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Oysters And The Firth of Forth – Part 2 (The Fisher Folk)


In the first article in this small series, we presented an introduction to the Firth of Forth and its incredible Native Oyster beds, now sadly extinct, in the time before the Industrial Revolution.

In this article we are going to take a slight detour and explore the story of the ‘Fisher Folk’, the people who, along with other species, targeted the oysters as part of their living.   

This is important as it is not only a rich and colourful tale, it can also help provide insights into why the oysters became extinct which are lessons that are still relevant today. In addition, this is a story of the common working people who are more often than not overlooked and they deserve to be heard.

Before we go further much of the information presented here has been taken from these excellent sources, which we highly recommend if you would like to read further:

2020, Asa James Swan, Twilight of Newhaven: The Transformation of an Ancient Fishing Village into a Modern Neighbourhood  

1873, James Bertram, Harvest of the Sea


When considering the fisher folk of the Forth, the village of Newhaven is often mentioned. It is the most famous of the Forth fisher communities and this is probably due to the Newhaven “fishwives”. These women held a somewhat unique position within society and were widely discussed in the literature of the time, but more of that later.

Newhaven is a district of Edinburgh which lies on the Firth of Forth and was founded in 1504 by King James IV. He wanted to build a Scottish Navy and so he founded the port as Leith was not suitable for the construction of warships. From this point on and until the early 20th century Newhaven was an active fishing port with a distinct character and culture.

The people of Newhaven were actively involved in the Oyster fishery in the Firth of Forth. They worked the Newhaven oyster-beds which lay between Inchkeith and Newhaven, and according to Bertram they (the beds) “belonged to the city of Edinburgh, and were given in charge to the free fishermen of that village, on certain conditions”. In fact, the ownership and right to fish was actually a source of legal dispute over many years and this in itself influenced the decline of the oysters. That shall be covered in more detail in a following article.

The Men Folk

It makes sense to first consider the men of the community, as this sets the scene for the story of the women of the community, which in our view is the more interesting story, but it should be kept in mind that everybody, man, women and child all contributed to their way of life. There was no one without the other.

The men would engage in the fishing activity, it was a male only occupation surrounded by tradition and superstition. The superstitions were rooted in and sat alongside their Christian faith and as noted by Tom McGowan in Swan’s work:

"many superstitions were rooted in biblical stories or teachings, but most were simply the Newhaveners attempt to bring order out of chaos, to reduce a world full of danger and doubt to an understandable and controllable unity"   

For oyster fishing the boats used were small in size and would have probably also have been employed in other fishing efforts during different parts of the year. The oyster fishing was limited by the traditional season for oysters, and was only one of several species targeted, others included white fish and notably the herring (the silver darling). 

When the boat arrived over the oyster-scalps, the dredge would be let down by a rope attached to an upper ring, and worked by one or two men. In the absence of wind, the boat would require to be rowed by the crew, usually a minimum of 3 men. When tension came on the rope the dredge would be hauled and the contents emptied into the boat and sorted. The dredge would be returned to the water and the cycle would be repeated. It is said that at one point 3000 oysters could be fished in a couple of hours, although this declined significantly over time.

Bertram states that:

“During the whole time that this dredging is being carried on, the crew keep up a wild monotonous song, or rather chant, in which they believe much virtue to lie. They assert that it charms the oysters into the dredge.

'The herring loves the merry moonlight,
The mackerel loves the wind;
But the oyster loves the dredger's song,
For he comes of a gentle kind.'

Talking is strictly forbidden, so that all the required conversation is carried on after the manner of the recitative of an opera or oratorio.”


The Women Folk

As the men could be at sea for extended periods of time, the women took over the responsibility of selling the fish, as well as caring for their children and maintaining the home. This gave rise to the Newhaven’s “fishwives”.  

They used to walk into Edinburgh with their creels on their backs to sell fish from door to door, their cry of ‘Caller Herring’ (‘fresh herrings’) or ‘Caller Ou’ (oysters) echoing around the streets in the old town.

They were renowned for their sharp tongues, which gave rise to the Scots expression ‘a tongue like a fishwife’.

