Saturday, 6 November 2010


Fisherrow to Edinburgh
Shona McMillan ©
I think for most people, there comes a time to look back to where they have grown up. To that special place, forever 'home' - held deep within the heart.

For my mum, who 'left Fisherrow' when she got married, the saying was true: "you could take the lass oot o' Fisherrow but ne'r Fisherrow oot o' the lass".

When I was young, I used to laugh at my mum but now, I smile because I understand.

Today, with the family I knew now gone, how close I still feel to the many generations of my relatives when I visit the harbour at Fisherrow. There, the fishing boats are all gone but, when I walk along the harbour wall, I know that like me, my great grandfather walked here, day after day as Fisherrow Harbour Master and so too, my granda', carrying on as Harbour Master when his father retired.

Fisherrow Harbour looking to Arthur Seat, Edinburgh
Shona McMillan © All Rights Reserved

At the end of the harbour wall I can stand and look up to Edinburgh, often having a wee smile to myself at the first boat that ties up there, the "Shona". I'm sure that the women in my family would have liked that. Strong, proud, hardworking women, my great-granny - one of the Fishwives gathered together to be photographed in this postcard showing Fisherrow fishwives at the old open air fish market, the photographer standing parallel to the harbour.

Could the postcard's photographer have realised, a hundred years on, that I would have shown this card to 12,000 people in my exhibitions and posted it to many thousands more on the internet. How many millions of miles has this card travelled over the seas of the World Wide Web and the passing of the years to reunite so many children descended from these women. This, the first Fisherrow postcard I bought to share with others - what value for money it has been for me and others, the family connections brought home are priceless.

L-R: Craig, Brown, Hamilton, Thorburn, Auld Hooker, Ritchie, Williamson
Walker, Thorburn, Boyle, Elgin, Gray, Halley, Watson, Christie, Walker
Cunningham, Langlands, Gibson, Brown, Ritchie Click Link for details
People and Songs of the Sea group

Yet, it is a sad truth that I and others are looking back on the fishing because it is an industry and a way of life undergoing the greatest of periods of change. The traditions, slipping away from us as water trickles through the fingers. As a child, I was down in Fisherrow all the time at my grandparents house by the sea. When people gathered together, I remember some would laugh in disbelief when my granda would say "they will rue the day, the big boats and those who sail into Scotland's fishing grounds - they are fishing the seas dry".

At Fisherrow, from the place
known locally as the back of Downies
Shona McMillan © All Rights Reserved
My granda' was the strongest advocate for sustainable fishing, back at a time when the phrase must seldom have been heard. In a complex issue, the boats began to dissappear from harbours around Scotland - the industry's problems NOT just self inflicted. Boats were decommissioned and still, fish stocks were sadly mismanaged.

So far removed from the fishing community, I feel that there have been times when those legislating the industry have made mistakes and some of these problems still continue today in the absurd situation where, by law, those who catch more than their quota are forced to dump it back over the side or face prosecution. A catch of dying fish, effectively polluting that area of the sea where it is dumped (other countries have spoken out in condemnation of this).

Death of a warrior, John Bellany © All Rights Reserved
John, once a fishermen from Port Seton, capturing this decommissioned boat
before it was broken up (as so many Scottish boats have been).

Amidst ever oppressive legislation and hardships of a life at sea - over the years people have left, retired and the young failed to enter the fishing. This pattern of change has impacted on the fishing community. In my home area, from Newhaven in Edinburgh, through East Lothian and on to Eyemouth in the Scottish Borders, now almost all the small fishing boats are gone, 13 fishermen working from Port Seton and only 10 local boats left at Eyemouth.

18.03.09: A community tribute photo of those representing:
Newhaven, Fisherrow, Port Seton, Eyemouth and beyond
People of the Sea, Shona McMillan © All Rights Reserved

It seems to me that NOW is the last opportunity to capture this passing way of life so that children, in years to come, can learn how life in their area once was. The developments in multi-media equipment need to be harnessed so, like the valued old postcard is in 2010, reflections of today will continue on in to tomorrow for a future generation to appreciate. 
A Young Fisher Lass
Shona McMillan © All Rights Reserved
Just, as learning in my young life was greatly shaped and coloured by music and song - it seemed appropriate to me that my thoughts for the future just flowed out of me in this song. Maybe, a song I will get the opportunity to record as a sound track to a film. Just as John Bellany's paintings of the sea and fishing have reached a far wider audience than the fishing community, I believe too that there's a story here to be shared, a story told in local accents, photos old and new, in art, music and song.

I dedicate my song to my granda Billy Thorburn. Going to see the boats at the harbour with him, holding his hand as we walked along the prom at Fisherrow, my life was indeed 'carefree' in these days. It seemed that such a life could and would never change but his warnings for the future of the industry were correct and '"one day" the fishing boats from Fisherrow were all gone". He was right to see dark days ahead for the Fishing and, in my lifetime too, remarkable changes have been seen. Of course, we can not hold back time but nevertheless, we should recognise the importance of our culture and record a changing way of life before it is too late for us to do so...

Fisherrow Harbour in the gloaming
Shona McMillan © All Rights Reserved


Friendship which travels, across the water
Ties that bind, through the family tree
A tide which pulls, the heart yet closer
Tho’ what is the future, for a child of the sea

Newhaven to Eyemouth, the people have gathered
In Cockenzie they joined, in their songs of the sea
People whose lives, were built through the fishing
The numbers they dwindle with each quota and fee

Death of a warrior, for a boat decommissioned
Like a death in the family, a farewell to the sea
Men in grey suits, do they know what we’re losing
The heritage of Scotland, of you, and of me.

So I’ll walk the shore, and I’ll sing of the fishing
Like Fisherrow fishwives, who passed music to me
But when I am gone, who will sing of the fishing
The Fisher Folk People, and Songs of the Sea

Against the shoreline, the waves will keep breaking
The moon and the seasons, will dictate the tide
But at sunset the boats, will they sail to the fishing
Or will this way of living, have long since died

Shona McMillan ©

The Girl Jean heads out from Port Seton at dusk
Shona McMillan © All Rights Reserved

My thanks to the Bellany family for letting me use John's inspirational painting "Death of a Warrior" to go with my song. In addition, my thanks to his son Paul Bellany who provides such timely answers for me in respect of all my many questions in trying to get a film made about the People of the Sea and their stories.

People and Songs of the Sea
Film project first reported by the Berwickshire News

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