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East Lothian People > East Lothian Folk > The Fisherrow Fishwives

The Fisherrow Fishwives

Fisherrow Fishwives at Musselburgh fish market

Fisherrow Fishwives at Musselburgh fish market

The Fisherrow fishwives, from Fisherrow in Musselburgh, were known for their distinctive striped skirts and aprons, and form an incredibly important part of East Lothian’s heritage. These women worked long hours in physically demanding jobs and cared for their large families whilst their husbands were at sea for long periods of time.

The work of the fishwives began even before their husbands’ and fathers’ boats had left the harbour. Fishermen rarely married outside their community, so fishing was a family occupation. Wives and daughters often cleaned the lines, otherwise known as redding, and attached new bait such as mussels and buckie. Each fisherman typically used one or two lines at a time, to which 1300 hooks had to be added by hand. This work required both speed and skill, although the women are often photographed doing this in groups whilst chatting or singing.

Once the fish were brought into the harbour, groups of women who followed the crews along the coastline, gathered to gut and clean the catch.  Women of all ages were involved, many of them elderly. They stood for hours at a time with their hands in icy, salty water gutting and cleaning the herring. Accidents were common and the womens’ hands were often wrapped in badges, hiding painful gashes underneath. Incredibly, the women sometimes managed to get through as many as 20,000 fish in a single day for the sum of 11 shillings plus their board and travel.

Then the women and girls (some as young as 14), carried the freshly caught fish into Edinburgh for sale. They would often work in teams of three, sharing the weight of the basket, in a journey which took them just 45 minutes. It is said that three Fisherrow women once walked the 27 miles from Dunbar to Edinburgh, with 200 pounds of fish on their backs, in just 5 hours. It was not uncommon for the women to carry these heavy loads just three days after giving birth. In later years, the women journeyed into Edinburgh by tram, bus and train.  Once in the city centre, they would sell the fish in markets or on the street from the heavy wicker creel on their back, using a skull to scoop the fish out. You can see one of these creels in the museum at the John Gray Centre.

Fisher women racing

Fisher women racing

However, there was also time for fun and friendship. The women played golf long before it was a fashionable pastime for women, and every Shrove Tuesday a football match took place in Musselburgh between the married and unmarried fisherwomen. It has been reported that the married women were invariably the winners. Singing was also an important aspect of community life. The Fisherrow Fishwives Choir was formed in the 1930s and only ended some 40 years later. The fishing community also shared a strong faith. They met for many years in the local Mission Hall, which was closed in 2001, for Sunday services, Sunday School and the annual Harvest Thanksgiving Festival. Most boats were either named after female family members or biblical references.

A highlight in the community calendar was the Fishermen’s Walk. This started in the 1790s when the fishermen would pay money into a common fund as insurance, that in the event of illness or death, their families would be cared for. On the third Friday in September, the fund was opened for those in need. Over time, this became a celebratory walk involving the whole village which ended at Pinkie House with a sports competitions and picnic.

It is believed that the last Fisherrow fishwife died in 2000 but the community is still represented through a legacy of songs and stories. We are very keen to hear from members of the public who remember the Fisherrow Fishwives or have any memorabilia you would like to share.  You can contact the team at


22 Responses to The Fisherrow Fishwives

  1. My Great Gran was one of the
    Fisherrow Fishwives and was called Marion Ritchie Craig. Her father owned a boat and called David Craig. Any information please send for my family tree to .. macloui1(at)

    thank you
    Louise Mclaren

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  2. Justin Armet says:

    My grandmother Steedie Falconer nee Fleming is aged 95 and as far as I am aware is the last living Fisherow Fishwife.

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  3. HelenB says:

    Thanks to both Louise and Justin for these comments! Very interesting. Louise, I think we contacted you by email, but do let us know if you still need information. Justin, we’d love to meet your grandmother, and – if she’s willing – record an interview with her for our oral history collection. Might that be possible?

