A whole variety of baskets were needed for the fishing industry. These ranged from highly adaptable and regionally variable sculls, murlins and rips (using in setting lines, gutting and carrying fish) to very precise and prescriptive herring quarter crans (used for carrying and measuring fish). There were also creels, which fish-wives used to carry on their backs when selling fish, often with rips balanced on top to display their wares. Creels too were flexible, different in form from north to south, and even more so from east to west. Arm creels were also used in some regions, such as Arbroath. And there were other baskets for locally specific jobs associated with fishing, such as bait baskets and lobster creels, as well as regionally specific forms such as Orkney and Shetland kishies and budies made from dockens, rattan or straw..
A question which has provoked a great many assumptions and opinions is, ‘Who made these baskets?’ The temptation has been to assume that, with the exception of the quarter cran, which usually had to be made by trained basket-makers who had completed an apprenticeship, most fishermen made their own. From our research so far, this looks unlikely. It is, however, surprisingly difficult to find out any information about this now, and if anyone browsing the site has information about this, please contact us.
There are a few avenues of enquiry. These have included local census records. Museum collections occasionally have the names of the makers of artefacts on their record cards or in old exhibition catalogues. Local archives may also have unlikely scraps of information, such as receipts, or ship’s chandler’s records, which give clues as to who provided baskets for use in fishing. On-line photo-archives and records, such as SCRAN, Am Baile and Photopolis may provide written information, or images, either of people making baskets or basket-makers’ shops. Finally, a source we have found particularly valuable, is practicing basket-makers, who may themselves inspire local people who see them at work to confide the past history of their relatives or family friends who made or used baskets in the past. This kind of information, gathered at local shows, courses, exhibitions and events, where makers are demonstrating, is particularly rich and gives a great lived ‘texture’ to our knowledge. So, basket-makers out there, please keep making and gathering information.
A few examples
The East Neuk of Fife census records at Anstruther gave the name of one man, Oliver Thomas, aged 56, the head of home, whose profession was described as ‘a fishing-basket maker’ from Kilrenny, near Cellardyke, in the 1861 census. We have also heard that there were fishing-basket-makers on Fisherrow in Musselburgh.
The combined resources of Arbroath Signal Tower Museum’s card records, the NMS Living Traditions 1951 catalogue and SCRAN have provided a further useful insight into basket-making in Arbroath. Arbroath is unique for specific forms of line basket, or scull, and fishwive’s rip where the frame is made from bands of bent sawn wood, which appear to be almost laminated.
The use of sawn bent wood to a specific form has suggested a very similar technique to that used in boat-building, as if the maker worked alongside boat-builders to do this. This gives these baskets such a distinctive form that they are sometimes referred to as the ‘Arbroath scull’, or ‘Abroath rip’, or buttock basket. A similar technique made to a slightly different form is described on SCRAN as a ‘Gourdon scull’. Several makers among us have suggested that certain examples of these basket were probably made by the same person, citing this technique and the maker’s attention to detail in finishing as evidence.
When we researched into this, SCRAN describes one such basket, a ‘bow creel’ or ‘arm creel’ (hand basket) from the Arbroath Signal Tower Museum, as made by Peter Lindsay, “a mill or foundry worker who made baskets in his spare time”. This is confirmed by accession cards in the Signal Tower Museum, which describes this basket and a half-line basket (small scull) there as being made by the same man. The bow creel was used by a Mrs Annie Teviotdale, while the half-line basket was made for the donor “when he started out to sea”. Back and arm creels, as well as miniature baskets, in the National Museums of Scotland, were also made by Mr Lindsay, according to the Living Traditions catalogue, 1951.
Many short and long line baskets around the coast were more crudely made, with frames made from willow in the round, and weavers from quite rough willow. Some were deep, others were shallow. The examples from Cromarty are typical, and there are similar sculls from the west coast too, suggesting that where line fishing was part of a crofting-fishing lifestyle, there was less professionalization of scull making, and possibly other fishing related baskets. On the east coast, line fishing was one part of a way of life which became dominated by the herring drifters by the late 19th century.
As far as basket suppliers go, images from the Alexander Wilson collection in Photopolis, Dundee Libraries photo-archive, show that on Overgate in Dundee in 1910 there was a basket-maker at No 31 George McIntosh, and a basketmaker’s shop at No 37, James R. Butchart. A chance discovery of an old invoice at Unst heritage Centre, Shetland, also reveals there was a basket supplier and manufacturer, William Corner, in Wick in 1901. Corner supplied Sandison and Sons of Hillswick, Shetland, with a variety of baskets, including quarter crans, cobbing baskets, oval kipper baskets, spale baskets and washing baskets.
The picture that all this gives is one where there were varying degrees of skill in fishing-basket making around the coast. One the one hand baskets were made for the long-standing practice of line fishing associated with crofting-fishing in the north, east and the west, made in different forms around the country. Sculls and rips made in many areas were often cruder than the more sophisticated sculls of Arbroath or Gourdon. While they may have been made by specialist basket-makers, such baskets may have been one of several necessary skills for many families who relied on one or two makers in the region where possible. Blind Benjie Finlayson from Cromarty may have been one of these. Peter Lindsay, the Arbroath basket-maker, made baskets in his spare time, which suggests that fishing-basket making was not necessarily a profession. But the sophistication of his technique suggests he had access to specialist techniques such as wood-bending equipment, and possibly put the care into the craft of someone who had chosen it outside of his main line of work.
On the other hand, baskets such as quarter crans had to be made on a semi-industrial scale to a determined form for the herring industry, and this required the existence of basketworks and trained basket-makers. These were found at Kilmuir in Skye, and possibly in Aberdeen, and can be viewed under the quarter cran heading in this section.