Census MapStories and ArticlesFamily TreeLinksContact Me


Whitefishers

Fishermen have been casting their lines off the coast of the north east of Scotland for many centuries. From the shorelines of the Moray Firth down the eastern seaboard to the town of Stonehaven and beyond, communities of fisher folk lived and worked for many generations in isolation of the larger world yet bound together in commonality of their hazardous occupation.
Despite this commonality, each of the old fisher towns were unique and distinct communities, holding themselves separate from other fishing villages. Each village had its own customs and social lore; many had their boat building and fishing techniques; marriage outside the village, while not unknown, was uncommon; each village shared the same few surnames and despite their proximity to each other, had their own individual ideas and beliefs, and rivalry between the villages was not always friendly!
In the 19th century, and probably even earlier, white fish throughout the length and breadth of Scotland, were caught by baited hook and line. The boats used were wooden and un-decked and usually measured between twenty five and forty feet in length.
Each boat normally had a crew of around six men; four to pull the oars, one to set the lines and one to land the catch. A mast and sail were sometimes used to free up the oarsmen to assist in the onboard work.
There were two types of line fishing. The “Great Line” fishing took the boats as far as forty miles offshore necessitating a few uncomfortable nights at sea in all weathers, whereas the "Small Line" fishing took place much closer to shore and usually allowed the men to return home during the same day. The lines that were used in both types of fishing were of similar construction and any variations between them were slight. The main line (the Back) consisted of a thick piece of brown backed string cord and would vary in length, although an average size would be a line of approximately sixty fathoms length.
Attached to this string were snoods - shorter pieces of thinner cord spaced at intervals of approximately
forty inches along the line. To the snoods were fixed horse hair “tippings” around ten inches in length onto which the hook was whipped with strong thread. The snood was bent onto the line with a knotted clove hitch and sufficient end was left to turn back around to form a kind of plait which prevented ravelling and twisting. Some lines could carry as many as one thousand individual hooks. The head of the line went over the side first, shot across the tide so that the snoods would drift away from the main line, and this was anchored to the sea bed by a plain unhooked line (a Tow), which was held in place by a heavy stone or anchor.
A buoy marked the position of the Tow on the surface. The boat was then allowed to drift for a time before hauling in the line to be stowed in a wicker scull or basket. The fish that were targeted and caught were mainly cod, haddock, ling and plaice. This method of fishing was quite labour intensive, particularly in the preparation of the lines prior to putting out to sea which involved the “redding” and “sheillin-and-baiting” of the lines, tasks that, invariably, were performed by the local women-folk.
The pillars of the fishing communities were the women who were the stalwarts behind their men and at the fore in all business and domestic matters. They gathered the bait, baited the lines, carried

 

 




the creels and fishing gear, brought the fish to market which was usually many miles away and did the selling. On occasions it was the men who replaced the creels on the women’s backs! This was not exploitation but a necessary act because the men may have had to spend days at sea, and exposure to the elements in wet clothes heightened the risk of illness which was something that no fisherman wanted. The men had to stay dry because illness meant no fishing and without any fishing there was no income so this meant that the womenfolk
had the onerous task of carrying the men on to their boats! On top of all this hard work, the women also had families to rear and children to look after.
By the end of the 1800’s the tide was turning in the white fishing industry. The perils and dangers of working from small boats from primitive harbours and the subsequent loss of life was one influential factor that was turning the younger population away from the industry and the coastal villages, but perhaps more significantly the arrival of the trawler and deep sea fishing was a more influential factor.
Soon a vessel was built which was specially designed for trawling. This was the North Star, built and launched in Aberdeen in September 1883. In less than eight years she had landed over £46000 worth of fish. The trawling revolution was well under way and the death bell was tolling in respect to the line fishing and the small coastal villages that relied on that form of fishing to make a living. The introduction of steam power to the fishing industry was the catalyst that doomed the old methods and ways of life. Initially steam was used merely to power the capstan for pulling the nets however it later replaced the sail as well. The small village boats with their oars and occasional sails were being consigned to the history books, although remarkably a few of them clung to life into the 1900’s.
Steam transformed fishing from craft industry to modern industry, and encouraged growth and development in major ports. Trawlers became the norm, and the great distant water trawler fleets from Aberdeen and Peterhead, owned by fishing companies and worked by hired deckhands, were soon established. These new, highly capitalised methods were not welcome everywhere. Tradition dictated that white fish should only be taken by hook and line; since vessels catching white fish in other ways threatened the survival of whole communities these vessels sometimes found themselves being pelted by stones if they tried to land their catch at “tradition-bound” harbours. So strong was the feeling over this, that effigies of “the capitalists” who threatened tradition and communal survival were burnt in a number of villages.

As this reality set in, some of the independent fishers from up and down the east coast would have realised that resistance was futile and they upped sticks and moved to the larger fishing towns, possibly suffering the degradation of signing on as hired
deckhands on steam
trawlers after many years
of freedom and working
for themselves.