I was down at the East Lothian Local History Centre last week looking for photos of a Musselburgh fish restaurant which was run by a client’s relatives in the early 1900’s. I had to look through 12 archival storage boxes, which was no hardship for me.
Musselburgh is a long-established fishing town on the East Coast of Scotland near Edinburgh and I was most intrigued when I found this photograph. Noted on the back is “the race for the shawl during Fisherman’s Walk Celebration c1935”. But they’re not men and they’re not walking!
Everyone seems to be having a good time. The Fisherman’s Walk was an annual celebration held on the first Saturday in September to mark the end of the fishing season, and part of the tradition was the “Race for the Shawl”, along with the street procession through the decorated streets, dancing and a Thanksgiving service on the Sunday.
Women never went to sea, but it was down to them to sell the fish when the boats returned and these “walking fishwives”often travelled 20 miles carrying creels weighing up to a hundredweight (120lbs, or almost 51kg) on their backs. Their outfits were distinctive striped skirts with a matching apron which was folded up to use as a money belt when they were selling. Here’s a postcard showing the traditional garb while stationary!
The cry of “caller* herrin” through the streets would have alerted customers that fresh fish was for sale. These strong women were renowned for being rather fearsome and prone to using bad language, however many attended meetings at the Scottish Coast Mission Hall. There was a Fishwives Choir, and fishwives from Fisherrow Harbour at Musselburgh often played golf against their counterparts from Newhaven further up the coast.
The Statistical Account for Scotland (1834-45) comments on the Musselburgh fishwives “as having an uncommonly robust and masculine aspect” – I bet no one would have dared say that to their faces :-)
Scotland’s last walking fishwife, Betty Millar from Musselburgh, passed away in 2000 – she still wore the traditional outfit, but travelled by train to sell her fish.
I’m so pleased that this photo shouted at me from its archival folder and inspired me to do a little research!
* caller means fresh
Check out everyone else’s Sepia Saturday posts – or why not try one of your own?