Posted in Family, Travel

Fishwife Power: A Tribute to the Fishwives Choir

The Fishwives' Choir
Meet The Fishwives

Every Friday I attend my daughter’s school’s weekly Celebration Service. It’s an uplifting end to the week, focused on highlighting the children’s achievements. It’s a completely different experience to the whole-school assemblies that kick-started every school day in my own childhood. Each one followed the same formula: two hymns, one prayer, and bashed out on an upright piano a roaring tune to which we marched in and out.

The numbered hymns, chosen from a small blue hardback Songs of Praise book, ranged considerably in popularity. My favourite was 202. To this day, I still cannot see the number 202 anywhere without wanting to burst into boisterous song: “For all the saints who from their labours rest…”

Almost as popular, because its words were dramatic and it had no high notes, was “Eternal Father, strong to save”. One of my friends liked that one so much he planned to have it at his wedding.

For Those In Peril On The Sea

In my innocence, I thought of this hymn as a history lesson, as if losing fishermen at sea had gone out with the Ark. After all, I didn’t know any fisherman who had drowned. Living a long way from any seaside, I was about as likely to meet a fisherman as I was to meet a saint.

Even on a recent trip to the Scottish National Fisheries Museum (you can read about that visit in my post New Respect for Old Fishwives), I still did not appreciate what a dangerous a trade it is. I’m embarrassed now that my earlier post about fishwives was so flippant – but it was that post that caused a modern-day group of fishwives to find me. Yes, there are still fishwives – and the group pictured above make up The Fishwives Choir. They conveyed some very important messages, such as these:

  • Seafishing is the most dangerous peacetime occupation in the country. Even the most modern ship does not render fishermen inviolable, and plenty of fishermen ply their trade in less sophisticated vessels.
  • When fishermen lose their lives, their bodies may never be found. This creates serious financial problems for their surviving dependents, while insurance companies dither, unwilling to declare them legally dead in the absence of certain proof.

Who knew? I now feel even more disgusted than before with “Canoe Man” John Darwin, the notorious fraudster who faked his own death at sea in order to start a new life with his wife in Panama with his life insurance money. How dare he?

The logo of the Fishwives ChoirThe Fishwives Choir

The Fishwives Choir is a dignified and determined group of women who have lost husbands or sons to the sea. They came together earlier this year to make a beautiful and poignant recording, intercutting “Eternal Father, strong to save” with the northern fishermen’s nursery rhyme “Dance to Your Daddy”. In the final chorus, the expected last line “when the boat comes in” is omitted, subtly reminding the listener that for some fishermen’s children, Daddy’s boat never does come in. All profits from the CD will go to The Fishermen’s Mission, which offers support to lost fishermen’s dependents.

So next time you tuck into a takeway or break out a Birdseye box from the cuddly polar bear’s clutches in your freezer, spare a thought for the men who have indirectly served you your Friday fish supper. And I’m not talking about Captain Birdseye. Listen to The Fishwives’Choir and while you’re at it, please consider downloading the song from iTunes. You’ll find it’s as cheap as chips.

For more information and to order your copy, visit The Fishwives’ website

To find out more about The Fisherman’s Mission, click here.


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

Posted in Family, Travel

Laura’s Fishing Tips

fly fishing in a riverA walk along the banks of the River Ness suggests my seven-year-old daughter Laura might be destined for a scientific career.

“Why does the ground stay there and not get washed away by the water in the river?” she asks me.

Cue for some improvised theorising, concocted by the very unscientific me, drawing on vague memories of  a documentary about soil erosion and news stories about flooding.

Strolling further along the river bank, we pause opposite the lay-by where fisherman park their cars.  They cluster together, comparing notes, planning strategy.  It’s clearly a very serious sport around here.

We see several cyclists arrive, perilously dangling their fully extended fishing rods behind them.  We hope they won’t hook any passing pedestrians.

We watch them don thigh-high waders before  they trudge through the fast-moving shallows to cast their rods into deeper waters.

“Don’t the fish notice them?” queries Laura.

I fail to dredge up any memories from school biology lessons about the fish’s field of vision.

“Maybe fishing rods are always brown or green or grey so that fish will think they’re just tree branches hanging over the river,” I suggest.  “After all, you never see fishermen with brightly coloured fishing rods.  And they tie things called flies on to their hooks – bits of feather and suchlike that are meant to look like naturally occurring river insects that fish usually eat.”

Laura considers this proposition.

“Then I think they should stick leaves on their rods, too, to make them look more like branches.  Otherwise I’m surprised that the fish fall for it.”

I was wondering why we’d never seen the fisherman catch anything.


Venturing into a branch of Aldi for the first time yesterday, I was rather pleased to spot something I’d never seen before – a “fishing t-shirt” and “fishing sweatshirt” for sale entirely patterned in camouflage suitable for a riverbank.  Where Laura leads, others follow…

Posted in Family, Travel

Fishing for Votes

Throwing economy to the winds, I decide to take my daughter to the notoriously expensive new aquarium in Bristol.  The Easter holidays are nearing their end and that is all the excuse we need.

We spend a nice enough couple of hours strolling past tanks of all shapes and sizes, learning endearingly odd facts about fish that make me wonder whether I’ll be able to face eating them ever again.

But the highlight of the visit is definitely the 3D film shown in the IMAX theatre.  For forty five minutes, we don the obligatory outsized dark glasses and experience the coral reefs at first hand.  Shoals of fish swarm about not only on the screen but, it seems, all through the auditorium.  “Finding Nemo” has nothing on the real thing: it is completely fascinating.  My daughter is not the only child who is reaching out to try to capture a fish as it  apparently swims past her seat or to pat a friendly dolphin on the nose.  We are totally convinced that we are in the sea with them and again, this makes me feel much warmer towards sealife than I’d ever have thought possible.

Halfway through, it occurs to me that the political party leaders, due that day to make history by facing a live audience together on television, are missing a trick.  If they really want to reach out to us in our homes, they ought to engineer a joint 3D broadcast.  The viewer at home on his sofa would feel so much more politically engaged.  And if he did feel compelled to punch any particular politician on the nose, well, at least it would get it out of his system.

A word of warning, though:  only a couple of days later, I find myself tucking in heartily to a distinctly piscatorial dinner , delicious squid as a starter, followed by a succulent moules marinieres.  So perhaps this is not such a wise idea for the politicians after all.