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Footdee in the 18th Century
By Mrs. Ann Allardyce (early 18th century)
William Smith& Sons, The Bon-Accord Press


The Fishtown of Footdee, towards the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), was certainly not one of those "green spots on which memory delights to dwell," and yet it has kept hold of mine, with all the tenacity of a first impression. The town consisted of several rows of low thatched cottages, running from east to west between the high road and the Harbour, or, as it was called, the "tide," which at high water came up even to the ends of the houses. Nothing could be more apparently comfortless than the exterior of these dwellings, each fronting the back of the opposite neighbour, and the narrow space between forming a line of dunghills, crossed over with supported spars, from whence hung lines, bladders, and buoys, intermixed with dried skate and dogfish.

The prospect within was not more alluring to a stranger, and yet the inhabitants seemed quite contented. The earthen floor, dirty and uneven the smoky roof, whose only ceiling was a few old oars and pieces of drift wood with the bare rough walls, unconscious of any washing save what the sooty drops afforded, were objects far from pleasing. The furniture was in every way corresponding. Two clumsy black bedsteads were placed under the 2 small windows, of which there was 1 on each side of the door; and a small table, 2 or 3 chairs, and some low seats or sunkies, with the requisites of the fishing occupation, viz., lines, creels, sculls, murlans, etc., formed all the rest of the visible moveables. There was no press or keeping-place whatever, except a chest or locker in which the Sunday clothes and any stores were kept, and the saut-backet suspended in the chimney. The fishermen were in general hardy and industrious, but ignorant in an incredible degree on all subjects unconnected with their own business. Few of them could read, and none of the grown up people could write. The elderly men wore broad bonnets, blue jackets, and canvas kilts or short trousers. The younger men were rather good-looking, smarter in their dress, and more good-humoured ; but going to sea in the night, and taking their repose by day, was not favourable for the development of the social faculties, and there was scarcely an instance of intellectual talent or a tendency to any art or science among them. They were indeed fond of music, in as far as having a fiddle at their merry meetings, and a few of the lads could sing a little, but their collection of songs was not extensive, consisting almost entirely of "The Praise of Paul Jones," "The Woeful Ballad of Captain Glen," and the Christmas carol of "By Southend." The females of this small community laboured under great disadvantages, both moral and physical; their incessant toils left no time for mental improvement, and their constant exposure to the weather without any sort of bonnet, together with their frequent immersion in salt water, gave a hardness to their features and a coarseness to the skin, with a far-from-pleasing expression of countenance. The figure also became early bent from the weight of the creel. The middle-aged women wore a stuff gown with a large flowered calico wrapper or short gown over it, the young girls a stuff rapper and petticoat, with the hair in a most unbecoming fashion, either thrown back with a large comb which reached from ear to ear, or put up in a very slovenly manner, with a "head lace" of red worsted tape. The boys under 15 were the worst clothed ; they ran about in a very tattered condition in old garments of their fathers', "a world too wide," and seemed to be kept waiting until their strength could enable them to gain a decent covering. The little children were more comfortable, those of both sexes being clad in a simple dress of white plaiding, called a "wallicoat," which, with their white curly heads and rosy countenances made them look very pretty as they puddled with their mimic boats in the pools of water. Ah ! what may have been their history since that period; and how different must any of the survivors be now in 1843There was still another class, who, though few in number, formed rather an interesting part of the society. In several of the families there was, in addition to the husband, wife, and children, an old man or woman, known by the appellation of Lucky-daddy or Lucky-minnie the grandfather or grandmother of the family. These, when unable to work for themselves, went to live in the houses of their sons or daughters, and seemed to be kindly treated by them. Some of the men were very old, born in a former century, and appeared to take little interest in what was passing, sitting in a chair in the sun outside the door, or led about by one of the children. The grandmother had her place by the fire, and assisted in many of the lighter domestic labours. Her dress was somewhat peculiar; she always wore a blue cloth hood or "trotcosie," and a man's coat over the rest of her attire, with a large pouch or pocket by her side. These old women were often skilled in the medical art, and their advice sought in preference to Doctors; but some individuals of them were also dreaded as being an "unlucky foot," and possessing other powers which made it dangerous to offend them. I often regret that I had neither the power nor opportunity of conversing with those ancient people. I was merely a silent spectator and unheeded listener to what was passing. Had I been able to ask questions I might have obtained many traditional records of the olden time.

These slight sketches may give some idea of the general appearance of Footdee and the Fishers. Their manners and habits were in many respects peculiar to themselves. Seldom or never intermarrying with  those of other occupations, they became almost all, in some degree, related to each other, and several bearing the same name were distinguished by various "by-names," such as "Muckly," "Littley," "Habers," etc. They continued to count money by the old Scotch value, 1 shilling was 12 pennies, 2 shillings 24 pennies, and so on. They were very particular as to the first-foot they met in the morning, or when going on any expedition, and when things did not prosper it was often attributed to the influence of "an ill fit."

