Fishwives Race for the Shawl – Sepia Saturday

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!

Fishwives Race for the Shawl 1930's Fisherrow Musselburgh

photograph courtesy of East Lothian Local History Centre

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!

postcard courtesy of East Lothian Local History Centre

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?

About Jo Graham

Scottish genealogist - this blog is for my own family history and photos
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19 Responses to Fishwives Race for the Shawl – Sepia Saturday

  1. A. CAIN says:

    Jo, You can’t help but love the expressions on the women’s faces as they participate in this race. Thanks for sharing.

  2. postcardy says:

    Very interesting. I never knew why there is an expression “swear like a fishwife.”

  3. Mark says:

    Love those stripey skirts. Seems to have been a tough life though.

  4. Margaret says:

    The woman that won the race looks like she did so with ease. The other’s faces are quite intense. The second photo is really of quite a beautiful woman, I think.

  5. Little Nell says:

    This photo of the lone fishwife reminds me of the iconic image of Polly Swallow by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe of Whitby. Co-incidentally I have just spent the day with a couple visiting from Mussleburgh – bear in mind I live in Lanzarote, where you don’t epect to hear the name Musselburgh twice in one day!

  6. I really like these photos. The woman alone is beautiful. Wonder what the shawl looked like.

  7. Brett Payne says:

    Incredible photos, thanks for sharing them.

  8. Good history is often in the details. The stripes are a special detail that must date back a long time. Do they still race?

  9. Alan Burnett says:

    Oh those are fabulous photographs. Well done you for rescuing them from the archives and showing them to the world.

  10. TICKLEBEAR says:

    loving this!!
    in such towns where fishing was such a strong economical factor, it is interesting to see there was more to their lives than catching/prepping/selling fish. races and golf, eh?!?
    i would venture they fell in the handsome category, rather than “masculine”…

  11. Christine says:

    This is such a delightful post. The facial expressions on the first photo are so wonderful, and I am in awe of these women and what they were able to do. I’m strong, but I couldn’t carry 120 pounds for much of a distance! I love their dresses too.
    Thanks so much for this enlightening post.

  12. Howard says:

    Great to see these tough women enjoying themselves

  13. Nancy says:

    I’m glad that the first photograph shouted at you, too, Jo. It is a fun one. All the information you shared was very interesting and completely new to me. The women in Latin America carry huge baskets of oranges on their heads from home to market I am surprised to learn that some of the women of Scotland carried such heavy loads, too. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

  14. Some seem to be racing barefooted! I love the stripped underskirts in the first photo, it was the first thing I noticed! Thanks for sharing the story behind these women. Obviously they were strong not to be pushed around women..wonderful to see! 🙂

  15. Pingback: Sepia Saturday 102 – fish | Images Past

  16. David Millar says:

    Hi, read your research with great interest. I am the youngest son of Betty Millar, the last working fishwife from Fisherrow and am giving a talk next week to the University of the Third Age based around my mother. Incidentally, although she started off taking her creel and scull on the SMT bus up to her stance in Morningside, she eventually ended up using a family transit van which left Newhaven Market, dropped her past the Braid Hills Hotel and collected her at 7 in the evening. (she never learned to drive!!) My daughter did her University dissertion on fishwives (in Anstruther Fisheries Museum) and I and my two brothers were fishermen – incidentally neither of my 2 sisters went to the creel

    • Jo says:

      Thanks for your comment, David, and I’d be interested to attend your talk, if you let me know where/when. Happy New Year!

    • Margaret workman says:

      Your Mother died the same time as my MOTHER I remember it cause their obituaries we in the paper together. Here name was Winifred FREEMAN, My father was the son of Bella Grey who was also A Fisherwife from Fisherrow. I lived in Morningside and remember a lady who sold fish from A suitcase, was she your Mum ? I now live in Louisiana USA .

  17. Wonderful photos, real treasures. I’d love to get some information about what the fishermen wore in Musselburgh. There is a lovely photo at of Walter Watson of Fisherrow, Musselburgh, wearing a gansey of very unusual design – with cables along the length of the sleeves. Another photo of the 1912 Fishermen’s Walk shows men in suits, waistcoats and shirts butno ganseys. Can anyone share photos or information about traditions of wearing and knitting ganseys in Musselburgh, please? Perhaps David Millar, above, would be a key informant.
    Many thanks again for posting those delightful images,
    Malcolm Smith.

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