The Edinburgh fishwife

33] The Edinburgh fishwife was a familiar figure in the streets of Edinburgh at that time and indeed one or two continued to ply their trade until the 1950’s.  They walked several miles into the city from the fishing harbours of Newhaven or Fisherrow bearing huge creels[i] of seafish on their backs, calling out ‘caller herrin’ (fresh herring) or ‘caller ou’ (fresh oysters) [ii] or whatever was the catch of the day.  Kay describes the dress of the fishwives which varied in detail depending on the village from which they came.  The wore a cap of cotton or linen, a napkin below the chin, a woollen pea jacket and voluminous petticoats of substantial material in gaudy colours, generally yellow with stripes, short enough to display their ankles!  Although they enjoyed a dram, they were known for their respectability and morality of character, ‘far removed from the gin-swilling vixens of Billingsgate, or the dirty, squalid fishhawkers of Dublin’[iii]  When not engaged in selling fish, the fishwives helped their husbands by making and mending nets, collecting baits and baiting their lines.

[i] Although the fishwives’ strength must have been remarkable, a footnote in Kay’s Portraits 2 p339 makes the unlikely claim that ‘It is a well-known fact, that three of them….went from Dunbar to Edinburgh, which is  twenty-seven miles, with each of them a load of herrings on her back of 200lb. in five hours’.

[ii] Oysters, dredged on the shore of the Firth of Forth, were cheap and plentiful in those days and a staple diet of all classes of society. In 1773 they began to be exported in large numbers to the London market.  Arnot, p455, predicted rightly that ‘if the oyster-banks on the Forth are not dragged more sparingly, this commodity will be speedily exhausted.’ Alas overfishing has long since resulted in their virtual disappearance from these waters.

[iii] Kay’s Portraits  2 p339