Working Fishwives

— #01 Fishmarket

Overview Open Air Fish Market The Building Fish Auctions Working Fishwives Pier Parliament The Police Box

Make no mistake about it, Newhaven was predominantly a matriarchal society.  As Mrs Mucklebackit opined in one of the Waverley novels by Sir Walter Scott, ‘The Antiquary’, “Them that sell the goods, guide the purse — them that guide the purse, rule the house.”  The woman in the partnership was the Boss!

It is interesting to note how many women in Newhaven owned the family home as shown in our “Household database 1865-1940”. (NB file available for inspection at the Newhaven’s Exhibition area at the Wee Hub (old Debenham’s store) in Ocean Terminal.


2_3204 Working Fishwives have a quick chat before setting off on their routes. The baskets they are carrying could hold around 8 stone (50 kilos) of fish and it was not unusual for the fishwife to walk miles on her round.

The heart and soul of the village was the working fishwife.  The family’s prosperity depended on her industrious nature.  It was she who would collect the mussels from the beds along the seashore and then bait the lines with them. She would carry the creel full of fish, perhaps weighing more than 60 kilos, on her rounds selling, gutting and preparing the fish at each customer’s house crying out “Caller Ou” (fresh oysters) or “Caller Herrin’” as she went.  And, commonly, while she was walking to and from her district, she would be knitting something for the bairns.

2_3226: Newhaven women and children c1890 catching up the gossip on Newhaven Main Street

Once home by early afternoon, she would do the washing and ironing, clean the house and make the tea for the children coming in from school.   It was little wonder that a man would be frowned upon should he choose a wife from outside the village.  “Keep the hoose?” they would say, “She cannae even keep hersel’!”

There was no messing with the Newhaven Fishwife.  It was no idle cliche to say about an assertive woman “She had the tongue of a fishwife.” The language was never profane but the recipient knew that they had received a tongue lashing if they ever stepped over the mark.

2_3205: It was a relatively short walk, albeit up the hill of Craighall Road, to the Newhaven train station where a train would take the fishwives westward to Barnton and Corstorphine districts

Each basket carried between 6 and 8 stone (38 – 50 Kg) of fish, a smaller basket called a scull in which to display the fish to their customers, and a wooden board used to prepare a fish once bought.

Fishwives travelled around Edinburgh’s districts such as Barnton, Blackhall, Davidson’s Mains, Juniper Green, Balerno, Liberton, Morningside, Newington, New Town, Old Town, and Restalrig..  By tradition, certain fishwives covered certain routes and this was respected.  Some went even further afield — Broxburn, Lanark, Strathaven,Carnwath, Hamilton, Falkirk, Polmont, Burntisland, Kelty, Lochgelly, and Cambuslang

Famous for their gaily coloured outfits that had earned them the title of The Yellow Butterflies, those were not the clothes when they were selling fish. They wore navy blue petticoats in heavy serge, the outer kilted around the hips to pad the creel and with a navy blue and white striped apron.  The pooch (pouch) was usually brightly coloured as was the blouse which always had white cuffs turned up above the elbow.  A blue cape was worn around shoulders although more frequently this could have been a tartan shawl wrapped around their bodice and tied at
the waist.  Black stockings and shoes completed the ensemble.

Fishwives from nearby Fisherrow, Musselburgh appeared to be dressed in a similar manner but there were key differences.  The Fisherrow fishwives wore longer skirts and their creelbands were of black leather whereas those of the Newhaven fishwives were usually of canvas scrubbed white to complement their well-turned out appearance.

2_3105: Wilhelmina Rutherford [Linton] shown here wearing her working clothes rather than the brightly coloured gala dress (her 'braws'). Dark and practical, the skirt was made from heavy serge to keep her warm in all weathers.