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Footdee in the 18th Century

Their manner of living in general was far from comfortable, and nothing but habit could have enabled them to endure many of the hardships to which they were exposed. Yet in the midst of apparent poverty and privation they sometimes possessed articles not to be seen in places of higher pretensions; for instance, a bottle of French Brandy or Cordial waters was sometimes produced to a visitor, and offered in a small turned cup with 4 lugs or handles. I remember 1 with a foreign gold coin inserted in the bottom, with which I was once gratified by a sight, when the guid wife insisted, in defiance of orders, "that the littl'ane should get a moufou'." The small-pox often made fearful ravages among them; nothing could reconcile them to inoculation which brought the disease though in a milder form, vaccination being then unknown and the children might be seen lying in the most miserable manner in the fish-sculls with a rich Barcelona Silk handkerchief spread over them. Having now given a hasty sketch of some of their customs and habits, I may say a word or two of their moral character.

They were in general very honest, scarcely ever an instance of theft being found amongst them, and very seldom coming under Church Censure; but I regret to say they were most inveterate swearer's, making use of the most horrid oaths on the most trivial occasions. These could not be said to be the ebullitions of anger nor the effects of immediate provocation, for at the hauling in of a ship to the pier or pushing off a boat into the water, I have heard the most tremendous oaths and imprecations uttered with seemingly as little evil intention as the "yo hee yo!" with which they were mingled. The women were most violent in all their expressions of grief and lamentation. It often happened that the boats were in great danger in crossing the Bar, and on these occasions the women used to assemble on the "bents," tearing their hair, clapping their hands, and collecting a crowd about them, while their piercing cries and frantic gestures might have afforded a study for the tragedian or the painter. In giving way to anger they were often equally outrageous, using the most opprobrious epithets, and I have seen a woman in a passion take up a handful of burning coals and throw them down again without seeming to feel them; yet they were kind hearted, and were seldom known to do any personal injury. Their religious knowledge was very limited. Mr. Fullerton the Minister was a good quiet man, but he wanted energy for the radical improvement and reformation of such people. They had public worship on the Sundays, and "examines" occasionally in "the chamber," but the effects were not very manifest, except on a few really well disposed and sincere persons. One circumstance was rather against them, viz., that the Sacrament was never dispensed in Footdee; there was preaching on the appointed days, and tokens were given as in other places, but on the Sunday forenoon there was no service and the people were obliged to shift for themselves by going to any of the Churches in Aberdeen where they could find accommodation. The means of education were confined to those whose parents could afford to pay for them at the Parish School. It was kept at that time by a Mr. Robb, a man sufficiently "severe and stern to view," with a cocked hat and long skirted coat. He taught reading by the usual routine of going through the Shorter Catechism, Proverbs, and Bible he also gave instruction in writing and arithmetic, but his pupils seldom remained so long as to make any proficiency; nothing was explained to them, and I believe no one would have presumed to ask him a question. He was on the whole a diligent teacher, attending to his school and coming to give me lessons 2 hours a day in the same dry and unvarying manner. While the young people had this opportunity of acquiring a little learning, the old continued in a state of comparative ignorance; yet many of them displayed occasionally a great share of cunning and firmness of purpose, along with apparent simplicity.

This was evident in their examination before the Courts, to which their intercourse with the smugglers often subjected them. As an instance it may be mentioned that some of them being witnesses on a trial for deforcement, at which they had been present, were pressed very hard on some parts of the evidence, which they evaded with the greatest coolness. They were asked in particular by the counsel, "While the men were struggling in the water did you not hear the prisoner call out 'Drown the dogs, drown the dogs?" "We saw nae dogs there, Sir," was the demure and composed reply. "I do not ask what you saw, but did you not, on your oath, hear him call out *drown the dogs? "- " There wasna ony dogs there, Sir," was again the obstinate answer. In connection with the business of the Port and Shipping, the fishermen were frequently sworn at the Custom-house; but it was found at one period that they treated the manner of making oath too lightly, and went through the ceremony of kissing the book without being sufficiently impressed with the solemnity of the transaction, or aware of the great responsibility they came under. It was therefore found necessary to frame another form of oath suited to their capacity, and touching on their superstitious fears, which was found to be far more effectual. It was certainly a curious document, and concluded with the words "If I do not speak the truth, and nothing but the truth, may my boat be a bonnet to me."

They had considerable personal courage, but great timidity toward everything which they supposed to be under supernatural influence, and stout men who would have faced any danger by day would not have passed the Churchyard alone at night. They believed firmly in ghosts, wraiths, witches, fairies, mermaids, and water kelpies, and told many marvellous stories of all these mysterious beings by which some had got frights which they never "cowered." I perfectly recollect a stout man, Andrew Brand, who had dark hair and a broad good-humoured face, wearing his bonnet on the back of his head, and having more the appearance of a jolly sailor than a fisherman, being often employed as a Pilot or extra boatman. This man was found one day lying insensible on the Hill of Torry, and on being roused spoke so confusedly and incoherently that they were obliged to carry him to the Ferry and bring him home, where he lay for some weeks in a fever, sometimes delirious, and at other times low, and declining to give any account of the cause of his illness. However, with proper medical treatment he recovered, though reduced to a skeleton, and the neighbours as well as his own family were firm in the belief that he had seen "something." Sometime afterwards he gave the following account in a very serious manner to those who questioned him on the subject:

