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Friday February 18 2022

Looking Back: Faith of the Fisherman

Writing in February 1969, Robertson Park finds that, despite changing times, the religion of fishing folk in Scotland is as strong as ever. 


Faith of the fisherman

The fishers had their own kirk, their own ‘village’ hall, and their own school. They lived near the seaside in their own small community. It was even called The Fisherton.

Then came the eager town councillor, who was all for progress and centralisation. He proposed closing the Fisher School. The Council ‘left it on the table,’ i.e. no action to be taken. Two days later, whether he slipped on a fish tail, tripped over a hawser, or stumbled on his own importance, Mr. Progress found himself having an unseasonable swim in the harbour. He was in no danger – the tide being low; but the harbour – recipient of much fish offal – was pretty smelly. Would it be carrying coincidence too far to say this was one more instance of the independence and the fierce exclusiveness of the fishers?

All up and down the east coast, fisher towns can still be found. Aberdeen has one, Arbroath holds faster than many. A remnant retains a grip in Crail and Pittenweem.

In part of Musselburgh, to this day quite officially ‘Fisherrow’, a vigorous effort is being made to revive the old picturesque Fishermen’s Walk.

There too, as in nearby Newhaven, flourishes a Fishwives’ Choir, with a stream of engagements every winter that would do credit to the latest folk group.

Fishers are deeply religious. Before there were the newer churches, mission hall, and the like, in Fisherrow, the old parish Kirk of Inveresk had to reserve an exclusive upper gallery, or Fishermen’s Loft.

What gave them their marked separatism? Surely it was the sense that the very means of their livelihood caused them to live closer to the risk of death. This also gave them their evangelical emphasis. The work of the Gospel had to be completed quickly; for the peril of the hidden shoal, the sudden storm, the unexpected wave could claim a life at any time.

Entering the church at say Gourdon, Inverbervie or Ferryden you can detect immediately the warm atmosphere of the old revivals – no grim puritanism here, but a joyous singing of such choruses as

I need Thee, O I need Thee,
Every hour I need Thee.

The old separatism is of course breaking down. Andrew B., in Fife, sends his progeny to college, where they hold their own with the best. The Swankies and the Spankies of Arbroath move out into other forms of business with no sea-going about it. Fairnies, once almost inseparable from boats, are now in all sorts of occupations, many of them at office desks.

Even those who continue to fish have changed their ways. The trawler is left snugly moored at Oban or Rothesay; but the crew crosses over Scotland by mini-bus for the week-end at home. Everybody – or nearly so – has an echo-sounder for finding shoals, and a radar for navigation. Perhaps the life of the fisher, now geared to the efficient diesel engine, weather forecasting, radar and radio, with helicopter held in a last emergency, is rather less dangerous than it was.

But all this has not changed the fisher’s faith. He still needs it, faster found and firmer held, than most of mankind.

In western civilisation, we could learn one thing from them still; for in the thought of a true fisher, money – that false God – is only the means of exchange. Fisherfolk would have agreed with the writer who said: A thing is worth what it can do for you; not what you choose to pay for it. This is  fisher sense. A boat has to be sound for your life depends on that. A suit or costume is like a boat; the quality matters more than the cost. Money is useful, and so it should be used. Keep some for a dark turn of the fishing; but don’t love it. Never bow down and worship it.

And in the end, you are always accountable to God, walking before Him all the tenuous days of your brief sojourn here. So your word must be bond, and your dealings with other men straight.

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