-lived people and very healthy, and, notwithstanding the dangerous nature of their occupation, there are few accidents of serious consequence among them.

Seaward Side of North Square with intrusive and incongruous TV Aerials.  Mony's the time I walked roon the seaward back lane of these cottages.  Note the wee loons heid defying the threatening Sea from the open skylight and the extended height of the soil pipe vents.

Like most other fishermen, they have a good many superstitious ideas and practices, and they have implicit faith in many traditions, and in various omens. Thus they reckon it very offensive for anyone to count a boat's crew, or a Company of them returning from Market, and it is not less so to tell how many fish they have caught.  If a fisher be turned back when he is going out to fish, he will on no account go out that day, and is very much provoked.  Often, too, things, which any one but they would esteem mere trifles, cannot be spoken of without interfering with some omen, whose influence they would hold it sinful to doubt.  It is at the same time to be noticed, that the Fishers of Fittie have less superstitions than those that live in the fishing-villages along the coast, both to the north and south, where they live almost entirely secluded from regular social intercourse with the inland agricultural population.

Clothes and Customs
Fisherfolks were easily recognised by their way of dressing. It was important with warm, weatherproof clothing going out to sea. In many places with no proper Harbours it was a custom womenfolk carrying their men out to their boats to prevent them from getting wet on their 1st working day.  The fishermen's garments were treated in various ways to make them waterproof. Before the advent of oilskins in the 1920s, fabric might be coated with linseed oil or an oak bark mixture (barkit).  Thigh boots made from leather were obligatory. The leather was also often treated to keep it waterproof. In some places cod liver was melted down and mixed with tar or lard for this purpose. Flannel undergarments, waistcoats, thick jerseys or ganseys, thick blue trousers and heavy jackets were worn. Scarfs kept water from running down the neck. Sea-going wear often had no buttons lest the fishing lines would catch in them. Rubber boots made their appearance in the 1930s, and by this time oilskin smocks – usually red or bright yellow – were also common.  Fashions varied from place to place, but generally – when ashore – the fishermen favoured dark-blue, double-breasted suits and flat bonnets. Older fishermen considered themselves properly dressed in their jerseys or ganseys. In older times a fisherman’s home district could be told from the pattern and style of his gansey.

When i was seen wearing a dirty shirt my mother would say - tak at aff - it's Barkit

The fisherwomen were easily recognised in their distinctive striped skirts, dark capes and headscarves, wearing white stockings and shoes like slippers – and displaying the creels of their trade. In the north-east the fishwives from different villages had distinctive patterns for their plaids : red and black dice in Inverallochy and Cairnbulg, blue and black in St. Combs, black and white in Broadsea, grey and white in Pitulie and natural brown in Rosehearty.

The woman usually worked in groups of 5 or 6 to buy a box of fish at the Quay and then divide it amongst themselves. Then each women with her chosen share would load her creel and smaller basket called a scull, weighing a total of 1 cwt (50 kg) of wet fish, on her back – the weight taken on the chest or forehead with a headband.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013