Sangstories - Stories of Scottish Songs

Tales of Scottish traditional and newer songs sung by Sangschule of Linlithgow

Peterhead Fishermen's Wives

Wha wid be a fisherman's wife
Tae run wi a creel, an a scrubber, an a knife?
A raivelled bed, an a deid-oot fire
An awa tae the mussels in the mornin?

Here we come scourin in
Three reefs tae the foresail in
Nae a dry stitch tae pit on wir backs
But still we're aa teetotallers

Wha'll gies a hand tae run a ripper-lead?
Or fish for codlin in the Bay o Peterheid?
Or maybe tae the Lummies, the Clock, or Satis Heid
When we sail tae the sma lines in the mornin

It's doon the Gaidle Braes in the middle o the nicht
Wi an auld syrup tin an a cannle for a licht
Tae gether in the pullers, every een that is in sicht
Tae get the linie baitit for the mornin

It's easy for the cobbler sittin in his neuk
Wi a big copper kettle hingin frae a crook
They're standin in the boo, we canna get a hook
An it's gey sair work in the mornin

It's nae the kinda work that a saft quine'd thole
Wi her fingers reid-raw wi scrubbin oot a yawl
A little-een on her hip, an awa tae carry coal
She'll be ca'd fair deen in the morning

Ma puir auld faither in the middle o the flair
He's dein hooks wi "tippins" as he's sittin in his chair
They're made o horses hair, and that's the best o gear
When ye gyang tae the fishin in the mornin

But I widna change for the grandest kind o gear
Tho ye never ken the minute that yer heart'll lowp wi fear
Awa tae the sea, he's your bonnie dear -
Ye'll be a widow wi his bairnies in the mornin

Words:
Ca’d fair deen: made really ‘done’, exhausted
Cannle: candle
Codlin: codling, immature cod
Creel : basket for fish
Gey: very
Gyang: go
Little-een: small child
Lowp, loup: leap, jump
Lummies, the Clock or Satis Heid: landmarks around Peterhead
Neuk: corner
Pullers: crabs used for bait
Quine: girl
Raivelled: unmade, rumpled
Reef: part of a sail, a strip that can be taken in to reduce the area exposed to the wind
Ripper: a heavy metal bar fitted with hooks and attached to a fishing line
Saft: gentle, weak
Sair: hard, painful
Scourin in: rushing in
Teetotaller: someone who never takes alcohol. (Religious sects found in fishing communities would be teetotal.)
Thole: put up with, endure, tolerate
Tippins: additions to fishing hooks to let them break away and save the line
Yawl, yole: small, two-masted fishing boat with no deck

Brought to Sangschule by Christine Kydd, and sung at speed and with gusto, once we got a grip of the North East words.

Sheila Douglas’s book, The Sang’s The Thing, has a detailed interview about the song with Frank Duthie, a singer born in Peterhead and living in Findochty. He was prevented from going to sea by his parents, who would not let him follow in their footsteps. His mother “follaed the guttin” and his father “drove the drifters”.

Frank called the song “The Fisherman’s Wife” and said “I ken it fae my faither and passed the words on tae Bob Massie one musical evening when I heard him play the tune on his mandolin.” Our version pretty well follows Frank’s except for a difference in the order of verses.

About the first verse with the “raivelled bed” and the fire gone out, Frank says:
” Ye hadnae time tae mak the bed because ye needed as muckle sleep as ye could get. Ye had tae match yer rising time tae suit the tides. It micht hae been in the the middle o the nicht wi yer seerup tin (to hold the candle) or it micht hae been in the oors o daylicht………but the gaitherin o the necessary wherewithal tae catch yer fish wis yer first priority.”

The chorus has “Here we come scoorin in,/ Three reefs o the foresail in”. Frank explains “The foresail has been reefed doon because there is a verra high wind and ye hiv tae reef the foresail in because the boat is comin skelpin in, or scoorin in, if ye like.”

‘There’s nae a dry stick’ (stitch) is because there’s so much spray flyin aboot that the men are aa soakit. This stems fae the time fen eilskins (oilskins) were aa verra weel, but they werena really aa that waterproof.”

The second verse tells how well-known fishing grounds were “found by being able to see the ‘Lummies’ or the muckle kirk clock aligned with Salt House Head. Salt House Head is a headland below Peterhead Prison.”

Our second verse is Frank’s third:
“Ma puir aul father’s in the middle o the flair,/ Beatin heuks ontae tippets, and they’re hingin on his chair” 

“ If a heuk snaggit, (hook got caught) they couldnae afford tae loss (lose) a line for the sake o a heuk. So fit they did hae wis a length o sneed – (hemp part of a line where the hook is attached) …. – and that wis quite valuable itsel, and then, at the end o’ the sneed, they’d fit what they called a tippet, which is a length o braided horse-hair, ye see, and that wis whippit ontae the heuk.” “ Noo these tippets that the aul man is beatin the heuks on tae are weaker than the sneed and will let the heuk break awa to prevent the loss of line.”

 “He had a seat here in the middle o the flair, and he’s got his kitchie(kitchen) chair here – as he beatit them on, he hangit the heuk ontae the chair and left it tae get the tippet dangling doon, ready tae be gaithered up in bundles, and then attached tae fitever type o line they were goin tae be usin.”

About our verse three, Frank says that pullers were peeler crabs, just beginning to shed their shell to moult, and in a soft state. The puller “is verra good bait for aa types o fish, so ye used as much o’ these for the bait as possible.”

Frank has much else to say of great interest about the life of fisher folk in his own and his father’s time, to be found in the last section of The Sang’s the Thing.