The Fisherrow Fishwives
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.
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 [email protected].