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  4. charles cameron carruthers says:

    I was a volunteer researcher for the Scottish Fisheries Museum at Anstruther some years past and one of the people I came across was Amie Orr of New Street in Fisherrow who had carried the creel in her time . She told me she went to Fife with her Sisters and Mum on the train and she walked to Aberdour while her sisters sold fish in North Queensferry and her Mum went to Dunfermline.One of her customers were a bachelor farming brothers who always had their sink piled up with unwashed dishes and Amie had to clean up to gut her fish in the sink and some time they had no cash and paid her with rabbits and pheasants.I took her to Aberdour one evening to a historical local event and Amie was dressed in her fishwives costume.She actually met some of her old customer friends whom she sold fish to at the railway station entrance where they used to queue up to buy the fish.It made her evening! Amie was off the Brown family of Fisherrow and her Dad owned the Golden Effort.Two Fisherrow boats were lost in World War 2 Confidence was one and Brighter Hope the other, somewhere near Ceylon.

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  5. HelenB says:

    What a wonderful story, Charles! Thank you so much for sharing that. And what a long way those fisher boats ended up travelling – sad that they met their fate as part of the war effort.

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  6. Charles Cameron Carruthers says:

    Correction to my story of the Fisherrow fishing boats lost. The Confidence LH196 and the Better Hope LH ? were the two boats lost and Amies dad Sandy Brown was crewing on Golden Effort and Remembrance between the Wars.One other point I would like to make was, I was told by Amie that a young lad I think in Stow was fascinated by watching a Mrs Thorburn a Fisherrow fishwife gutting the different types of fish at his home that in later life he became a prominent leading bone surgeon and during a talk in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh mentioned this fact,that the skeletons of the different fish had him hooked !!!.

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    • John thorburn says:

      I wonder if the Fisherrow lady was my Gran Elizabeth Thorburn we have a picture in our house with her and her basket. My dad left Fisherrow to start a fish processing business in Seahouses.

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      • John thorburn says:

        The photo shows gran Elizabeth nee Walker with her mum and dad outside their shop at 84 Causewayside Embra. I think great grandad survived the 1880’s October gale that caused such destruction on the east coast and deaths at sea

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  7. HelenB says:

    Wow! Amazing what inspires some people :-) Mrs Thorburn must have been a fascinating person to make such an impression. Thanks for the info re the fishing boats too.

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  8. Charles cameron carruthers says:

    Charlie back with some more info on fishwives of the Forth – casting the Kyles – when the Fisherrow fishwives went to Newhaven to get their fish they grabbed an innocent passer-bye and gave him articles of each fishwife i.e. a button, matchbox, etc., and he or she had to place them on each box of fish so that their share was equal.Buckhaven wives got the passer-bye to write their names on a piece of paper and put them down beside each bundle of fish, and if he or she knew their names he would turn his back and as a fishwife pointed with her shoe at a bundle of fish he would call out a name and so the fish were shared out equally. Casting of the Kyles was down by all three groups of fishwives.
    Washing of the providing – the bride to be next day had all her linens and underclothes washed and hung out to dry before her wedding so that all could see what she had.
    Penny weddings – originally neighbours contributed 1d towards festivities and later they bought gifts in kind.The week up to the wedding they,both bride and groom would parade through the town to let everyone know of the coming festivities.
    Bye names of Newhaven ,Fisherrow, and Port Seton – Newhaverners were known as Bowtows (a rope which is part of the net put in kutch a Burmese preservative and which stank) sometimes used as a belt for their breeks and when one was in a shop customers would say”theres a bowtow about”.!!! Fisherrow were Bageaters as they were brought up on tripe !!!. Port Seton were Cadells Geese as Colonel Cadell kept geese and the fishermen would feed them on their way to their boats. Dunbar was known for ” broken windaes ” so much for my town.Ugh!
    Last fishwives from Newhaven and Fisherrow were Esther Liston(Newhaven) and Betty Millar (Fisherrow).
    The fishwives were identified by there different dress. Newhaven girls wore white stockings (best dress) and black when working and were known by the Fisherrow wives as the Pantomime Fishwives and the Fisherrow wives wore black stockings.Their creels were different too Fisherrow had leather straps and Newhaven white canvas straps.
    The famous Ganseys or guerneys were worn by all fishermen with different patterns for each port. They could be seen at the Box Walks Fisherrow on 1st Friday and Port seton on “2nd Friday in September Now the knitters have almost died out but a lady called Gladys Thompson wrote a book called ” Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys, and Arans” which covered the Fisherrow and Scottish Fleet patterns now taken up with a knitting company called Flamborough Marine who did a beaut for me! Signing off” The Sooth Firth Correspondent” as I was known up at Anster,

