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