Folk, jazz etc: New life for the forgotten songs of the Forth’s oyster catchers

Oyster dredging songs at Portobello
Oyster dredging songs at Portobello
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THE SHEER, infuriating irony of it: here was I flying back from San Francisco where, among other things, I had lunched on oysters to the strains of an excellent Dixieland jazz band on Fisherman’s Wharf, while, just two minutes’ stroll from my home in Portobello, the glutinous little molluscs were being serenaded in a rather different way, for the first time in a century.

Arriving back in Edinburgh’s seaside suburb, I discovered that I had missed, by a matter of hours, a one-off recreation of a unique music form – the long forgotten “oyster dreg” songs of the Firth of Forth. Oyster dreg, or dredging, songs go back to the days when Edinburgh consumed thousands of oysters daily – indeed oysters, washed down with ale or claret, seem to have fuelled the Scottish Enlightenment, and the Firth of Forth oyster crop was so important that that the city’s Lord provost and his dignitaries would take to the water to open the season.

The fishermen who catered for that demand, from ports such as Newhaven and Fisherrow, sang as they dredged the oyster beds. There was a belief that the molluscs had to be sung to if they were to be enticed into the nets, although it’s rather more likely that a measured rowing song ensured a steady trawl over the beds.

“These songs employed a unique musical form not found any other work or rowing songs,” explains American folklorist Bob Walser, who was behind last week’s re-enactment. “In most work songs, such as call-and-response songs, you’ll have a pattern of four beats and four beats, but in the dreg songs, the soloist sings for three beats and the response is two beats, a total of five, which is absolutely unique among rowing song traditions, so far as I’ve been able to discover. But it makes sense, because when you’re pulling the oar through the water, it’s a lot more work than pushing it back through the air for the next stroke, so that count of five works quite well.”

As a one-time shantyman at Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport museum, Walser knows his maritime work songs, but was fascinated when he came upon these songs, unique to the south shores of the Forth, which had been recorded on wax cylinders in the 1930s by another visiting American folklorist, James Madison Carpenter. The Minneapolis-based Walser has been working on them as part of the James Madison Carpenter Project, based at Aberdeen University’s Elphinstone Institute and administered through the American Folklore Society.

Intrigued by the songs, Walser tried them out with a boat and an oyster dredge at Mystic, then decided they just had to be sounded out in their home waters. With some funding from the British Academy, he got in touch with three coastal rowing clubs around Edinburgh – Row Porty from Portobello, Newhaven Coastal Rowing and Boatie Blest from Port Seaton – and at the beginning of the year schooled them online from Minneapolis in the lost art of dreg singing.

Consequently, last Wednesday, boats from the three clubs converged on Portobello beach, the crews lustily singing the dreg songs, then reprising them onshore for the benefit of the crowd which gathered for this unique occasion. To suitably lubricate the thrapples of singers and spectators, Inveralmond Brewery had created a Dreg Songs Ale which was dispensed in the waterfront Dalriada bar.

Hearing these forgotten work songs resounding once again in their element, was, says Walser “one of the greatest thrills of my entire scholarly career”. The event was recorded for BBC Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors programme, broadcast last weekend (but you can catch it on BBC iPlayer until tomorrow) and video recordings were made, so further material may yet emanate from what Walser describes as “a magic night”.

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