Superstitions of the sea - six seafaring myths in Scotland

Fishermen in Stonehaven sometime during the 1900s. While many maritime myths and superstitions have waned, some do still endure.
Fishermen in Stonehaven sometime during the 1900s. While many maritime myths and superstitions have waned, some do still endure.
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SCOTTISH seafaring is steeped in myth and superstition with fishermen up and down the coast traditionally observing a potent mix of omens – both good and bad – as they set sail.

Beliefs of fishermen altered between towns and villages as they followed best practice for a safe return home.

Fishermen return safely home to Lerwick where many seafaring superstitions were observed.

Fishermen return safely home to Lerwick where many seafaring superstitions were observed.

Many of the hardest-line traditions date back hundreds of years and may have eased amongst a new generation of fishermen.

However, some of the basic rules still fervently apply today.

Don’t mention a pig, a rabbit or a salmon

Mention a pig in a fisherman’s pub and it way well fall painfully silent, with the animal often strictly referred to as a ‘curly tail’.

If you met a minister on the way to your boat, it was a case of about turn, go home, and start your journey again

Ian Balgowan, a North Sea sailor for more than 50 years

A rabbit is similarly known as a bob tail, a fower fitter or a mappin.

Salmon too are equally feared as bringers of bad luck and are known as the ‘reid fish’.

The fear of these animals is still very much alive amongst some fishermen.

Little is known as to the roots of these superstitions, but one possible explanation is that all these animals were powerful Celtic symbols of the old gods.

Salmon, for example, was considered a sacred creature.

In England and Wales they were considered as manifestations of the Celtic god Nodons.

The boar was also considered the “cult animal” of the Celtic with rabbits and hares particularly venerated.

Go back home if you see a minister – or a woman – on the way to your boat

Ian Balgowan, 71, of Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, a North Sea sailor for more than 50 years, said that seeing a minister on the walk down to your boat was considered extremely bad luck. The same was true for a woman.

He said: “If you met a minister on the way to your boat, it was a case of about turn, go home, and start your journey again.”

It has also been suggested that no mention of the church, a minister or a manse would be made on a fishing boat, particularly amongst men working the Moray Firth.

In J.M McPherson’s book Primitive Beliefs of the North East of Scotland, it said: “Any utterance suggestive of the new faith would be displeasing to the ancient god of the ocean, and might bring disaster onto the boat.”

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Don’t Save a Man at Sea

McPherson also claims that hundreds of years ago it was forbidden to save anyone from drowning, so firm was the belief that the spirit of the sea must have his sacrifice according to folklore in Shetland, Orkney and some parts of the North East.

According to an old saying from Peterhead, which dates to the 19th Century: “The sea takes the saver of life instead of the saved. The sea maun hae it’s nummer”.

It was also considered ‘ill luckit’ to touch the corpse of a dead fisherman as it was a gift to the sea god. Such superstitions still seemed to endure until the days of the whaling trade in the 1800s. However, it is impossible to imagine these beliefs would endure today.

Wear a single gold earring

Morag Skene, in her essay for the North East Folk Archive, suggests that while some fisherman saw the earring merely as a good luck charm, others believe it was a form of insurance policy to give enough silver to bury you, in case you died in a strange port.

A bit of metal will bring luck

Ms Skene, in her research, found evidence that fishermen’s wives put a coin in their husband’s socks before setting sail.

Iron was also thought to be lucky and horse-shoes nailed to the mast were a common protection from bad luck, bad spirits and even witches.

When you come out the harbour always turn right

Mr Balgowan said he had seen of relatively recent examples of fishermen doing a turn out at sea to correct a left-turn out a harbour.

“You always have to do a swing to the starboard if this happens,” he said.

Don’t whistle in the direction of the wind.

Thought to relate to sailing ships, it was claimed whistling in the wrong direction could stem the strength of the wind – or even bring about a storm.

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