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Fisher Life in the 1890’s
This article, by R H Cook is a contemporary account of a fishing village just a few miles along the coast from Footdee.

The writer, until recently held the universally accepted opinion that marriage between cousins was responsible in many cases for insanity, lack of intelligence, poor physique, and albinism. For the past two and a half years however, he has had excellent opportunities of observing a small community of about 340 people, where inter-marriage has been a custom handed down from father to son, and his observations have led him to change his opinion entirely, so far as this community is concerned. With regard their life and habits, the following pages go to show that though the sanitary arrangements are of a most rudimentary kind, yet, for various reasons, the general health is most satisfactory.
The fishing village of Portlethen lies on the coast of Kincardineshire, about eight miles distant from Aberdeen. The houses are built in rows across the slope facing the sea, and are nearly all joined on to each other, only a few being detached. The distance between the rows varies from 40 to 90 feet, and between some of the rows there are small garden plots, and an occasional wooden house, in which the fish are smoked. The streets or roads are of the most rudimentary description. Between the months of October and April, they are simply mud with stones of various sizes sticking up through it. The back wall of a row of houses rises out of a ditch varying in depth from l to 6 feet. During wet weather, the rain water gathers in these ditches and as they have no drains, it remains there for a considerable time, gradually sinking into the ground. Each house is provided with a midden into which all the
refuse, including water, is poured. Most of these middens are houses, so that the water from them finds its way by gravitation into the ditches at the back of the next row.
Most of the household water is however thrown right out at the door. The village has no shelter of any kind, and is exposed to the full force of every wind that blows. No one wind is particularly prevalent, but as a general rule, more winds come off the sea than off the land.
Such a thing as a privy is unknown. There never has been one in the village. The men deposit their excrement all round the outskirts of the town, according to where their houses are situated. Some go over the walls on either side of the village, while some go to the cliffs in front or on either side of it, with the result that the immediate vicinity is in a disgusting state. According to the weather and the time of day or night, the women follow the example of the men, or else throw their excrement from a pail into the middens.


 

The children are even less fastidious then their parents with consequent defilement of the streets, more especially about the doors. There is no scavenger in the village and individuals do not attempt to supply his place. The middens which contain household refuse, human excrement and fish offal, are emptied by various farmers who come at their own convenience, so that a midden is often full to overflowing. Some of the men pay almost the whole of their rent from the produce of their middens.
The water supply is plentiful and good, coming to a cistern at the top of the village from the hill behind it. There are four pumps in the main streets.
Within doors, things are much more pleasant. Except where drunken or thriftless habits prevail, the interiors of the houses are marvels of cleanliness; and this is more striking when one considers the state of things around the very doors. Three times a year everything is taken outside and cleaned, in the most thorough manner, while the interior of the house is treated with soap and water or whitewashed, as the case may be. The woodwork in the better class houses is left unpainted and is scrubbed with soft soap and sand, so that in a few years it gains a most beautiful polish. Even the rafters are so treated. Once aweek the houses are cleaned and every other day all about the fireplace is whitewashed. The outside walls of most of the houses are also frequently whitewashed.
Such a state of affairs is not found in every house, and a small minority of them are as remarkable for filth as the majority are for cleanliness. The houses themselves are mostly old and thatched, the newer ones being slated and rather larger than the old ones. They are all very draughty, none of them having porches, while as often as not, the door has to be left open to make the fire draw. All the houses consist of two rooms - a "but" and a "ben" with a loft above, where nets, oars etc., are kept. The family live and carry on their work in the "but" end, and here they clean fish and bait their lines, except during the summer months.
In many houses they also smoke fish in a large open chimney at the side of the ordinary one. Some have smoking houses for this purpose. In many of the newer houses the floor in the "but" end is wooden, but in most cases it is earthen. There is one box-bed in this room. In the other room, or "ben" end, there is always a wooden floor and from one to three box-beds, according to the size of the family. This is the principal sleeping room and is always used as the lying-in room.
It is a matter of common observation that fishers, both men and women are as a rule, very clean and tidy in their personal appearance. One reason of course is that their market depends quite as much on their own appearance as on that of their fish.
It is about thirty years since the last "cruisie" was burnt with its spluttering light and stinking flame. Instead of the pith of a rush and fish oil, we find good paraffin lamps and occasionally candles. Peat is the universal fuel, the village being about a mile from a peat moss. The peats are burnt on the open hearth stone above which is a large chimney occupying one third of the end of the house. Coal is seldom used.

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