The Bonny Fisher Lad

Memories of the North Northumberland Fishing Community
Edited by Katrina Porteous

The People's History. 2003. ISBN 1 902527 48 8.

On Bamboroughshire's rocky shore, just as you enter Boulmer Raw,
There lives the bonny fisher lad; the fisher lad that bangs them aa'.

O the bonny fisher lad that brings the fishes frae the sea,
O the bonny fisher lad; the fisher lad gat haa'd o' me.

I first came across the name Katrina Porteous when I began to work with the Northumbrian piper Chris Ormston.  Katrina, a historian and poet, had asked Chris to compose the music used to accompany her reading of her long, magical, poem The Wund an' the Wetter (available as a book and CD - ISBN 0 906228 74 3) and Chris told me that Katrina had spent the last few years recording the stories of the north Northumbrian fisherfolk.  The Bonny Fisher Lad is the result of all that work and is as good an example of oral history as one is likely to find. 

Katrina, who lives in the coastal village of Beadnell, limits herself to the coastal strip between Holy Island, to the north, and Alnmouth, to the south.  This may sound as though her book is purely local in character, and in a way it is.  But, as I began to turn the pages, I found myself remembering the stories that the Sussex fisherman Johnny Doughty had told me and I soon began to recognize the odd phrase or two that old Sam Larner of Winterton in Norfolk had used to described his life at sea.  Johnny, for example, like many fishermen, had a taboo word.  In his case the word was 'rabbit'.  If any member of the crew either saw a rabbit, or mentioned the word prior to sailing, then the fishing trip was cancelled.  On one occasion Johnny found a dead rabbit on the deck of his boat, and he told me that it took him almost a fortnight before he got up the courage to go to sea again.  According to Ralph Wilson, of Holy Island, their taboo word was 'pig'.  “Ye don't say it.  Spell it, call it what ye like, but don't say the word.  It's unlucky.”

The interviews come from sixteen people and cover a multitude of topics not all of which are directly concerned with fishing.  One lady tells of making hooky mats, Jimmy Walker remembers when a German submarine was sunk off Seahouses during the Great War.  Others talk about illnesses and local cures.  There is a fond remembrance of a lady known as 'Old Hannah' who, during the Great War, was incensed when told that 'the Dutch had captured Holland'.  But, of course, the bulk of the book covers the lives and occupations of the fishermen and their wives.  One family, the Halls of Beadnell, interest me.  Mention is made of 'Old Fiddler' Hall and I wonder whether or not he ever played the fiddle, and, if so, was he related to John Hall the Spittal fiddler who is the subject of a Musical Traditions article?

The fishing industry has all but vanished today and this book is a tribute to a way of life that is no more.  We are told that in the mid-19th century 33 herring boats and 17 line fishing boats worked out of Craster.  Before the Second World War 25 Craster women were employed gutting herring.  Today there are only two shellfish boats, one of which also holds a salmon license.  The single remaining smokehouse, established in 1906, now cures imported herring and Scottish salmon.

Apart from fisherman's choirs, singing does not appear to have featured greatly in these communities, and Katrina only gives examples of two songs that had been sung by the mother of Tommy Dawson of Seahouses.  The first, Bonny Lass, Come ower the Burn is the song that the Scottish Traveller Jeannie Robertson used to sing so well.  Written in the late 18th century, and set to a mid-18th century tune, it has previously surfaced in Northumberland on at least one occasion - in Gwen & Mary Polwarth's North Country Songs (Newcastle,1969).  Eeh, What a Life, What a Weary, Weary Life, on the other hand, has turned up repeatedly all over the place.  I suspect that once there were other songs.  For example George Livingston Shell (1911 - 1994) of Holy Island is mentioned in the book.  A couple of years ago I recorded a twenty-six verse version of The Sailor's Alphabet (one verse for each letter of the alphabet, unlike most versions which include four letters of the alphabet in each verse).  My singer had learnt the song many years ago on Holy Island from the singing of Mr Shell.  And, again, there is mention of another older Holy Island fisherman, Old Shadle, who “was the happiest man alive, 'cos he was singing while he (worked)”.

The Bonny Fisher Lad comes with dozens of old archival photographs.  Craster, in a picture from c.1900, looks more like a scene from the Outer Hebrides than from mainland England, and it only goes to show how quickly things can change.  (Today it's a picturesque holiday destination with a fine, honest seafood restaurant.)  There are different types of boats, keelboats, steam drifters, cobles, and it is interesting to see upturned half boats being used as sheds at Craster.  I think that these have now vanished, though a few remain around the harbour on Holy Island.  Some scenes have gone forever.  Today there are no stake nets, once used to catch coastal salmon, and pictured on page 81, but some Holy Island brides still jump over the 'Petting Stone', shown on page 43, on their wedding day.  (This custom, incidentally, has been found throughout Europe and is not unique to Northumberland, as some modern commentators would have us believe.  At Pied-de-Cantal in the Auvergne, for example, newly-weds would dance round a standing stone.  The symbolism should be obvious.)

Interestingly, songs from another fishing community, that of Southwold in Suffolk, have recently been published in another small book, Blyth Voices - Folk songs collected in Southwold by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1910 (East Anglian Musical Trust.  2003.  ISBN 0 9545943 0 4) and several of the fishermen pictured in The Bonny Fisher Lad, such as Tom Wright (Snr) or John 'Old Weir' Fawcus, would not seem out of place alongside the likes of William 'Dubber' Hare or Robert Hurr from Southwold.  (Or, indeed, the likes of the Staithes Men's Choir - see the excellent MT Article by Danny Stradling - Ed.).

Katrina Porteous has put a lot of effort into this book.  It is never easy to get people to be so open about their lives and experiences, and yet this is just what she has done.  Get this book while you can - it's a gem.

Just £9.99 from: The People's History Ltd, Suite 1, Byron House, Seaham Grange Business Park, Seaham. Co Durham  SR7 0PY, or orderable by ISBN number from most bookshops.

Mike Yates - 20.12.03

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