From Creels to Quarter Crans: the form and function of baskets used by the Scottish fishing community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

by Linda Fitzpatrick, Curator, Scottish Fisheries Museum

This presentation outlines the types of baskets developed and used within the Scottish fishing industry from its heyday in the late 19th century to the early 20th century.   Based on an examination of the baskets held in the collections of the Scottish Fisheries Museum, I explore the ways in which baskets were used at every stage of the fishing process from collecting bait, storing fishing gear and catching fish, to landing the catch and selling the end product.  I show how the different functions dictated sometimes subtle variations in form and how the skills and materials available within the fishing context could influence basket design.


For the purposes of this article I am going to draw heavily upon the collections of baskets held by the Scottish Fisheries Museum.  The baskets themselves have been collected throughout the lifespan of the museum from a wide number of sources.  Some were inherited with the buildings; others were donated by the people who used them, or their descendants; while others came from collectors.   They date from the late 19th century to the 1960s when new materials began to take over.  Information about the baskets can be gathered from archives, from information given when the baskets were collected and from observation of the baskets themselves.  However, there are still many gaps in our knowledge of the collection.

Baskets were widely used within the fishing community, but I will concentrate on those made specifically for fishing processes.  Baskets were used at all stages of the operation and the collection includes examples of everything from fish traps and floats to fenders and even boats themselves (coracles).  However, I will concentrate on the main areas of fishing to illustrate some of the styles that were developed for the most widespread aspects of the industry.


The two principal methods of sea fishing used in Scotland were line fishing and net fishing.  The first, known as long-lining, was used to catch demersal (white) fish such as cod, halibut, saithe, ling and flat-fish.  Two main techniques were employed:

Small line (sma’ line) fishing was a family affair with women and children responsible for much of the work in preparing the equipment.  This was a line, up to a mile in length, to which were attached snoods or shorter pieces of line.  Each snood held a hook baited with fish or shellfish.

The woman’s work started in the early morning when she would go down to the shore to gather mussels, shell them and put one on each hook.  There were around 1,200 hooks per line and each fisherman had two lines.  The lines were neatly coiled in a scull (basket) and layered with grass (gathered by the children) to prevent them snagging as they were shot out.  It was not uncommon for a woman to work a ten-hour day to prepare her husband or father’s gear for a single trip.  Sma’ lining would be done in inshore waters in the winter between herring or gartlin seasons.

The baskets developed for sma’ line fishing were generally oval in shape with a lowered edge at the front.  This allowed for the easy playing out of the coiled line.  The baskets have two handles and are generally reinforced with strips of split cane on the base.  There is some regional variation in shape.  In the Arbroath and Gourdon area, longer, flatter sculls were preferred, whereas in Portnockie they were smaller and deeper.  In some areas, wooden sculls were preferred – those used in Pittenweem had square ends while those used further west and on the south coast of the Forth e.g. Dunbar, and North Berwick, had a curved rim on a flat base.  There is evidence that movement of people within and between fishing communities influenced designs as fishermen, for example, marrying into another family would take their skills with them.  It would also be interesting to learn whether the prevalence of the use of “new” materials in any way relates to proximity to a major port where cane might be imported.

Great line (gartlin) fishing was similar to small line fishing but was undertaken in deeper waters, further out to sea.  The lines could be up to 15 miles in length and would be fitted with 5,000 hooks.  The fishermen usually baited the lines on the boat.  Many liners carried a small-meshed drift-net to catch young herring to use as bait, or would buy small haddock from other fishermen.  The main grounds were very distant, for example the Faroe Banks north of Shetland, so the men could be out at sea for three weeks at a time.

Gartlin sculls and baskets differ from sma’ line versions as they are generally larger, and are fitted with a length of rope or cork around the rim.  This would be used to hold the empty hooks – as the hooks were baited on board, this was an ideal way to keep them tidy until they were required.   Obviously, as with all baskets used on board, being porous was a distinct advantage as any spray that washed in could just as easily wash out again, preventing the gear or the catch becoming waterlogged and potentially unbalancing the boat.

