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Fisherman's Day

"Wha’ll buy my caller herrin’?
They’re bonnie fish and halesome farin’;
Wha’ll buy my caller herrin’,
New drawn frae the Forth?"

~ Caller Herrin', music by Nathaniel Gow (1763–1831) and words by Carolina Nairne (1766–1845)

Fisherman's Day is celebrated on the Feast of Saints Peter (patron saint of Fisherman) and Paul to recognize the fishing communities throughout history. One such community was Newhaven, the maritime community on the shores of the Firth of Forth, granted royal charter by King James IV in 1511. Newhaven became well known for its fishwives, who played an essential role within the local economy and culture and were recognized by their traditional and colourful outfits of blue and red stripes, embodied in this tartan. In their day the Newhaven fishwives were famous for their robust stature and beauty, their panache and quick wits! Not only famed for raising their voices in song through the many fisherlassies' and fisherwives' choirs, they were also known for their sharp tongues and salty language, giving rise to the Scots expression ‘a tongue like a fishwife’. Until the 1950s, fishwives would tramp into Edinburgh with their creels on their backs to sell fish from door to door with their cry of ‘Caller Herring’ (‘fresh herrings’) or ‘Caller Ou’ (oysters). In 1798, Nathaniel Gow, violinist and bandleader of Edinburgh, incorporated their cries (together with the tune of the bells of St Andrew's Church) into his composition, "Caller Herrin". It became one of his best-known tunes. 🎣 🧺 🐟

From the Newhaven Heritage Center:

Charles Reade wrote a novel in 1853 in which he described the typical Newhaven fishwife: ‘On their heads they wear caps of Dutch or Flemish origin with a broad lace border, stiffened and arched over to forehead, about three inches high, leaving the brow and cheeks unencumbered. They have cotton jackets, bright red and yellow, mixed in patterns, confined at the waist by the apron-strings, but bobtailed below the waist; short woollen petticoats, with broad vertical stripes, red and white, most vivid in colour; white worsted stockings, and neat though high-quartered shoes.  Under their jackets they wear a thick spotted cotton handkerchief, about one inch of which is visible round the lower part of the throat.  Of their petticoats, the outer one is kilted, or gathered up towards the front, and the second, of the same colour, hangs in the usual way.  Their short petticoats reveal a neat ankle, and a leg with a noble swell; for Nature, when she is in earnest, builds beauty on the ideas of ancient sculptors and poets, not of modern poetasters, who with their airy-like sylphs and their smoke-like verses fight for want of flesh in women and want of fact in poetry as parallel beauties.  These women have a grand corporeal tract; they have never known a corset! so they are straight as javelins; they can lift their hands above their heads — actually! Their supple persons move as Nature intended; every gesture is ease, grace, and freedom.'

The wife of the fisherman was the mainstay of the household.  They arose early to harvest mussels to bait the lines.  They prepared and sold their husband’s catch on the street corners and around the houses of the Town. They cooked, cleaned, kept the house, and reared the children.

The Newhaven fishwife’s distinctive dress singled her out from fisher folk in other areas.  Her brightly coloured but functional dress was specifically adapted to her tasks -  short petticoats, knitted stockings, usually black, and neat shoes. The numerous petticoats were secured round her waist by broad bands, and the bulging flannel formed a saddle for the creel, without which it would be equally difficult to balance and to carry.  The numerous folds formed a protection both against wet weather and the drip of the creel.

Their brightly coloured dress attracted the attention of many during Victorian times which led to opportunities for some of the more ambitious.  They were  invited to concerts in many large English towns, and a dozen of them were sent as attendants to the great London Fisheries Exhibition of 1883, when they were hospitably entertained by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, and by the Prince and Princess of Wales (afterwards King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) at Marlborough House. 

As a result of this visit the fisher girls’ garb as a costume for ladies became fashionable all over the country, silks and finer cloths being substituted for the more common and more durable material. 

This unidentified plaid was recorded in the registry without other detail.

For more about Newhaven Fisherwives and Fisher folk, click the painting of The Fisher Lass by John McGhie (1867–1952).

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