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The Fish-People of Aberdeen

The following article first appeared in the "Penny Magazine" for 26th September 1840

This handsome and flourishing town [Aberdeen] consists of about sixty thousand inhabitants, who are distinguished even in Scotland for their shrewdness. At the mouth of the river Dee, and in two squares, called Fishers' Squares, separated from the rest of the town by only a few dockyards, are a race of people who differ more in dialect, customs, superstitions, and other peculiarities, from the Aberdonians, than the latter do from any of the other inhabitants of the lowlands of Scotland.

They are a completely separate community; and their dialect is so different from that of the working classes of Aberdeen that, though the two races have a sufficient number of words in common for transacting business with each other, most of the words used by the "Foot-Dee" or "Fittie folk," among themselves are unintelligible to the "Aberdeen folk." If a native of Aberdeen were to wander into the square inhabited by the "Fittie folk," who are almost all fishers and pilots, he would run no little risk of being pelted out again with stones and haddock-heads. The "Fittie folk" scarcely ever intermarry with the other citizens.

Their marriages are generally "penny weddings." They seldom send their children to school, and almost never to a promiscuous one. Their sons are almost invariably brought up to follow the occupations of their forefathers, and never learn any regular trades, except that, perhaps, now and then , a youth, more adventurous than usual, becomes a ship-carpenter. They live together patriarchally, sometimes three or four generations in a single room. The oars are laid above them on the couples (or rafters) of their cottages; the children may be seen sleeping on nets in corners; and on the walls are creels, baskets, and other fishing tackle. Their boats descend by primogeniture.



Their women have not merely a costume different at all times from that of women in a similar rank of life in Aberdeen (distinguished by an all but exclusive preference for the colours white and blue, and consisting of a blue-striped wrapper, blue baize petticoat and close cap, called a "toy mutch." with "moggins," or stockings without feet, and they wear no shoes); but they also adopt very generally the masculine blue jackets of their husbands and brothers.

 

 



 

 


 


The men do little more than go out with the boats. The women search for bait, assist in carrying the nets, bait the hooks, and do all drudgery, while their lords are looking on with folded arms. The women both of Foot-Dee and those of the same race in several other villages on the east coast of Scotland, carry great loads of fish to market on market days in creels (large wicker baskets which are fastened to their shoulders, and rest on their hips), sometimes as many as eleven miles before breakfast; and so necessary does the load become to them, to enable them to walk steady, that when they are retuning home, they prefer carrying stones to carrying an empty creel. They never walk but in single file, and they have a superstitious dread of being counted, a fear of which the boys of Aberdeen avail themselves to annoy them by crying as they pass - "One, two, three, What a lot of fisher nannies I see." A salutation equally dreaded by them is the cry, "A baud's fit in yer creel" - that is, the point of a hare's foot is in your creel. This saying derived its meaning from the circumstance that a hare was seen to run through their "fish town" on the evening preceding a day on which a great number of their people were lost at sea. To point at their boats with the for-finger is the surest way of offending them. Among these people all superstitions which useful knowledge is banishing from the homes of the poor still flourish. The belief in lucky days and omens of stars and clouds is to the present hour a practical faith under the low, thatched roofs of those squares of white cottages among the sandhills of the sandy beach at the mouth of the Dee, occupied by this curious race who still tremble with the fear that a neglect of these things would bring great evils down upon their heads. They observe Old Christmas, and all their transactions and calculations are made by the old style, to which they tenaciously hold, saying, "New style is man's makin', but auld style is Guid's."

Aberdeen is full of stories of the fisherfolk. A "Fittie lassie" once visited London, and, on seeing St Paul's exclaimed - "This dings the kirk o' Fittie." A woman of this class went to the Post Office and asked for a letter "from oor Jock." She was asked what was her name or her husband's but she exclaimed - "I'se behaud you!" The chief article of trade is "Finnan Haddocks." Finnan (Findon) is a small village famous only for its fishery, situated about six miles south of Aberdeen. Of the excellence of this fish, perhaps the most decisive proof that can be given is that the burghs on the Firth of Forth and other places have regular manufactories of a spurious article, which they vend under its name, and doubtless to the detriment of its reputation among the deceived but unsuspicious purchasers.