The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 7/Superstitions of the Scottish Fishermen

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IN "The Pirate" Sir Walter Scott introduces us to the old Norse belief—a belief still held, we are told, by some of our northern fishing communities—that whoever saves a drowning man must reckon on him ever after as an enemy. This has often been remarked by fishermen as a strangely-mysterious fact. Also, that when the crew of some boat or vessel have perished with but the exception of one individual, the relatives of the deceased invariably regard that one with a deep, irrepressible hatred. In both cases these feelings, engendered of hostility and dislike, are said not simply to arise from grief, envy, or a burdensome gratitude, but in some "occult and supernatural cause." The following singular occurence strikingly illustrates the case in point. About the beginning of last century a Cromarty boat was wrecked on the wild shores of Eathie. All the crew perished with the exception of one fisherman, who, sad to relate, was so persecuted on account of his good fortune by the relatives of the drowned men, who even threatened his life, that he was obliged, sorely against his inclination, to leave his native Cromarty and seek refuge at Nairn. Not many years afterwards he had the misfortune to be wrecked a second time, and again he chanced to be the sole survivor. As on the former occasion, he was subjected to such persistent persecution on the part of the friends of the deceased that he was compelled to quit Nairn, fur what harbour of refuge is not recorded.

There is a church in Fladda dedicated to St. Columba. It has an altar in the west end, and on it a blue stone of round form, which is always moist. It was an ordinary custom when any of the fishermen were detained in the island by contrary winds to wash this blue stone with water, in the hope of procuring a favouring breeze. This practice was said never to fail, especially if a stranger washed the stone.

Until within recent years no Cockenzie fisherman would have ventured out to sea had either a pig or a lame man crossed his path on his way to the beach. Not only so, but had a stranger met him of a morning and been the first to greet him with "a gude mornin" he would have regarded the interruption as an evil omen, and remained at home that day at least.

Another curious and superstitious custom used to prevail amongst fishermen. If, when at sea, especially when going out or coming into port, any one was heard to take the name of God in vain the first to hear the expression immediately called out "Cauld airn," when each of the boat's crew would instantly grasp fast the first piece of iron which came within his reach, and hold it for a time between his hands. This was done by way of counteracting the illluck which otherwise would have continued to follow the boat for the remainder of the day.

The ancient bell which formerly rung the good people of St. Manance to church, being suspended from a tree in the churchyard, was, strange to say, removed every year from that position during the herring season, the fishermen entertaining the superstitious belief that the fish were scared away from the coast by its noise!

Before striking their tents at Lammas, and bidding farewell for a while to the active, perilous occupations of the summer, the Orkney fishermen, who had been accustomed to associate during the season, met and partook of a parting cup, when the usual toast was, "Lord, open Thou the mouth of the grey fish and hold Thy hand above the corn!" This meeting was known by the name of the "Fishers' Foy."

From time immemorial the fishermen and seamen of Burghead, in Duffus parish, Elginshire, on Yule Night, o. s., met at the west end of the town, carrying an old barrel and other combustible materials, of which the following additional note may be recorded—

This barrel having been sawn in two, the lower half is nailed into a long spoke of firewood, which serves for a handle. This nail must not he struck by a hammer, but driven in by a stone. The half-barrel is then filled with dry wood saturated with tar, and built up like a pyramid, leaving only a hollow to receive a burning peat, for no lucifer-match must he applied. Should the bearer stumble or fall the consequences would be unlucky to the town and to himself. The Clavie is thrown down the western side of the hill, and a desperate scramble ensues for the burning brands, possession of which is accounted to bring good luck, and the embers are carried home and carefully preserved till the following year as a safeguard against all manner of evil. In bygone times it was thought necessary that one man should carry it right round the town, so the strongest was selected for the purpose. It was also customary to carry the Clavie round every ship in the harbour, a part of the ceremony which has lately been discontinued. In 1875, however, the Clavie was duly carried to one vessel just ready for sea. Handfuls of grain were thrown upon her deck, and amid a shower of fire-water she received the suggestive name of "Doorie." The modern part of the town is not included in the circuit. According to a correspondent of Notes and Queries ser. I. vol. v. p. 5, the following superstitious observances formerly existed among the fishermen of Preston Pans:

If on their way to their boats they met a pig they at once turned back, and deferred their embarkation. The event was an omen that boded ill to their fishing.

It was a custom also of theirs to set out on the Sunday for the fishing grounds. A clergyman of the town was said to pray against their Sabbath-breaking, and to prevent any injury which might result from his prayers, the fishernen made a small image of rags and burned it on the tops of their chimneys.

In the year 1885 some of the fishermen of Buckie, owing to the herring fishing being very backward, dressed a cooper in a flannel shirt with burs stuck all over it; and in this condition he was carried in procession through the town in a hand-barrow. This was done to bring better luck to the fishing.

There were formerly fishermen in Forfarshire, who, on a hare crossing their path while on their way to their boats, would not put to sea that day.

In some parts of Scotland, when a horseshoe that has been found is nailed to the mast of a fishing-boat, it is supposed to ensure the boat's safety in a storm.

A practice common among the Cromarty fishermen of the last age was termed "soothing the waves." When beating up in stormy weather along a lee shore, it was customary for one of the men to take his place on the weather gunwale, and there continue waving his hand in a direction opposite to the sweep of the sea, in the belief that this species of appeal to it would induce it to lessen its force. It was also (perhaps still is) customary with fishermen and seafaring men, when the sails were drooping against the mast, and the vessel lagging in her course, earnestly to invoke the wind in a shrill trembling whistle, with their faces turned in the direction whence they expect the breeze, pausing when a slight increase of air made itself felt, and renewing their solicitations yet more earnestly when it had died away.