Wha’ll buy my caller herrin’?
They’re bonnie fish and halesome farin’;
Wha’ll buy my caller herrin’,
New drawn frae the Forth?
When winter winds howl and the sea rolling high
Our boatmen sae brave, all dangers defy
Their last haul on board, they steer for the shore
Their live cargo landed is soon at our door
Caller ou, caller ou, caller ou
Frae the Forth,
caller ou, caller ou
These were popular songs in the repertoire of the internationally renowned Newhaven Fishwives and Fisherlassies Choirs.
From time immemorial, the fishermen of Newhaven had taken oysters from the abundant beds of the Forth. For centuries they were a staple food of the poor. They were dredged from the beds (or scalps) by dragging a large rake at a 35° angle from their open boats which were rowed up and down. In the late 18th century the oysters became very fashionable and proved to be a rich bounty for fishermen along the south coast of the Forth.
It was reputed that the best oysters came from the beds that Newhaven fishermen controlled and there were often skirmishes with other fishermen from neighbouring communities. Legal fights with Edinburgh’s city fathers were even more rancorous — and a lot more expensive. The Society of Free Fishermen acted on behalf of the fishermen in these matters. But the annual leases imposed by Edinburgh became ever more costly. In 1839, the Council sold the rights to an Englishman, George Clark, on a ten-year lease. He brought in over 60 dredgers and worked them from dawn to dusk, ultimately decimating the industry after only one season. The oyster beds never fully recovered.
Traditionally oysters were only harvested from October to May.
However, Newhaven’s fishermen were fully engaged in their occupation throughout the year. Their catch was seasonal — oysters in the winter, cod, haddock and ling in the summer and in late autumn the fickle but occasionally abundant herring. The herring were caught with drift nets, the cod and other white fish were caught on the line – 700 to 1000 hooks baited with locally caught mussels which were gathered by the fishwives and lassies.
As their quarry became more elusive, the fishermen travelled ever further, sailing or even rowing 35-40 miles into open sea. In the undecked boats more suited to inshore waters, fishing was a hazardous occupation. Eventually boats became decked and larger, and steam propulsion arrived. As a consequence, fishermen could travel away from coastal waters for days at a time using trawl fishing to catch their prey.
A purpose built Fish Market was constructed in 1896 to handle the catch which came from a’ airts. However, as the trawlers got ever larger, Newhaven Harbour proved too small and adjacent Granton provided a more suitable haven for the fishing fleet.