Posted in Travel

Signally Challenged In Scotland

New Mobile Cell Phone Technology

If you think the mobile phone signal in Hawkesbury isn’t great, you should try touring the coast of Scotland. In our week long trip around Fife (that’s the bit that sticks out to the right above Edinburgh), there was hardly a day went by when I could text or call home. Even my usual Hawkesbury tricks – holding the phone above my head or next to a window – would not  persuade a single one of those aggravating little bars turn black. If we’d been in the Scottish Highlands, I’d have understood the problem: no line of sight contact with mobile masts. Those pesky mountains do get in the way sometimes.

I was once involved in a BBC outside broadcast at Westonbirt Arboretum. The technical guy complained that the proximity of tall trees was the one thing to avoid when trying to make a transmission. (Cue to sack the location scout!) But when you’re in treeless ground at sea level, there really is no excuse.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Ironically, we encountered on our coastal tour some surprisingly successful communication feats using old technology. While imprisoned in Lochleven Castle, Mary, Queen of Scots used her pearl earrings as a signal – she gave them to a secret messenger to send back to her as proof that his mission had succeeded.

RRS Discovery English: Museum ship RRS Discove...

The intrepid polar explorers who joined Captain Cook on the RRS Discovery (now a floating museum in Dundee) packed rockets to use as distress signals. They didn’t seem to have an alternative for good news.

Bell Rock Lighthouse

But my favourite was the system used by Robert Stevenson’s Bell Rock Lighthouse, built 200 years ago 11 miles off the coast of Arbroath. To indicate to those on dry land that all was well, the lighthouse keepers had to hoist a large brass ball to the top of the lighthouse tower each day. If on any day the ball did not appear, shore staff assumed there was a major  emergency at the lighthouse (e.g. serious illness or death of the keepers) and sent out a rescue boat. There was only one tale of an unnecessary emergency mission: when a large seabird nested in front of the light, obscuring the view of the ball.

So even the least technical solution isn’t failsafe. I think I’ll stick with my mobile. And dry land.


(All photos by Wikipedia – must get my camera fixed!)

This post was originally written for the May issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News.

If you enjoyed this article about my recent Scottish trip, you might also enjoy this one:

Dorothy Was Right: There’s No Place Like Home 

 or this one:  New Respect for Old Fishwives

Posted in Travel

New Respect for Old Fishwives

photograph of fishwife Dolly Peel
What's not to love about the fishwife? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Don’t talk like that, you sound like an old fishwife.”

Until my Easter holiday in Scotland, I’d only had negative associations with the concept of a fishwife. I’m not sure how fishwives earned their reputation of being “coarse and shrewish”, to quote one dictionary definition, but the word had always conjured up in my mind a garrulous, nosy old lady in an apron, smelling of fish.

But then last month my visit to the wonderful Scottish Fisheries Museum at Anstruther in Fife (the bit of Scotland that sticks out above Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth) gave me a much more complimentary perspective.

Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther, Scotland
The Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther (photo: museum's website)

In small fishing ports such as Anstruther, fishing was not just the work of the menfolk. The men were the ones who braved the North Sea waves to bring home the catch, but behind every good fisherman was an equally sound fishwife.

The fishwife’s duties were not just to keep house, cook, shop, wash, iron and raise the children while her husband was at sea. Nor was she only an industrious craftswoman, knitting ingenious seamless socks and sweaters, made as one piece to prevent ingress of water. (The sleeves were especially short to avoid chafing the wrists with wet wool.) Weaving the creels (baskets) to carry the fish was another art at which the good fishwife was adept.

The fishwife also played an important role before and after the fisherman’s seafaring adventures. She helped make and repair the nets, gathered the bait (shellfish were picked on a cold beach at daybreak) and stuck the bait on numerous hooks on fishing lines. After all this, she was required to give her man a piggyback to his boat. She paddled barefoot through the shallows, skirts and aprons hitched up, so that the fisherman could set off with dry feet. When the catch was brought ashore, it was the fishwife who gutted and cleaned the fish, packing them into barrels for export.

Girls processing fish
How ever will they get that one in the box? (Photo: Fisheries Museum website)

You didn’t have to be married to earn the dubious privilege of helping with the catch. Hordes of single girls followed the fishing fleet around the coast, packing the haul whenever and wherever it was landed.

Fishwives’ reputation for gossip was perhaps borne of the closeness of these fishing communities. They supported each other when anxious for their menfolk out at sea in storms, or widowed in the inevitable tragedies of “those in peril on the sea”, as the memorable old hymn goes.  They were hugely comforting to friends, family and neighbours who lived with the knowledge that their men were risking their lives daily.

Fishwives baiting lines for their menfolk
Baiting lines (photo: Fisheries Museum)

But most impressive to me of all the fishwives’ attributes was their ability to bait the hooks on lines to be dropped into the sea. These lines could be as long as – wait for it – a MILE in length. There are pictures and room-sets in the museum with these extraordinarily long lines piled neatly into the aforementioned home-made creels, waiting to be cast swiftly into the waters. Speaking as one who can’t put her iPod earphones cable in her handbag without it emerging in an inexplicable, inextricable tangle, I cannot imagine how they achieved this.

So from now on, if anyone calls me a fishwife, I’m going to take it as a compliment. Or at least I won’t rise to the bait.

If you liked this post, you might enjoy these other thoughts about educational outings to museums:

Reliving history in Northern France

The Ring of Truth