Feature: early career researcher Meg Hyland talks about the singing culture of women herring workers.
March is celebrated annually in the US and UK as ‘Woman’s History Month’: a period to think about women’s ‘hidden histories’ and to celebrate the contribution made by women to social and political life more widely. We are taking a minute in this post to think about the songs sung by women who worked in the Scottish fishing industry – as gutters or engaged in a variety of land-based essential jobs.
Although it’s not quite March, diaries and events book up and so we thought we’d give you a signpost to one event, and some relevant resources to this topic. “Guts Galore“, hosted by the Scottish Fisheries Museum at Anstruther, Fife, celebrates women in Scotland’s Fishing industry. The programme includes include a session on song and dance in the lives of herring gutters delivered by Meg Hyland, speaking on the subject of her current PhD project at the University of Edinburgh.
Meg can be found discussing her research elsewhere online, and would welcome comments and suggestions from anyone reading this post who has family memories, stories and songs associated with singing fishwives:
- Hyland, Meg, “Gaelic Herring Gutters’ Songs”, talk for Anstruther Improvements Association Youtube channel, (September 2020).
- Hyland, Meg, “Gaelic Worksongs” (podcast), Ask Historians, (Feb 2021)
Some further listening
Tobar an Dualchais (Kist O Riches) has many recordings that discuss Scottish involvement with fishing, from inshore netting to lobster creels to Shetland superstitions surrounding boats and fishing.
Search there for recordings of Nan MacKinnon made in 1958 by James Ross. Nan MacKinnon (1903-1982) was a tradition bearer from Vatersay whose vast repertoire included songs sung by her mother as a fish gutter in the 1880s.
- Tha i Fuar tha i Frasach (SA1958.149)
- Haoi Ho Nach Dannsadh Sibh E (SA1958.149.4)
More recently, Cilla Fisher (also known for her work with children’s music group The Singing Kettle) was also a folk singer interested in traditional ballads. Her 1983 album Songs of the Fishing gathered up songs about fishing from the Scots-speaking parts of the country, ranging down the east coast as far as the Borders.
- Songs of the Fishing Album – Cilla Fisher discusses her album of fishing songs produced for the Scottish Tourist Board’s ‘Fishing Heritage Trail’ (SA1985.211)
The Scots Language Centre
- See their section on “Songs of the Sea”, which includes a recording of Cilla and Ray Fisher singing Come a ye fisher lasses.
Some further reading
- McDermitt, Barbara, “Nan MacKinnon (1903-1982)”, in Tocher 38: Tales, Songs, Traditions: Selected from the Archives of the School of Scottish Studies ed. by Alan Bruford (Spring 1983), p.2-11
- Nadel-Klein, Jane, Fishing for Heritage: Modernity and Loss along the Scottish Coast (London: Routledge, 2020), chapter 3 ‘Fisher Lassies’
- Ross, James, ‘Nan MacKinnon’, in Tocher 7: Tales, Songs, Traditions: Selected from the Archives of the School of Scottish Studies ed. by Alan Bruford (Autumn 1972), p.201-207
- Stapleton, Anne McKee, “Recasting Scottish Fisherwomen in Song: Baroness Nairne’s “Caller Herrin’”, Women’s Writing, vol.27 no.4 (2020) p.484-497.