He said that one morning, being at the look-out, he was lying on his breast looking over the rocks, and that he saw a creature like a woman with a white sheet about her sitting on a stone, sometimes combing out her long hair and sometimes tossing
up her arms in a fearsome way, and that she rushed into the sea and vanished. After this he said he had no power to move, that his heart lap, that he grew blind and had no recollection of anything till he wakened with his bones all sore and the men lifting him. It was concluded at the time that the poor man had the symptoms of fever before going out, and that falling asleep in that exposed situation the confusion of his brain had done all the rest; but it has since often struck me that he had actually seen the sight, and that it was nothing more or less than a lady bathing, a thing not common in those days; and the individual, whoever she was, must have remained ignorant of the mischief she unwittingly occasioned by making such a direful impression on the unfortunate Damon of Mythology.

 

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circ. 1859

Waterside was a short lane off York Street that led down to a small beach area in the tidal Harbour and 2 tree lined gardens enclosed by a fences. In the background is Alexander Hall's House and the gap between the buildings led to a communal court surrounded by some 10 buildings. There were external stairs to the taller buildings and a water trough with a pump. It was bounded by York Street and Shipyards either side. Whale arches were admired for their symmetry and symbolism of the active Whaling Industry.

But the time now came when my opportunities of making observations in Footdee ceased, for although my parents continued to reside there till the year 1788, I was able to walk to the schools in town, which occupied my future time and attention. There were at that time but 4 slated houses in Footdee, 3 (in 1 of which we lived) between Middlethird and the Kirktown, (Old Aberdeen) and another near the Pottery, possessed by a respectable Shipowner whose family then lived in a style of affluence and comfort not exceeded by the improvements of modern refinement. Soon after this period we came to reside in Aberdeen and had little intercourse with Footdee for several years except from the visits of my name-daughter who still continued to keep us in mind of the old neighbourhood but she was married to a young man in Finnan, (Findon) and soon after Aberdeen ceased to be the place of my own residence.

Time rolled on, and for many years spent in a rural district I had heard nothing of Footdee or its inhabitants, when it so happened in the course of events that in the year 1824 I was again for a few days in Aberdeen. Great improvements had taken place there, the old Fish Town was no more, spacious streets and handsome buildings had extended the City in all directions, but I felt more interest in exploring the haunts of my childhood and the old familiar places through which I had so often passed on my way to school. Some of these places were certainly not the most pleasant, and I was one day kindly accompanied by a friend, ascending one of them, a steep narrow path, known by the rather unpromising designation of "The Hangman's Brae." It was the same as ever. We had just entered between walls and I was looking down recognising the very causey stones (particularly some smooth-faced blue ones) as the acquaintances of my infancy, when a fish woman with her creel came suddenly round the corner from Castle Street and was descending the brae before us. It immediately struck me that I might know her, and as she approached nearer I discovered, with agreeable surprise, something of the appearance of my name-daughter; and when she came up close a mark on her forehead put the matter beyond a doubt. She was going aside to make way for us when I asked if her name was Ann Paterson? She said "Yes, ma'am," and ‘stopt’ to see what was wanted. I then mentioned my own former name and asked if she remembered such a person? Her countenance brightened and she answered "Aye, I mine on her weel, and dreamt about her mony a time." I said "Do you think you would know her if you saw her?" "Oh! weel 'at," she replied with a half smile which seemed to say that is an absurd question. It was now evident that time had stood still with the picture in poor Annie's mind, while it had made its usual progress with the one standing before her. I therefore told her who I was and held out my hand; but never shall I forget the scene which followed. In a moment she disengaged herself from the creel, threw it on the ground, and burst into a flood of tears, exclaiming in the most affecting tones, "Mah freen, mah freen, my dear, dear freen, and is it you? an' is't just you yersell? " but no mere repetition of the words can convey an idea of the tender and pathetic manner in which they were uttered, or the tears, sobs and impassioned gestures by which they were accompanied. The lady who was with me stood in much astonishment. I was quite overpowered, and certainly could not help feeling a little ashamed of my own cool composure compared with the outpourings of the heart exhibited by this child of nature. She was commonly called Dass, from having been named after me, Ann Dundas; and although, on changing my surname, I ‘dropt’ my second Christian name, she was always distinguished by it, contracted into Dass; and a younger daughter of the family was called Ann, When she became a little more settled we had much to ask and tell each other; her story was soon told; she had been more than 20 years married but had no family, and her constant employment in all that time had been to cure and bring to the Aberdeen Market the celebrated Finnan Haddocks.

I was annoyed to think that after so long a separation we should have met thus, between 2 dead walls, where I had it not in my power to show her any kindness, and I urged her to come where I could have given her a more hospitable reception. She seemed delighted with the idea, but the distance and her never having been from home, were insurmountable obstacles. We have never met again and I know not whether she is still in life, but my interview with her, which I have here described, is likely to be the last link in the long extended chain of my acquaintance with the Fishers at Footdee.

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