The women were also people of enterprise as they developed a special set of clothes for the line of business, a marketing strategy:

On their heads they wear caps of Dutch or Flemish origin with a broad lace border, stiffened and arched over to forehead, about three inches high, leaving the brow and cheeks unencumbered. They have cotton jackets, bright red and yellow, mixed in patterns, confined at the waist by the apron-strings, but bobtailed below the waist; short woollen petticoats, with broad vertical stripes, red and white, most vivid in colour; white worsted stockings, and neat though high-quartered shoes.  Under their jackets they wear a thick spotted cotton handkerchief, about one inch of which is visible round the lower part of the throat.  Of their petticoats, the outer one is kilted, or gathered up towards the front, and the second, of the same colour, hangs in the usual way.  Charles Reade - 1853”

Further, they were also efficient and practical and developed a more functional set of clothes for day to day working. The practical version was entirely navy blue as this was apparently a favourite colour of the community and the predominant eye colour of the fisher people.

This division of labour between men and women was an unusual state of affairs at the time and is what captured the imagination of those outside of the community, drawing the scorn of many outsiders who saw it as offensive for men to not be the master of their own home.

From Sir Walter Scott’s The Antiquary:

fishwives ken better – they keep the man, and keep the purse, and keep the siller too… Them that sells the goods guide the purse – them that guide the purse rule the house”

Swan notes that:

“A reflection to the power structure between the men and women of Newhaven that came about as a direct result of the fisher women’s work selling fish door-to-door and the funds they managed from these transactions. This was highly unusual at the time and is still a source of pride to the people of the community today.”


Be under no illusions the Newhaven community was not some sort of proto-socialist paradise. These people lived difficult lives coping with the dangers of the sea, grinding poverty and none of the things that we in the West are grateful for nowadays, such as health services and social support services.

For both men and women, it was a gruelling and probably shortened life. Swan notes the following as an example:

“While walking the streets carrying the creel made the Newhaven women strong, it also took a toll on their bodies. Newhavener Elsie Turney’s mother, Lizzie Liston, worked as a fishwife her entire life, and by the time she was middle-aged, she suffered from bad neck and shoulder aches, spending her last years as an invalid in bed due to the rheumatism in her legs caused by all those “wet petticoats.”

Because of the ever present threats of poverty The Society of Free Fishermen was formed. This was like a guild and also a bit like a trade union, and its primary mission was to help care for Newhaven’s poor.

The Society attempted to provide a simple insurance plan, including benefits, funeral allowances, and small pensions for widows. This “cooperative insurance” program gave villagers peace of mind should the worst ever happen, their men being lost at sea being the main risk. As such, fishermen knew their families would be able to survive without them on a Society pension.

The second purpose of the Society was to protect the rights and privileges of its fishermen members, and it fought to defend its members’ right to harvest oyster scalps all around the Forth.

Swan further notes that:

 “As fisher families without much to spare, they did not own a lot of things, but the people of Newhaven took great pride in what they did have. This was a common fisher trait: living in poverty, or close to poverty, but taking great care of what they possessed.”

Nevertheless, this was a hard life and people were always just a step away from destitution, the threat was ever present. As such, it comes as no surprise that this community, despite its deeply religious viewpoint, suffered social problems. In common with many places in Scotland, and this is as true today as then, alcohol could be an issue particularly for the men.

In Summary

The fishing community that developed at Newhaven is a fascinating story. Over the centuries they built a distinctive community with their own traditions and culture. The practicalities of their existence resulted in a division of labour that was unusual pre late 20th century. More enlightened, yes but driven by needs and not ideals.

But what does this mean in terms of the destruction of the oysters of the Firth of Forth, and what about the role the Newhaven, and other fishery communities, played in this sad episode?

Firstly, I think it is important to recognise that we can not judge people by the value system we operate under today and the knowledge we now have. We need to try and put ourselves in their position and try and think like they did.

As we have seen, these fisher people lived a hand to mouth existence, always just one step away from disaster. Change came with the Industrial Revolution and opportunities were presented to expand commerce, ultimately the oyster beds would pay the price, but can any of us say that if we were in their shoes, we would not have made the same decision to over exploit the oysters and other fishery resources?     

This still has lessons for us today. Knowledge needs to be shared, people need to be engaged and where appropriate, Governments need to act to limit the actions of bad actors. If we don’t act, what shall future generations think of us? We have no excuses when it comes to environmental damage, we now have enough knowledge.

Finally, the experience of the past also demonstrates issues with poverty and what can happen. Perhaps this is more applicable to the less fortunate places in the world, but it would seem that if more effort could be put into helping solve grinding poverty we could help resolve or prevent many environmental problems as well, a virtuous circle if you like?     

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