Dangerous waters

In Leaving Land and Beliefs at Sea I looked at some superstitions that gave fisher folk the illusion that they had control over unpredictable catches and the dangers at sea. Despite my interest in superstitious practices and beliefs, it would by no means be right to assume that these are still alive and infused with similar meaning nowadays.


Heritage information board in Ferryden

Touch wood! We all do this from time to time, averting bad luck that we think we have brought onto us by saying something hasn’t happened recently. Most often we do so when we are in a conversation and the gesture of touching wood is something that all conversation partners know the meaning of. What strikes me is that when we think about the situation individually and don’t share our thought with others, we often do not actually touch wood. Yet, few of us believe that this practice will change the course of what is to happen. Are superstitions a shared practice that holds meaning to all involved and create an illusion? I have come to think of superstitious practices and beliefs as a form of acknowledgement that things may happen to us, a thought that is brought to closure through the superstitious practice, with that practice allowing us to move on.

Let us return to fisher folklore. Do we really believe that fishermen are more superstitious then we are ourselves? The industrialisation and commercialisation of fisheries that accelerated in the late 1800s with the introduction of the steam trawler may have influenced the presence and meaning of superstitious practices and beliefs as it was fuelled by scientific progress and rational thinking that could replace irrational practices and beliefs. Moreover, traditional fisheries lost foothold rapidly, and with that went the situations in which the practices were performed. Now working on large trawlers, men no longer were piggy-backed to their vessel by their wives and so their wives could no longer bring about bad omens by stepping over the nets in the hustle and bustle of seeing their men off.


Courtyard of the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther

There are dangers in celebrating fishing heritage and, perhaps unconsciously, assuming that the experience of fishing has remained the same to date. If we want to learn something about the experience of fishing nowadays we should, without preconceptions, engage with fishermen nowadays.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst


Beliefs at sea

In Leaving Land I suggested that superstitions can be seen as practices that help assert a sense of control over situations that seem uncontrollable. Flora Celtica gives examples of folklore drawn on to explain happenings for which no rational explanation could be found. This not only applies to plant folklore, but also to life at sea. When fishing was poor, so Peter Anson describes, crew would throw a handful of salt behind the skipper or over the boat by way of a blessing.

Most superstitious practices at sea either addressed luck with fisheries or the dangers of the sea. Folk songs like The Mermaid describe the pretty mermaid, a comb and glass in her hand, as widow-maker, for sure spying one spelled the drowning of crew. In Fisher Folk-Lore, Peter Anson tells the story of wild melodies heard by fisherman who had cast their lines beneath the red granite cliffs near the Bullers o’ Buchan. Frightened by the sudden appearance of a mermaid on their bowsprit, they took their oars and rowed for life to a little harbour among the rocks.


Superstitious beliefs informed and explained behaviour. Common among fishermen along the North Sea and Atlantic coasts was a fear of saving anyone from drowning. Anson explains this in terms of the spirits of the waves and sea gods needing their prey. ‘What the sea will take, the sea must take’, David Thomson hears Irish fishermen say as they tell him how good-natured men turned wicked after being saved and could go on to murder the very man who saved him.

In my next blog I’ll explore the challenges involved in interpreting the function and meaning of sea-related superstitions in a contemporary context.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Leaving land

Old accounts of the fishing communities along the Aberdeenshire and Angus coast provide an image of fisheries as highly rewarding, but involving great dangers. As David Thomson quotes in his book The People of the Sea: “… there is only a thin [layer] between you and eternity”. In the past, the transition from land to sea was carefully negotiated. Associated with drowning, men avoided entering the water at all. In those communities where fishing boats had to be pushed out to sea women were the ones entering the water, carrying their husbands and gear to the boats.


Fishing practices were informed by beliefs concerning good and bad omens. In Skateraw, north of Stonehaven, it was considered unlucky if you met a clergyman on your way to the fishing. In his book Fisher Folk-Lore, Peter Anson describes the feared ill fortunes you could face if you met certain women, perhaps a witch, on the way to the sea. Jane Nadel-Klein, in her book Fishing for Heritage, writes about the bad omen if a woman stepped over your nets if you were boarding. To me this is astonishing. Imagine men, women and children preparing for the fishermen’s departure, pushing boats out to sea, gear spread across the pebbles, women raising their skirts before entering the chilly water, small children running across this scene. Yet, the very same women who would work deep into the night mending nets shows were also not allowed to step over those nets.

The transition from land to sea had to be carefully managed. The practices described above, though referring to different communities and points in history, were highly ritualised. Yet, they all suggest that the sea – eternity – and fisheries were considered dangerous and unpredictable and people drew on folklore to assert a sense of control over the uncontrollable.

In my next blog I shall look at practices and beliefs related to being at sea.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Sharing at the shoreline

img_2939Edgelands can be considered a follow up of Sharing at the Shoreline. In 2014 I walked parts of the Aberdeenshire Coastal Path, writing poems along the way and sharing them in poetry walks and writing workshops at the Tolbooth museum in Stonehaven, for the Stoney Scrievars (a writers’ group in Stonehaven), and during a walk in the dunes at Forvie National Nature Reserve in collaboration with Scottish Natural Heritage.

This project resulted in around twenty poems, including Farewell to Tarwathie, reflecting on our whaling heritage. The following poem, Sea Mist, was first published in Ink, Sweat and Tears in 2014.

Sea Mist                                                                                                                                                     or, as Scots call it,                                                                                                                                haar. It rolls in stealthily, steadily                                                                                               drawing nearer with every wave that                                                                                           washes the sand. Then

it rocks me, ragging me like                                                                                                                      a cold, damp shawl                                                                                                                             hurled around my shoulders.

Between my toes sand                                                                                                                         rubs, rasping and raw. I can’t                                                                                                             peel the shawl from my skin.

Copyright text, poem and image Petra Vergunst