A history of fishing in Fife

Though excellent fish still comes from Fife, it's a far cry from the harbours' heydey

Even with all of Pittenweem’s remaining 40 or so working boats in harbour together, it’s still hard to picture Fife fishing in its heyday, as John Cooke explains

In the latter part of the 1800s and early decades of the next century, the harbours of places like St Monans, Anstruther and Pittenweem were the centre of local life. Busy and buzzing, all the industries depended on the sea. Boat builders wielded adzes to handcraft wooden fishing craft, then sealed the hulls with hot black pitch (local children would pick up globules of this pitch to use as ‘chewing gum’). Then, there were blacksmith, sailmakers, the rope works (or ‘Roperee’), cork factory, net makers and the iceworks. There were gutters to clean the fish, and packers to fill the wooden barrels made by local coopers.

The village would truly come to life when returning boats were spotted on the horizon. The cry from sharp-eyed fisher lads would go out, identifying the boats, and the quay would swarm with dealers, buyers, and ‘cadgers’. The latter looked to buy fresh herring to sell around the country. The rest of the catch would be preserved in salt then packed in barrels to be sent as far as Russia and Scandinavia.

Before the boats were even tied up, the skippers had shouted across the harbour waters to barter deals that would hopefully get the best price for their catch. The accents on the quayside weren’t all Scottish. Just as the local fisherman would go ‘Sooth’ to follow the herring shoals, and fish out of ports like Yarmouth and Lowestoft, so the southern fleets would come north too. Their boats were of a different design and whereas the Fifers would remove the fish from their nets at sea, the English habit was to empty their nets only once they reached harbour. It made for a great sight as the masses of silver fish glittered in the sunlight (if the weather played ball).

The ‘North’ boats would not come to Fife alone. Their wives and families came too, along with fish-buyers from England, and all the clerks, porters, horses, carts and lorries to transport the fish to the nearby railway station as soon as it was salted.

The fishing usually lasted about ten weeks and by the end of March, the herring nets were ‘barked’, dried and stored. Then it was time for the ‘gartlins’ or great lines. This fishing for white fish was done from smaller four-man boats and used hundreds of hooks baited with mussels brought by the lorryload from the beds in the Tay estuary.

Like today, with some Pittenweem boats making their way to the west coast in pursuit of langoustine, fishermen from Fife’s past would also use the Caledonian Canal in pursuit of better catches if the East coast herring shoals were a little thin. Unlike today, they can’t jump in the car and pop home to spend time with their families on the weekend.

Another local tradition which doesn’t seem to have survived is the custom of giving a string of herring to any onlookers drawn to the quayside to watch the catch being landed. It was also customary to give herring, or a fry of haddock or cod, to a friend or neighbour.

Today, much of the crab, langoustine and lobster creeled and trawled from the Firth of Forth is, like the herring of the past, destined for appreciative diners far afield (Spain is one destination). The best bet to intercept some of that catch is probably at a good local seafood restaurant, though even then it’s not guaranteed.

You could have more luck by cracking open a lobster from The Lobster Store run seasonally by the Reilly family in a wooden shack on the quayside in Crail harbour.

Fresh from the sea

If you want to see the current Pittenweem fishermen in action, the best time to be at the quayside to see the boxes of wriggling lobster and crab being winched ashore is between 1 and 2pm. Look out for the ‘supercreels’ being used these days. Twice as big as the traditional creel, they’re generally placed out in rows of 10, and usually taken up every two days.

Fisher fare

The routines of Fife fisher households were dictated by the tides. Most boats would go out on the afternoon or evening tide, fish all night, then return on the morning tide. With no two days alike, the woman of the home had to have a hot meal ready day or night.

Soup from a simmering pot was a staple ‘fast food’, along with bread, butter and tea. During the week, breakfast was porridge and milk, mid-day dinner a Scotch broth. Tea at six ‘o clock usually included something solid and savoury, mostly fish, often made into a pie with potato.

Weekends were special – Saturday’s dinner might be a meat pie fresh from the local baker, while Sunday morning had the treat of a fry-up of ham, steak and sausages.

Find out more about Fife’s Fishing Heritage at the Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther, scotfishmuseum.org

The Lobster Store

34 Shoregate, Crail, Fife, KY10 3SU

Freshly cooked local lobster served from a no-frills seafood shack on the harbour in Crail. Seasonal opening.