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The Fife Fishermen's Diet

Contributed by Jen Gordon, Scottish Fisheries Museum

When it comes to the history of “what people did”, it’s very easy to generalise and to make assumptions. 

Often, when it comes to the daily habits of our ancestors we have very little evidence to go on. 

Fishermen would keep logbooks of catches and landings and conditions at sea but not so much about what they ate on board. 

My great grandfather was the skipper of a steam drifter and my granny remembered he drank tea so thick with sugar that the spoon stood upright in the cup - but who’s to say the rest of his crew had the same sweet tooth?

All we can do is look at what foods were available then, eke out what details we can from receipt books, listen to the memories of those that were there, and guess at what dishes were prepared from the basic and nourishing staples that would have kept these hardy men going in what is surely one of the most dangerous jobs done by man.

Many fishermen started life on board as cooks when they were in their early teens. They have vivid memories of the colossal task of feeding a hungry crew of elders, with only basic facilities in a tiny galley, while the boat rocked back and forth in the high seas!   Peter Smith, the fisherman - poet of Cellardyke, recalls in The Fishermen’s Pride:

 “Then comes ‘O’, “Olive Leaf”, Losh! I canna miss it.
In the auld ane I gaed wi’ my first scum net;
We had nae graun galley a’ fixed up wi’ care,
We cookit in the bunk, and spewed in the flaer.
Roon the Girdleness Pint wi’ a southerly hash,
Me in the forehould wi’ ma dishes tae wash;
… I’m sure Willie Smith kens a difference noo,
When he minds o’ the stuff I made something like glue.

Later, when the old sailing “Olive Leaf” was replaced by a steam powered vessel of the same name, with improvements to cooking facilities, Peter recalled:

“But a’thing’s first-class noo in this “Olive Leaf”,

They had pies made in ashets, and stew, and roast beef.”

In her book The Skipper’s Notebook, Mary Murray cites the shopping list for the local butcher as evidence of what was consumed on her father’s boat when it went to the line fishing (a 10 to 12 day trip) – as you can see the crew ate very well indeed - 

 2 x 5lbs roast beef, 2 x 5lbs stewing steak, 2x 5lbs frying steak, 2 x 3lbs mince, 2 x 5lbs boiling beef, 3 x 5lbs link sausages, 20lbs sliced bacon or ham and 50 slices sausage meat. 

For short journeys, when fishing from home rather than a distant port, individual crew -members would bring provisions in their “kit”.  Syrup, treacle and tinned milk became increasingly popular into the twentieth century.  Jessie Corstorphine of Cellardyke remembered an enamel butter cooler, steak, ham and egg going into her male relatives’ kits.  She also remembered that when fishing away at Yarmouth – everyone would meet at the house where the skipper was staying for the weekly finances to be divvied up and there would be big “8d” pies and lemonade (or whisky!).  Sometimes bits of the pie would go home to other family members wrapped in big hankies.   

When we talk about the “Fife Fishermen’s Diet” we probably mean the traditional diet of all Scottish fisherfolk over the past few hundred years up until the 1960s and 70s when the diets of everyone in Fife and beyond were revolutionised with the ascent (and gradual descent in price) of ‘convenience’ foods heralded by the arrival of the famous fish finger!

Up and down the coast over the course of the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, oatmeal, potatoes, salt herring and white fish formed the basis of the fisherman’s diet.  Butter, crowdie and eggs could be bought, or bartered for, from local farms. 

In a very sustainable arrangement, a glut of dairy product could be swapped for a glut of seafood. A skipper might sell the most marketable portion of his catch, but would keep fish that were too big or too small for market, or the less commercial species found in the by-catch.

Once his family was fed, any outstanding supply of fish could be preserved for leaner times with a variety of cottage industry-style preservation methods – many families kept a barrel of pickled herring and white fish could be dried or smoked.  The traditional smoked haddocks of the east coast of Scotland are still popular in the form of ‘Finnan Haddies’ or ‘Arbroath Smokies’.  

A hake was a triangular wooden object specially made to dry fish on.  The fish would take a day or two to dry and then would keep for a week after which they were boiled or roasted on a brander at the range.  Alternatively (and seen more in the north of Scotland than in Fife) cod would be split and left to dry on stones on the shore – this process was, however, subject to spoilage courtesy of wet weather and peckish gulls!

Fluke (or flounders) and whiting were considered to be delicious.  Rock turbot was only pleasant in early spring.  Gurnards weren’t eaten as they were difficult to clean.   Shellfish weren’t massively popular (mussels were seen largely as hook bait) though cockles and whelks were nibbled on – particularly by children playing on the beach – they could be cooked in a homemade ‘tinny’.  Mackerel was considered “unclean” owing to the mistaken believe that they scavenged the flesh from decomposing bodies. 

Simple recipes would be passed down from mother to daughter (and indeed son if a boat’s cook he was intended to be)  - fancy cookbooks weren’t as popular as they are now. Fisher families ate a lot of broth (or kail) with potatoes, turnips and onions from local farms, sometimes based on a fish stock, sometimes flavoured with beef or a ham hock.  Kale from the kale-yard provided greens (in some villages butcher’s shops sometimes had cabbage patches) and the soup could be thickened with peas or grains like oats or barley.

Women in fisher families, like their counterparts in agricultural communities, were often accomplished bakers making fresh batches of scones and oatcakes daily on the griddle before ovens became commonplace.  

Plum duffs and clootie dumplings were often found to be bubbling away on the stove in both the galley and the fisherman’s home.  Before the rise in popularity of the electric oven, oatmeal bannocks were baked at home rather than bread which came from the bakeries but which would quickly go stale on board. 

An alternative to bread were the ‘Boat’s Biscuits’ which were handed out to crew and well-wishers on the shore for luck before the fleet embarked on a long trip.  Boat’s biscuits are still available in the local family bakers of the East Neuk.  

Fishing villages like Cellardyke were well served by a variety of specialist shops and trades (you would find quite the opposite if you walked through Cellardyke today). 

Mary Murray remembers that not only were there bakeries but baker’s vans and milk was brought in on carts from landward farms even though Cellardyke had several milk factories. 

It is hard to imagine how busy a place it must have been when the houses here were actually inhabited all year round often with several families crammed into one building.

Fruit, cakes and sweeties were seen as ‘treat’ foods, never consumed with the uncontrolled frequency with which we’re accustomed today. Food that we’d not consider as being particularly luxurious today such as steak pies and fruit loaves were regarded as celebratory fare for weddings and New Year for example.

If any older relatives couldn’t make it to the wedding the first plate dished out, called the “Bride’s Plate” would be carried round to them. 

Though the lives of the fisherfolk in Fife were often blighted by tragedy, reading back through the oral histories of the people here, you can’t help but appreciate the closely-woven bonds amongst the community as well as the wholesome and largely seasonal and local fare on which it drew its strength. 

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