This week’s blog comes from Dr Fiona-Jane Brown, an historian, folklorist, educator and storyteller from Aberdeen. Fiona has a PhD in Ethnology from the University of Aberdeen and runs a tour company – Hidden Aberdeen Tours.
My doctoral research was actually sparked by an interview that I conducted with my maternal grandfather, Joseph Buchan of Cairnbulg, Fraserburgh, in 1994 for my hospital radio show. I had discovered a copy of Singing the Fishing, one of the BBC’s acclaimed Radio Ballads, and decided to write my own programme inspired by the latter. Joseph’s first words were: ‘Fishermen wis a superstitious lot long ago. Even today, there’s a lot o things ye widna spik aboot aboard a boat.’ The stories he told me were not fairytales, but real-life experiences, some happy, some tragic, but all infused with an absolute love for the sea, despite the fact he left the fishing in middle age due to ill-health and became an engineer. The stories stuck with me.
Ten years later, my thoughts had crystallised for my MLitt dissertation, studying folklore and beliefs of fishermen in NE Scotland over the last century. My first interviewee was my father’s cousin, Andrew Strachan, a fisherman all his working life. One of his most salient observations about his community was that ‘They were aye a deeply religious folk, strongly religious views, very much meeting-orientated.’
The two comments illustrate the dualistic nature of the fisherman, who, according to many antiquarian studies worshipped Christ ashore, but Neptune at sea. Even by the completion of my MLitt, it was clear that belief was a core facet in fisher identity. I determined to find out how true that was of other Scottish fishing communities, and thus chose Shetland and the Outer Hebrides as comparison areas in which to undertake further fieldwork.
My status as an ‘insider’ brought up in Peterhead — once acknowledged as Europe’s premier white fish port — with fisher ancestry on both sides, gave me a huge advantage when it came to the fieldwork. Once interviewees were assured of my credentials, they were happy to relate stories of their lives at sea. However, for some of my informants, realising that I was also a Christian, gave them confidence to share sometimes very sensitive and personal narratives concerning their experiences of God’s providence in their working lives.
Inspired by Singing the Fishing, which combines song and spoken word from actual fishermen, narrative itself is the core of my research. Historian Jan Vansina puts it most succinctly: ‘oral narrative is essential to a notion of personality and identity.’ My fisher narrators’ words provided an insight into how they construct a personal, ‘vernacular’ faith in order to cope with arguably one of the most dangerous working environments outside the military. For example, William George Sutherland, a retired fisherman from Cairnbulg, near Fraserburgh in NE Scotland, recalls:
Somebody shoved me and woke me […] I went up to the wheelhoose, I said ‘Did ye call me?’ ‘No,’ ‘At’s funny, I wis called, somebody poked me,’ I went and looked in the galley, looked outside, not a soul […] something said ‘Look in the engine room’, and I looked […] and the engine room wis fillin wi water, a pipe had burst! […] Now, tell ma, faa called me? […] Definitely an angel of God, no question about it, nobody’ll ever say that ‘ye jist woke up.’
In contrast, Stuart Anderson from Whalsay, Shetland, a youth in his twenties, was convinced by the efficacy of the ‘sunwise’ turn as a ritual to ensure success at sea:
When you leave the pier, and when you’re turning, you always turn in the direction the sun goes. I’m no really superstitious, but I always turn wi the sun! Yes, I do do that.
Yet even those who publicly acknowledged their status as evangelical, Bible-believing Christians admitted that sometimes at sea, avoiding taboos took precedence over faith in the Almighty. The late Peter Duncan, a good friend from my native Peterhead, commented about another fisherman’s unwillingness to turn ‘against the sun’:
I remember one occasion on the Marigold […] and there wis a boat there and it wis Pattie Ritchie […] he wis lying there and I wis shoutin’ to him, ‘turn the ither wye so I can get past!’ and he says ‘I’ll lie here a’ day if ye like, am nae movin’!’ And he widna dae it! […] and he wis a great Brethren man, and he widna move tae turn the ‘wrang’ wye.
The Plymouth Brethren, a non-conformist denomination popular in NE Scotland, has a reputation for strict morality, so Pattie’s reaction is all the more ironic.
Faith and fear still motivates the belief of my fisher friends; their world is the sea, thus their ‘vernacular religion’ must have the right mixture of ritual and belief to cope with it. That faith varies according to generation and individual, but it is still a core facet of the fisherman’s identity to this day.