3_1206 Photographed in the mid-1960s, the three large boats with wheelhouses are 1930s ring netters (motor skiffs). The single ring netter in the foreground is not a typical skiff. The three smaller boats were not built for sail but have petrol paraffin engines. Courtesy of George Hackland. Technical information by Bill Hall.

A once bustling fishing harbour

Looking at the harbour now with its few pleasure craft, it’s hard to appreciate that you could once walk across from one side to the other by going from boat to boat.  At one time over 100 boats sought the shelter of this haven as their home port.

But that was in the days before the large powered fishing boats and in latter days huge factory ships sailed the sea.  Today, only very few ports, mainly on the east coast of Britain, such as Peterhead, Fraserburgh, Lerwick and Grimsby, now function as fishing ports.  The smaller harbours that were once “a mantle of gold” are now the base for lobster and prawn boats.

A Busy Ferry Port

After the death of King James IV, the Burghers of Edinburgh, who now owned the village of Newhaven, largely ignored its existence.  The Society of Free Fishermen of Newhaven assumed responsibility for building and upkeep of the harbour. A primitive stone pier and slipway protected the shore from the worst westerly gales.

Early in the 19th century the primitive pier was used as a basis for a new slipway from St Andrew’s Square for a ferry service to Fife, and later the authorities built a high pier on the east side to accommodate steam boats.  Ships went from Newhaven all around the east coast of Scotland, to London, Aberdeen, Orkney and many ports in Fife.  In fact it was said that until the road network came into being, the whole of the British Isles could be circumnavigated by ferries alone.

3_1005 A single stone pier gave shelter from the worst of the westerly gales.

A New Lighthouse

In 1876, after much petitioning of Parliament, the foundation stone was laid for the new west breakwater.  The harbour and a new lighthouse were completed in 1878 when the lighthouse was first lit.

The following year the Dock Commission imposed harbour dues.  This greatly annoyed the fishermen of Newhaven, leading to an incident where one Dock commissioner was flung into the harbour as well as two fishermen!  Eventually peace was restored and dues were paid.

3_1207 LH220 Summer Rose and LH 28 Gratitude alongside at the harbour. Courtesy of George Hackland

An Enclosed Harbour and a Fishmarket

There had always been an open-air fish market at Newhaven, with fish laid out on the harbour stones. Eventually the Leith Dock Commission filled in an area of ground to the east of the pier and built a new undercover fish market which was opened in 1896.

For a while, Newhaven harbour became a thriving place again. But the Fishmarket had rivals elsewhere and eventually fell significantly in use. In 1990 it was saved from demolition by a Category B listing. In 2006 it was further upgraded and converted for other commercial use.

3_1621 DR-PC 085: Looking across the harbour towards the Fishmarket and Porters' Sheds. c1910. Courtesy of the Ratcliffe Postcard Collection.