Racing fishwives and wedding customs at lost summer festival

It celebrated the end of the herring season, when all the boats returned home and everyone was safe once again.

The racing fishwives of Musselburgh at the town's annual Fishermen's Walk. PIC: John Gray Centre, East Lothian Council.

The Fishermen’s Walk in Musselburgh was an important part of community life, with it reportedly first held back in the 15th Century.

Bunting lined the streets, flags flapped from boats and an air of cheer filled Fisherrow as the people came together again at the end of the summer.

Sign up to our History and Heritage newsletter

Sign up to our History and Heritage newsletter

Fishing was always a family affair with the town’s Fisherrow fishwives, known for their distinctive striped skirts and aprons, cleaning the lines for their husbands and sons, attaching new bait such as mussels and buckie, with each line made up of some 1,300 hooks.

The Fisherrow fishwives at Musselburgh Fish Market. PIC: John Gray Centre, East Lothian Council.

Read More

Read More
Superstitions of the sea - six seafaring myths in Scotland

When the fish came home, the women gutted it. After they gutted it, they then took it into Edinburgh by basket to sell it.

The last Fisherrow fishwife, Jean Wilkie, died last year at the age of 99.

The Fishermen’s Walk was a time to celebrate a good season - and also when the weddings of young fisherfolk who married throughout the year were celebrated all over again. The old Scottish ‘penny wedding’ custom, where guests brought something to help with the young couple’s housekeeping, was observed for many years.

The procession began at Fisherrow and then ended up in Pinkie Park, where a great picnic and sports day – which included the ever popular race of fishwives – was held.

According to the John Gray Centre at Haddington, the Fisherrow fishwives bonded closely over both hard work and fun.

"The women played golf long before it was a fashionable pastime for women, and every Shrove Tuesday a football match took place in Musselburgh between the married and unmarried fisherwomen. It has been reported that the married women were invariably the winners,” an article for the centre said.

In 1888, a newspaper reported high jinks in the street when the Fishermen’s Walk procession was “interrupted by an old fishwife who insisted on dancing with the band until she was forcibly seized and bundled into her house in Fisherrow”.

During some years, the September gathering was more popular than others, depending on the wealth of the season. In 1888, a “very bad season was recorded” with each of Fisherrow’s 20 or 30 boats – each which took around six men – making just £50.

The last Fishermen’s Walk for two decades was held in 1913 with the summer festival then brought back in 1932. Hundreds took part in the procession, which was led by men and boys in blue jumpers followed by women and girls in “picturesque gala dress”.

"A party of aged people brought up the rear on a horsedrawn lorry and sung as merrily as anyone the fishing songs played by the band,” a newspaper report said.

The Fishermen’s Walk signalled the opening of a common fund, supported by fisherman’s wages, which was used to support families in the event of death or illness.

The Fishermen’s Walk Society was preserved until 1997 when it was dissolved again. Tribute to the town’s fishing community is paid during the Musselburgh Festival, when the appointed Lad, Lass and Attendants head out on the Forth in a fishing boat and arrive back to shore to the sound of traditional songs.

A message from the Editor:Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by Coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.