Report notes for events at the Scottish Fisheries Museum, June to February 2016-7

This museum gives a third insight into Scottish social history through its baskets, this time east coast and fishing-based. The range of baskets in this museum and for this way of life is extensive. For use in local line fishing, there were baskets for gathering bait, for setting out lines, and selling fish. Baskets are needed in all aspects of this work. And in the herring industry, there were more. The quarter cran exemplifies the need for a formally structured, precisely made basket or container for measuring fish. Boats needed woven fenders and little round baskets to raise as signals. And there were a variety of baskets just to hold fish and move them around, on and off boats.

Liz Balfour and I (Stephanie Bunn) were able to point to the subtle changes of style in both creels and sculls from north to south along the east coast. And there were clearly makers across the region whom one could identify with specific basket styles. Peter Lindsay was one such maker from Arbroath, a great expert whose work was displayed in the1950s Living Traditions exhibition. But there are definitely one or two other basket styles from further north, around Peterhead and possibly around Cromarty, where baskets were obviously made all by one skilled man or workshop in a particular style. This might be seen in the use of laminated wood for the frame, or the use of skids under a creel, or bands of weaving across the sides to protect a creel. This also clearly linked to an aesthetic aspect. These baskets were made well, and were both functional and made to suit the aesthetic of a particular maker.

What did we do?

Aside from demonstrating and reminiscence events, we also held three special activity days. These were:

A fender making workshop led by Liz Balfour;

A netting-bee led by Liz, Steph and Julie Gurr;

And a Skills-Gathering workshop, where a general invitation went out to all Scottish basket makers in the Scottish Basket-makers Circle. We invited anyone who was interested in coming to work with the old baskets no longer being made, and which no-one knew how to make anymore, and to work out the skills to read make them. This was a basketry renewal!

Finally, the wonderful Linda Fitzpatrick, the museum curator up, helped us put on a very special exhibition of fishing basketwork during the time the project was working at the museum.

Who did we meet?

We met retired fisherman, and it was here that we realised we needed to extend our expertise to nets as well as baskets. We also met the great granddaughter of a Fife basket-maker, famously portrayed in a painting in the museum gallery. And we met a very helpful re-enactor who made it his new ambition to both make a line basket in the Peter Lindsay style, and to use it in fishing.

Finally at a talk given following the exhibition, we also met local people who had stories to tell of washing line baskets in the local burn.

What did we learn?

Most fishermen didn’t make their own baskets on the east coast, these are made by experts, either in their spare time or fully professionally. However, fishermen used baskets, and they also mended nets. Often they learned this as children coming home from school, helping their mother in the evenings, whether it was simply winding mending twine around the netting needles or developing more complex skills. ‘My mother would leave me the needles in a bucket ready to wind each day.’ Unlike baskets, nets have been made by machine for a long time, but they’re still very valuable and needed frequent mending, unless they were severely damaged. Today, the temptation is to cut of the offending piece and throw it in the sea, which causes more plastic pollution in the oceans.

Again, this museum attracted a national audience, and we had visitors who could tell us about basketry across Scotland, from fishing in the Western Isles, to life in World War II using baskets in the Highlands – ‘we had nothing then, nothing.’ And local fisherman you could talk to us about fishing nets and knots.

In terms of practical basketry and skill, we also learned that people love handwork. People who joined in our workshops send gatherings had constant conversations about the work and these activities generated an ideal environment to learn more and encourage people more talk about past family memories. We found this through making nets with students and with the general public, people were enlivened and entirely absorbed. Mending was also an important feature of making and this was crucial to be proficient at this, it was an act of care in one’s work and care was part of working. Just like basketry these netting hands skills used both hands, required dexterity, completely becoming second nature, so that the net mending was a part of life, and triggered very basic hand memories.

Our ‘Skills Gathering’ revealed two contrasting approaches to learning the intangible skills encorprated into a basket. Two makers in particular stood out as exemplifying these approaches, John Cowan and Tim Palmer. Whether this was just the particular skills each basket required or two different personal approaches is difficult to tell, Tim chose to make one of most challenging baskets in the collection a beautiful line scull of the type made by Peter Lindsay. This required immense forward planning and preparation, including steam-bending wood in advance and a great many measurements. John made a grtlin basket of the kind that is probably half a cran in size, ie a ‘stake and strand basket’. He had learnt to make quarter crans from the last professional quarter cran maker, Colin Manthorpe, and had made many, selling them at the New Craftsman in London. John’s approach, other than generally measuring the basket and gathering the materials, was to star  by saying, ‘I think this would take me about five hours’. From this point, there was very little reference to any plan or measurements.

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