“Don’t talk like that, you sound like an old fishwife.”
Until my Easter holiday in Scotland, I’d only had negative associations with the concept of a fishwife. I’m not sure how fishwives earned their reputation of being “coarse and shrewish”, to quote one dictionary definition, but the word had always conjured up in my mind a garrulous, nosy old lady in an apron, smelling of fish.
But then last month my visit to the wonderful Scottish Fisheries Museum at Anstruther in Fife (the bit of Scotland that sticks out above Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth) gave me a much more complimentary perspective.
In small fishing ports such as Anstruther, fishing was not just the work of the menfolk. The men were the ones who braved the North Sea waves to bring home the catch, but behind every good fisherman was an equally sound fishwife.
The fishwife’s duties were not just to keep house, cook, shop, wash, iron and raise the children while her husband was at sea. Nor was she only an industrious craftswoman, knitting ingenious seamless socks and sweaters, made as one piece to prevent ingress of water. (The sleeves were especially short to avoid chafing the wrists with wet wool.) Weaving the creels (baskets) to carry the fish was another art at which the good fishwife was adept.
The fishwife also played an important role before and after the fisherman’s seafaring adventures. She helped make and repair the nets, gathered the bait (shellfish were picked on a cold beach at daybreak) and stuck the bait on numerous hooks on fishing lines. After all this, she was required to give her man a piggyback to his boat. She paddled barefoot through the shallows, skirts and aprons hitched up, so that the fisherman could set off with dry feet. When the catch was brought ashore, it was the fishwife who gutted and cleaned the fish, packing them into barrels for export.
You didn’t have to be married to earn the dubious privilege of helping with the catch. Hordes of single girls followed the fishing fleet around the coast, packing the haul whenever and wherever it was landed.
Fishwives’ reputation for gossip was perhaps borne of the closeness of these fishing communities. They supported each other when anxious for their menfolk out at sea in storms, or widowed in the inevitable tragedies of “those in peril on the sea”, as the memorable old hymn goes. They were hugely comforting to friends, family and neighbours who lived with the knowledge that their men were risking their lives daily.
But most impressive to me of all the fishwives’ attributes was their ability to bait the hooks on lines to be dropped into the sea. These lines could be as long as – wait for it – a MILE in length. There are pictures and room-sets in the museum with these extraordinarily long lines piled neatly into the aforementioned home-made creels, waiting to be cast swiftly into the waters. Speaking as one who can’t put her iPod earphones cable in her handbag without it emerging in an inexplicable, inextricable tangle, I cannot imagine how they achieved this.
So from now on, if anyone calls me a fishwife, I’m going to take it as a compliment. Or at least I won’t rise to the bait.
If you liked this post, you might enjoy these other thoughts about educational outings to museums: