The History of Leith

May 4, 2004

The Fishwives of old Newhaven

The port of Newhaven lies only a short distance from Leith along the coast. The following is a description given of the Newhaven Fishwives of over eighty years ago.

“ The Fishwives of Newhaven are in our day the only old world figures still to be seen in our streets and as such they form a link connecting us with the figures un the bustling crowds that thronged the thoroughfares of Edinburgh and Leith in far off days. The dress of the Fishwife is familiar to all. Henley, the poet described it in his sonnet entitled “At Fisherrow” and Charles Reade has given several paragraphs in Christie Johnstone his well known novel on Newhaven fisher life of sixty years ago named after his heroine a Newhaven fisher lass. Charles Reade spent some weeks there in the Autumn of 1852. His picture of Newhaven fisher folk and their ways is hardly a true representation and like most English novelists he is not very happy in his Scottish dialogue. The best thing in the book is the portrait given of Dr Fairbairn so long the Free Church minister there whose church he attended Reade attended while residing in Newhaven. The great majority of the congregation were fishermen and their families who were always keenly appreciative of the manner in which Dr Fairbairn prayed for those exposed to the “peril of the Sea”

A wedding in Newhaven until some thirty years ago used to be a very notable affair and as most of the people in the village knew each other, if not related, it was generally attended by large numbers of people. The bride in her braws accompanied by the husband to be went round some time before to invite the guests personally. On the wedding day the walked in couples from the brides house to the “Peacock” or the “Marine” or other hotel where the marriage was celebrated.
“And a’the boats wi’ flags were decked
Frae Annfield to the pier
And Doctor Johnston worthy man
Had twa three hours to spare
Sae he toddled to Newhaven
And spliced the happy pair”
As many as a hundred couples have “walked” at a Newhaven wedding, the male guests frequently as in the old time “penny weddings” paying their own and their partners share of the wedding supper. Such weddings like other fisher customs have gradually gone out of fashion as the younger generation now longer following the vocation of their parents and the prophecy of the old spaewife about the great Willow tree that once flourish at Willow Brae so many years ago,
“When the tree shall decay
The open sea boat fishing trade shall also die away”
seems fast coming true”
It is now true as fishing isn’t followed at Newhaven now. Although some attempt is now being made through the “Newhaven Festival” to bring back some of the old traditions

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