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  9. HelenB says:

    Wow Charlie, what a wealth of information! Thank you! Like the sound of the penny weddings :-) Those nicknames are fascinating too, and we’ve also been looking for a source for gansey/guernsey patters, so that’s very helpful. Would you mind if we used your comment for a blog? Or would you like to write one yourself? Will email you directly with details.

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  10. Charlie Cameron Carruthers says:

    Charlie here looking for info` on two boats lost in World War 2 from Fisherrow Musselburgh, and they were Confidence LH189 and Better Hope LH173. they were lost in the Far East possibly near Ceylon and the owners were not compensated for their loss.

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  11. charlie cameron carruthers says:

    You can certainly use my material for a blog and will be visiting Bill Wilson next week at the John Grey Centre with further LH fleet lists of fishing boats for the archives.

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  12. Keith says:

    Charlie – Just by chance I was Googling for information on LH196 which appears in the background of an Evening Dispatch photo of landing craft in Newhaven during WW2. Could this be Confidence? The reference for the photo is P2433 from The Scotsman Publications if you want to try and get a good copy. Otherwise let me know your e-mail addres and I’ll send you a jpeg – Keith

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  13. LH196 was the Mayqueen from Dunbar owned by `Boups` Johnstone and ex Newhaven whilst LH186 was the Confidence of Fisherrow lost in WW2 off Ceylon.

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  14. charlie cameron carruthers says:

    With reference to the above Confidence was registered as LH189 not LH186 – finger trouble!!

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  15. John thorburn says:

    Funny old industry is the fishing one, I wouldn’t be here without herring, both grandads were herring fishermen one from Seahouses the other Fisherrow and became friends. My mum became a nurse in Edinburgh and because both grandads knew each other Rachel was invited to New street to have tea after church services and snap mum and dad eventually married and here I am. I’m still trying to find more information on my Fisherrow gran Elizabeth’s father John Walker of 84 Causewayside ( photo above). The story was he survived the October gale of 1881, came ashore because of pneumonia and started the shop, but??

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  16. David Donaldson says:

    I don;t know if we are talking about the same boat, but.
    My Great-grandfather Adam Donaldson of Cockenzie built a
    fishing boat in1885 called Confidence. Fishing Boat Heritage
    lists her as LH1107.

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  17. Bob Walser says:

    I am researching the “dreg songs” sung by the oystermen of Fisherrow, New Haven and Port Seton (among other places). I noticed the name John Thorburn and wonder if you might be related to Archibald Thorburn who sang these songs for an American folklorist back in the 1930s. Any clues about these songs and the folks who sang them would be most welcome!

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  18. John Thorburn says:

    Hello Bob I’m not sure my old uncle Archie Thorburn was your singer. My uncle Archie certainly was musical but I’m not sure he is your man. Uncle Arch lived in New Street Fisherrow and was very involved in the (I think) mission church

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  19. 1 Reference query by David Donaldson the vessel Confidence LH1107 was owned by Alex P. Harkes and then Alex Allan and was used for fishing for white fish and herring and she was fully decked at that time and lugger rigged, 56 feet long and 46 tons with a crew of 7 men.She ended up as a hulk on 12 Dec. 1916 and was on the LH register in 1886 for fishing vessels
    2 Reference query by Bob Walser .there was an article in the Scotsman Newspaper on 3rd August 1963 by Francis Collinson called “Oyster Songs of the Firth of Forth” which featured songs of Newhaven,Fisherrow and Cockenzie.I have a copy in my Newhaven files if you have difficulty in getting this.

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