Women of Fisherrow, as wives, daughters and widows of the men who fished the seas, made their own independent living selling fish house to house on the streets of Edinburgh. Fisherrow is now an integral part of the town of Musselburgh (five miles east of the City of Edinburgh) In former times it was a separate part of the town where all the fisher people lived and worked and where the harbour that was the home port of the local fishing was located.
The men were often at sea for long periods and it was the women who supported the family. It is not clear when women started taking fish to Edinburgh, but were definitely doing so by the early 1800s.
They used an east coast style creel. This was solidly woven at the sides unlike the creels of the highlands and islands. They also had a skull. This was a large circular frame basket that sat on top of the creel. This basket was also known as a head creel or cob. The thick top frame was laminated from several pieces of broad cane to make it really sturdy. Both creel and skull came to be made in the salt water resistant cane, which came as packaging from the Far East. The protruding stakes of the creel helped to set the skull and keep it stable.
These women were strong. When fully laden with fish a creel and skull could weigh 55kg such that they required assistance to lift the baskets up onto their back on leaving the fish market. To support such a weight a head strap was used. Traditionally Musselburgh fishwives used a leather strap and Newhaven women used a canvas strap. These straps were attached by rope up through a hole in the creel and onto one of the protruding stakes. The women wore a thick serge coat that was made with double thickness around the small of the back, to help make carrying the creels more comfortable.
The women would get fish when the boats came in, either by buying them at the local market or, in some places after being landed, getting them from their husbands or fathers to sell on their behalf at the pierhead or to take to their customers. The baskets were loaded by setting any flat fish around the outside of the skull before arranging the rest of the wet fish inside. Keeping the fish whole right up to the doorstep kept the fish fresher for longer. The creel would have the various accoutrements needed for the day, including a gutting board and gutting knives, a bass bag with her knitting inside, scales, paper for wrapping the fish for the customers and for the guts and smoked fish, if she was carrying any.
To get into Edinburgh they used the (electric) tram that ran from Musselburgh to Joppa, they travelled as passengers putting their creels at the front beside the driver then, from Joppa, either took a cable car into town or walked the distance along Fishwives Causeway – an old Roman road – in to the city to sell their wares.
Those women who traversed the city centre had many steps to get up and down. In times past it was not unusual for women to walk the 5 miles to Edinburgh in relays, three of them carrying one laden basket and shifting one to the other every hundred yards or so to complete the journey in three quarters of an hour.
Each woman would have her own round, and would not readily sell to anyone coming up to her on the street. Any new customer had to wait to be added to her round and it could be a long wait. However a customer was a customer and a sale a sale. If any of her fish was not ‘spoken for’ by a customer then she’d be only too pleased to make a sale and to add another customer to her list.
The daughters of the women would learn the trade alongside their mothers. They would usually leave school at 14 ‘to go to the creel’. Their mothers would buy them their first creel and skull and their working clothes. Then having been given two or three customers from their mothers to start them off the girls would have to find their own customers. While the daughters were working with their mothers they would tell what they had earned that day, but once they had their own round they kept to themselves what they earned, not even telling their husbands. Once home the baskets had to be washed out. Sometimes this job was given to one of the children of the family. In the summer they may have been left outside to dry. When not being used the baskets were stored in the washhouse or the coal cellar.
This community were providing fish to the people of Edinburgh for many years. In 1791 there were 90 Fisherrow fishwives and in 1955 only 19 remained. When boats changed from sail to being motorised, the marketing and selling of fish at Fisherrow and other local ports went into abeyance the women then having to travel by bus to Newhaven market to buy their fish.
At the market the women worked together in groups of five or six with one of the women buying the fish on behalf of the others. Once the boxes of fish were delivered to the women it was divided into equal piles. To ensure that each pile was fairly and equitably allocated the women used a process called ‘kyling’ where a passer by was asked to put a personal object from each woman onto one of the piles. The Newhaven fishwives also used this process.
The women’s income often carried the family if, for some reason, their men were not bringing in money. Sometimes it was the women’s money that would help finance a new boat or when needed a new engine.
Both creels and skulls were made locally and in the period between the wars this was done by Robert McKelvie a local basketmaker. He would also make other baskets used by the women such as washing and shopping baskets. A traveller, carrying spare canes, came around once a year and would do repairs on the baskets.
These Fisherrow fishwives are famous for having the first women’s golf competition in recorded history. It was held on 1 January 1811 on the Musselburgh Golf Links and sponsored by the club and various local merchants. One of the prizes was a creel and skull! As today the golf course was a good place to do business…to make contacts with the gentry and sort out special requests. These physically fit women also played an annual game of football on Shrove Tuesday. This took place between the married and the single ‘fishwives’. It was usually the married ones that won. They ran races in their full costume of skirts and aprons.
A long standing tradition in some fishing communities was to put the creel on the groom’s back on his wedding day – he had to go round with it laden with rocks and stones and this was called ‘creeling’. Once wed he put it down with a sigh of relief no doubt never to lift it again. It is not known if this happened in Fisherrow.
Most of these women stopped working carrying these loads of fish in the 1970s but some continued on. The last one plying her trade until 1988 was Betty Millar. Latterly Betty did not carry her creel but sold her fish from a van. Even now it is likely that some of the fish van routes are based on the old fishwife’s walking routes.
Other women also used creels to transport goods. Saltwives, who had less status than fishwives, would walk to Edinburgh with a creel of salt. Musselburgh also had large market gardens and women would transport vegetables to the city. Other women walked with creels of coal. Roads in and out of Musselburgh were tolled but, as people on foot were not required to pay the tolls, it was ‘cheaper’ to transport goods by creel and not by horse and cart or later by the motorised vehicles.
By Simon Fairnie, local historian, Fisherrow and Dawn Susan, basketmaker and researcher with the Woven Communities project.
With thanks to Liz Balfour, Scottish Basketmakers Circle
And with reference to