Net fishing

The mainstay of the Scottish fishing industry in this period was, however, the herring fishery which lasted from May to November each year with boats following the shoals from the Hebrides , round the Northern Isles and down the East coast to East Anglia.  Herring were caught in drift nets and the boats would be out and back in a day, racing to get the catch back to shore before the fatty fish spoiled.  The industry was highly regulated with inspectors stationed at the herring ports to ensure that quality standards were met.

The catch was measured in crans (one cran is around 1,000 herring) and, ubiquitous among the fleets were the quarter cran baskets used to land the catch and measure the haul.  Each basket was made to a regulation size and branded to show that it had passed the official inspection.  The Museum holds copies of the annual reports of the Fishery Board for Scotland and these do record instances of baskets being rejected for being smaller than the regulation size.  From the 1940s, fish began to be packed in boxes so the official quarter cran basket was no longer required: the shape persisted, however, and even today the plastic baskets used on prawn boats are a similar size and shape.

In Yarmouth, the distinctive swills were used.  These held half a cran and were unique to East Anglia.  Again, they were made to strict standards and were used to measure the catch and so to determine the earnings of each boat.

Fish selling

One of the best-known icons of the fishing industry is the fishwife with her Dutch-inspired costume and creel.  The creels were designed to be carried on the back, with a smaller basket balanced on top, as the women would carry their wares inland and to the larger towns.  The different types of fish were layered in the creel while the top basket, or an arm creel was used to display a sample and to carry the gutting board and knife.  Fishwives travelling on foot to inshore areas often filled up their creels with peats or kindling on the return journey.

On the east coast, especially in the Arbroath area, an oval basket, known as a rip was used.  This would either be slung around the back like a creel, or worn on the hip.  It was shaped to fit the body and would be carried along with smaller arm creels.  As with the back creel, the strap would be made of leather or, more usually, cotton webbing.  Even after the advent of the railways, fishwives continued to carry their creels on the trains and to walk around from house to house with them, or set up a stall and sell from the creel.

There is some debate regarding the way that creels were carried.  Most of the photographs in our archive show the straps being worn across the chest and over the shoulders, however, we have one image of fisherfolk collecting bait at Fisherrow, Musselburgh, where the creel bands are clearly worn around the forehead.

Where did all these baskets come from?

There are some records of individual basket makers in fishing communities.  Locally, census records list “basket maker” as an occupation (e.g. 1861, Thomas Oliver of Kilrenny).  Fishermen made their own lobster creels and often had rights to collect willow or ash for the purpose.  However, no mention is made of similar rights to collect materials to make baskets.

There is a tradition of piece-working within the fishing community:  women and retired fishermen would take in nets for repair and until recently a local man would make rope fenders for local boats.  Such activity, unfortunately, was seldom listed in official records or trades directories but it would seem reasonable to suggest that basket makers worked in a similar way.  However, many baskets show a degree of uniformity that would suggest larger scale manufacture.

Some of the baskets display interesting features which suggest a familiarity with the techniques and access to the machinery of boat-building.  A number of the sculls incorporate steamed wood in the rim.  This is a particular feature of the Gourdon sculls where the wood is layered.  Most fishing towns had at least one boatyard either building or repairing wooden vessels, and each would have a steam box for shaping planks.  It would be interesting to know how widespread this method of shaping wood was in basket making outwith the fishing community.

Conclusion: areas for further investigation

This brief overview of the collections held by the SFM has revealed a number of interesting features.  A great deal of information can be gathered from the baskets themselves, and from the associated photographs and documentation.  However, it has also revealed a good few areas in need of further research.  Who made the baskets?  What were the extent, nature and causes of the regional variations in design?  What influences defined the materials used?  We recognise that we have a fantastic resource at the museum and I would welcome any input into further researching the collections.

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