 

 

 

 


 

They were also very anxious on old new year's day morning to obtain the Cream of the Well, and used to assemble soon after the midnight hour round a large Draw-Well which stood in the middle of the road, where a scuffle generally ensued as to which of the numerous pans and buckets should be permitted to carry off the precious "1st draught."

Aberdeen Fishwife Wearing the old Cockernonny Mutch
We brak nae breid o' idlecy
Doon by in Fittie Square;
A' nicht oor men toil on the sea
An' wives maun dee their share;
Sae fan the boats come laden in
I tak' my fish tae toon,
An' comin' back wi' empty creel
Tae bait the lines set doon.

Their marriages generally took place at an early period of life. When a young man was able to do for himself, he got a share of a boat, but required some one to sell the fish and bait the lines; he was therefore obliged to look out for a helpmate; and as soon as they were betrothed, it was the custom for the young woman to go to live with the bridegroom and his parents, where, under the superintendence of his mother, she 'tipt' and baited the lines, went for bait, and did all manner of household work till a few days before the marriage, when she returned to her former home, where the ceremony took place, after which the young couple went to live in a house of their own, and the poor girl got the creel to carry for life. Their marriages were celebrated with much festivity, great crowds attending, being generally what are called penny weddings; every one on payment of 1 shilling was admitted, and some who wished to be generous on the occasion gave more. The ceremony was performed in the Church or in the "chamber," a small building with stone floor and iron-bound windows near it. The party walked in regular procession, a fiddler playing before them, and a man carrying a flag in which the bride was rolled on her way home. They then dined in a large tent erected for the purpose on a sort of loan or common, which divided the houses from the high road. There was always abundance of meat and broth served in broad pewter dishes for all within reach. After dinner they adjourned to the Links to dance the shame dance, which being over, they returned and dispersed among the public-houses, of which there were several at the ends of the lanes, where the music and dancing were prolonged till a late hour, and further expenses defrayed by the guests. I know not the etymology of the shame dance, which is the name given to the 1st dance after the marriage, and always includes the bride. I have heard of it in rural districts, and have heard it sometimes called shame or shamed dance or reel.

To tipt the line, which is usually a hempen rope, is to attach to it, at equal intervals, pieces of hair twist called tippets, to the ends of which the hooks are fastened. This operation, and the fixing of the bait on the hooks, were always the work of the women. [This is still the custom in Newburgh after sundown 1871.] Another custom, somewhat peculiar to themselves, prevailed at that period. When any of their relations came from a distance to visit them, the stranger on his arrival usually sent 1 of the children of the family "up i' toon" for whatever was necessary to furnish the entertainment. Tea, sugar, white bread, spirits, etc., were all got on the occasion; and the children, in telling of the visit of a friend, never failed to boast of the extent of his liberality "Uncle Willie came from the Cove on Saturday, and that was 3 shillings among us," or, "Uncle Sandy was 4 shillings the last time he was o'er the water," were common observations with them, and seemed to give great satisfaction. Old Christmas or "Aul' Yule" was always a season of enjoyment and good cheer with the fishers for several days. At that time they did not go to sea. The men might be seen lounging at the gable end of the public houses playing at pitch and toss or keeping themselves warm by a particular sweeping motion of the arms. The women went about gossiping and preparing for the feasts. These took place on "Yule Day," and every boat*s crew had one for themselves, their wives, and their children, and a few invited guests. Strange as it may appear in the present day, I was present at one of these entertainments when i was a child.

Our fishwoman, who had a daughter a year younger than myself named after me, having asked as a particular favour that I might be allowed to go along with the servants, who were, of course, invited every year. The entertainment consisted of large pieces of roasted beef and mutton, with broth handed up from a pot by the fire as it was wanted. There was no fish except a very savoury dish called ‘tyauven skate’ prepared in a particular manner from the Skate in a dried state, and mixed with a variety of ingredients so that it seemed to be accounted a great dainty. There was also in the middle of the table a very large loaf baked with plenty of raisins and currants, and to which the happy faces of the children were constantly directed. The table equipage was not quite so ample as the eatables; plates were only given to a favoured few, and knives were only used for carving or rather hewing down the meat. The young lads cut theirs on ship biscuits with folding knives which they took from their pockets, and somewhat old fashioned 5 pronged forks were chiefly employed by the rest of the company. I cannot so well describe the quality of the drink used on the occasion, but a girded cogie (hooped cask) and a pint stoup, with one glass, were frequently handed round, and all seemed quite merry and delighted. When they rose to go away another scene commenced. The whole of the broken meat was divided among them, and the remainder of the sweetie loaf was cut into equal portions and distributed in the same manner. All the wives got their shares which they bundled up in their aprons, and went home quite pleased and happy.

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