A Visit to Fife’s East Neuk – Anstruther Scottish Fisheries Museum

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It was an early November Saturday morning when I drove to Anstruther under blue skies touched with occasional light cloud. I found a parking space beside the Anstruther Fish Bar on the Shore Road not 30 metres from the museum and made straight for the museum. After a coffee and cake at the museum cafe, I paid the entrance fee to the elderly lady volunteer at the entrance desk who advised me that I couldn’t use my camera inside and handed me an A4 guide to the layout of the museum.

The entrance to the exhibits is through a courtyard littered with random anchors, rope, netting, and in the top right hand side, a large shallow pond made of black plastic measuring maybe 5 by 5 metres. There was no clue as to the function of this pool, however, a brief conversation with the lady at the entrance desk revealed that the local model boat club sail their boats on it. Above the yard is a wooden balcony. The entrance to the first exhibition space is straight through the courtyard through “The brown door that is open so you can’t see it is brown.” said the lady at the desk.

The doorway opens onto a reconstruction of a log boat (circa 500 AD) modelled on a boat found in 1823 made in 1991 by some volunteers with an axe and later, large blisters. It was floated out in the harbour and handled well it seems. It now has developed a large split in the bow but I suspect it would still float.

I walked up the ramp (the exhibits seem to be accessible by wheelchair) past a “Welcome” notice and some framed artwork and poetry. Further up the slope are images and information on early methods of catching fish such as trapping (exhibits of fish traps), spearing (examples of multi-pronged fish spears) and gathering (shellfish, crustaceans and fish) at low tide. The exhibit makes clear that the gathering of shellfish is very ancient.

A hands-on exhibit of a reconstruction of an ancient midden indicates how archaeologists have discovered this. It is a box of sand with random bits of marine shells that you can sift through and then identify the shell fragments. Beware! Some of the shell fragments are sharp. More information boards show the caves in red sandstone cliffs at East Wemyss and the ancient (500 – 900 AD) carvings of a ship and a fish found inside. Further up the slope were pictures of early boats and hull building styles, a full size (6 metre long) clinker built boat and creels for lobster and crab.

Onwards and upwards to the next level to a tableau of a man and woman in late Victorian dress working with long lines. The information boards explained the two different types of of long line and why long lines might be better than nets for catching fish although very labour intensive. The baiting with mussel and lug-worm was women’s work and the setting out and hauling in of the lines was men’s. Women would bait up to 5000 hooks as well as attending to their other daily duties. Women would also carry their men to the boats to keep them dry. I reflected on this and came to the conclusion that if a man got wet before he set out, he would stay wet and get cold. This is not a good survival strategy and a sick man could not work and look after his family. A woman could dry off later on. No place for delicate ladies here.The centre of the room was taken up by glass cases containing models of fishing vessels.

Around the walls hung paintings and old photographs of life around a fishing port. Towards the top of the room was an example of how a net was made which you could try if you followed the instructions, and also a cabinet of china and porcelain items linked to the theme of fishing. As I moved around the room the reason for the model boats became apparent. They demonstrated the relative strengths and weaknesses of hull shapes depending on how they were to be used. In addition, there was a case of navigational equipment as might be used by the 19th century mariner such as sextant, chart, compass, telescope. The brass sextant was a very beautiful and complex instrument and my father who was in the navy had to use one when he served during WW2. But what do you do when you cannot get a clear sun or star sighting? Ready reckoning? I think I prefer the ease and accuracy of a GPS device!

The focus changed as I walked out of the room up the slope to the next set of exhibits. On the wall was a precis of fishing legislation over the centuries. There seems to have been laws on fishing in this country almost as long as there have been written records. To the left was a tableau of a sail-maker in his loft with all the associated manilla and hemp rope, cord and sailcloth. Also on this level was a display of knots and wooden rigging blocks. As a one time boy scout I was familiar with some of the knots, but was intrigued by some I had never seen before.

A little further up the slope and I entered a roomful of exhibits relating to the merchandising of fish. To the right was a clerk at a desk and a list of harbour dues and bound ledgers at his side. To the left was a much larger set of exhibits, the first of fish lassies (fish queans in Aberdeen dialect pronounced ‘coins’) gutting and packing the herring. Working in teams of 3 (2 to gut and 1 to pack into the barrels) a lassie could gut 60 fish a minute. To meet the Crown Standards (set in 1815), the fish had to be gutted and packed in brine within 24 hours of catching so they sometimes worked until 1am in the morning if the catch had been big, very occasionally until 6am; which didn’t stop them from going out to the dancing on Saturday nights. They were known for their hard work and sense of humour. Working 6 days a week, 6000 fish lassies followed the fleet around the UK from the North of Scotland down to the fishing ports of Eastern England staying in bothies beside the sea. A lassie could earn between £17 and £20 in a season. Beside this scene was a cooper making barrels surrounded by the tools of his trade, a trade vital to the fishing industry in the days before refrigeration. After a 4 year apprenticeship, a skilled cooper could make 70 barrels a week.

On leaving the room I followed the sloped ramps down into an ante-room whose theme was whaling. A small rowing boat with a figure throwing a harpoon was tucked into the left hand corner and the implements used to slaughter and cut up whales lined the walls. A history of whaling was contained on information boards and photographs. Much of the story seemed to be about the gradual extinction of the animal across the oceans over several hundred years in the search for whales so that their fat could be rendered down for fine oil for lamps and their bones for all kinds of domestic uses, most notably for corsets. Despite a moratorium on whaling, some nations still believe that their best interests are served by continuing this activity.

