Supported by Newhaven Action Group which is recognised as a Scottish registered charity: OSCR Number: SC042050
Oysters, Fish and Whales
From time immemorial, the fishermen of Newhaven had taken oysters from the abundant beds of the Forth. For centuries they were a staple food of the poor. They were dredged from the beds (or scalps) by dragging a large rake at a 35° angle from their open boats which were rowed up and down.
In the late 18th century they became very fashionable and proved to be a rich bounty for fishermen along the south coast of the Forth. It was reputed that the best oysters came from the beds that Newhaven fishermen controlled and there were often skirmishes with other fishermen from neighbouring communities.
Legal fights with Edinburgh’s city fathers were even more rancorous - and a lot more expensive. The Society of Free Fishermenacted on behalf of the fishermen in these matters. But the annual leases imposed by Edinburgh became ever more costly. In 1839, the Council sold the rights to an Englishman, George Clark, on a ten-year lease. He brought in over 60 dredgers and worked them from dawn to dusk ultimately decimating the industry after only one season. The oyster beds never fully recovered.
Traditionally oysters were only harvested from October to May. However, Newhaven’s fishermen were fully engaged in their occupation throughout the year. Their catch was seasonal - oysters in the winter, cod, haddock and ling in the summer and in late autumn the fickle but occasionally abundant herring. The herring were caught with drift nets, the cod and other white fish were caught on the line - 700 to 1000 hooks baited with locally caught mussel which were gathered by the fishwives and lasses.
As their quarry became more elusive, the fishermen travelled ever further sailing or even rowing 35-40 miles into open sea. In the undecked boats more suited to inshore waters, fishing was a hazardous occupation. Eventually boats became decked and larger, steam propulsion arrived and as a consequence, fishermen could travel away from coastal waters for days at a time using trawl fishing to catch their prey. A purpose built Fish Market was constructed in 1896 to handle the catch which came from a’ airts.
However, Newhaven’s harbour proved too small as the trawlers got ever larger and adjacent Granton provided a more suitable haven for the fishing fleet.
Whaling had always been an alternative occupation for the young skilled fishermen of Newhaven and the reputation as oarsmen kept them in high demand with the Arctic whalers. Whales were caught using small boats and hand-held harpoons, a truly dangerous although lucrative job. It was a gala occasion every April, right up to the early 20th century, when the 400-ton whalers would sail from Leith and Newhaven but many sore hearts greeted their return from Greenland’s waters in late autumn. The cargoes of blubber, used in soap-making, were boiled up in vats on Fishermen’s Park which gave Newhaven at those times an aroma all of its own.