n their day the Newhaven fishwives were famous throughout the country for their brightly coloured traditional outfits, their robust stature and handsome faces, their panache and quick wits. They were renowned for their sharp tongues, which gave rise to the Scots expression ‘a tongue like a fishwife’.
Charles Reade wrote a novel in 1853 in which he described the typical Newhaven fishwife: ‘On their heads they wear caps of Dutch or Flemish origin with a broad lace border, stiffened and arched over to forehead, about three inches high, leaving the brow and cheeks unencumbered. They have cotton jackets, bright red and yellow, mixed in patterns, confined at the waist by the apron-strings, but bobtailed below the waist; short woollen petticoats, with broad vertical stripes, red and white, most vivid in colour; white worsted stockings, and neat though high-quartered shoes. Under their jackets they wear a thick spotted cotton handkerchief, about one inch of which is visible round the lower part of the throat. Of their petticoats, the outer one is kilted, or gathered up towards the front, and the second, of the same colour, hangs in the usual way. Their short petticoats reveal a neat ankle, and a leg with a noble swell; for Nature, when she is in earnest, builds beauty on the ideas of ancient sculptors and poets, not of modern poetasters, who with their airy-like sylphs and their smoke-like verses fight for want of flesh in women and want of fact in poetry as parallel beauties. These women have a grand corporeal tract; they have never known a corset! so they are straight as javelins; they can lift their hands above their heads — actually! Their supple persons move as Nature intended; every gesture is ease, grace, and freedom.
’ On holidays the shawl is of silk, the petticoats of gay colours, striped yellow or red, the stockings are white, and a silken handkerchief is thrown over the head’ .
Until the 1950s, they used to tramp into Edinburgh with their creels on their backs to sell fish from door to door, their cry of ‘Caller Herring’ (‘fresh herrings’) or ‘Caller Ou’ (oysters) echoing around the streets in the old town until it became a song.
However, the wife of the fisherman was the mainstay of the household. They arose early to harvest mussels to bait the lines. They prepared and sold their husband’s catch on the street corners and around the houses of the Town. They cooked, cleaned, kept the house, and reared the children. But to quote Maggie Mucklebackit, a character in one of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, “Them that sells the goods. guide the purse — and them that guide the purse rule the house”. Indeed, all that that man of the house was expected to do was to provide adequately for the family, a task he undertook with diligence and single-mindedness!