The tour takes you past a small chapel on the left. The walls are covered in hundreds of brass plates with the names of men and boats lost at sea. I found the chapel a quiet and moving reminder of the dangers of this industry which continues to take men year after year (e.g. The Gaul 1974) despite all the modern devices on boats. In previous centuries, a bad storm could wipe out the men of whole communities. Today many boats are worked by a single family, and the loss of a single boat (e.g. Solway Harvester 2000) can devastate a family. An additional reminder of the dangers of the sea came later when I found that the local lifeboat had been called out nearly 50 times from January 2009 up to mid October 2009.

The next room’s theme was steam versus sail. Surprisingly, steam was not such an advantage since the engines and coal took up room that might otherwise be used for the catch; they were more expensive to run and buy; sail was faster (true!). However, the steam boat could run against the wind and was more effective for trawling which needs a steady pull in one direction. However, sailing boats did use steam winches so that they could haul heavier, larger nets. Just past the display cabinets holding steam artefacts (shovels, brass whistle, lamps) in a corner of the room are some chairs for watching a video by John Grierson about the North Sea herring fleet made in 1929.

It’s 40 minutes long so I didn’t watch it this time around, but I think you can buy this as a DVD in the shop. Further round the room is a reconstruction of a very cramped cabin with bunks. You can lie down in the lower one, but the headroom is tiny and you will crack your head if you get up suddenly. When I was scuba diving I spent a few nights at sea in just such a bunk. It takes a bit of getting used to but it’s very snug. There is also information on how the boats were used during wartimes and the high calorie diet working seamen ate. Additionally, there are cases of model boats showing the evolution of the Zulu hull from the Fifie and the Scaffie hulls.

I left this room to go down the slope to the wheelhouse display. This is a metal wheel house cut in one piece from the fishing boat “The Brighter Hope III”, then half sectioned to allow a view of the wheelhouse complete with all its navigational equipment: echo sounder, radar, compass, radio. Behind the wheelhouse is a small cabin. Beyond the wheelhouse is a large display of model fishing boats showing how the shapes evolved from 1930 to the present. Also shown are fishing artefacts in modern materials: plastic fish boxes, polypropylene nets, nylon ropes etc.

Through a doorway I came upon a temporary exhibition detailing the life and work of a 19th century naturalist, Frank Buckland. There are many items pertaining to his work and life spread around the walls and in cases. The exhibition is changed 3 or 4 times a year.

I passed down the sloped corridor lined with old internal combustion engines to the engine room. There are many examples of marine diesel engines from early types right up to recent times. I confess that I don’t find these modern compact power plants terribly exciting to look at. In the corner of the room is a full size model fishmonger’s shop complete with model fishmonger and fish on a slab.

I walked back up the slope to find out where the music/drumbeat I kept hearing was coming from. This turned out to be the short video at the entrance to the Zulu gallery. The theme is further explored down-slope in to an exhibition area dedicated to the Zulu hull. This hull shape was arrived at by combining the most functional elements of 2 other hull types, the Scaffie and the Fifie, to give the Zulu great manoeuvrability, deck space and stability in rough weather. The hull shape was named by the Scots in honour of the greatly admired Zulus who were fighting the British army in the late 1870’s.

The boats were up to 80 feet long, but could be much smaller. Many were converted during the change from sail to power. The room leads into a huge space where the impressive hull of the old Zulu fishing boat, the Research, is housed. The Research now has no deck, and I was struck by the exposed massively strong ribs and hull timbers. Around the walls are the stories of the men who sailed in her. I could not work out how the boat had been installed in the building since there are no large doors anywhere. I later discovered from photographs that the building was erected around the boat!

I re-entered the courtyard and negotiated my way past the big plastic pond to climb some stone steps in a corner of the courtyard. These lead up to a recreation of a fisherman’s cottage and loft of the late 19th century. It consists of 2 small rooms in which the entire family, maybe 3 generations, lived. It looks very cramped but cosy with the range for warming the room, heating water and cooking the food at the far wall. There is another room just to the right containing a small organ. Above these rooms is the loft where every conceivable bit of gear related to fishing boats was stacked or hung up on the rafters. I was most impressed by the long leather sea boots that need a special tool to remove. Nailed soles would give good grip on a wet deck, but later I thought that if you went overboard, they would fill with water and take you down.

After over 2 1/2 hours, I was ready for some lunch so I returned to the cafe. They did a nice cheese roll and coffee and the girls at the counter were really pleasant and helpful. The main room has windows to the back with a view of the courtyard, and to front with a view of the harbour. The food and coffee are plain, good, and cheap. The chocolate cake I had earlier was delicious and there were plenty of locals who had just come in for lunch, or just coffee and cake which I took to be a good sign. The recently refurbished cafe is decorated with pictures of ships but what really caught my eye was the tea towel with local fishermen’s superstitions.

  • A minister is not allowed on a boat (he is a sky pilot)
  • Never wear green
  • Never set sail on a Sunday
  • Never put shoes on a table (my wife is horrified if anyone does this in our house) No whistling (you might call up a storm)

There are a raft load of others regarding diet and subjects of conversation which must be observed lest you bring bad luck to the boat.

I have not by any means covered all that the museum has to offer nor is there space here to fully document all the exhibits I saw. However, the museum has an excellent web site which you might consult which briefly details other aspects of the museum that I have not touched upon. There is a also a shop where you can buy souvenirs of your visit. While I was there, I asked if there was a book on the museum and its artefacts but sadly this is not the case. I also wonder if it might be a good idea to create a personal audio guide to the museum to add breadth and depth to the well labelled exhibits. This is an increasingly common practice nowadays in museums and art galleries which I find helpful.

My visit to the lifeboat station across the road didn’t go so well as the both boats had been launched a few hours before for training. I was invited to take a look around the gallery displaying pictures of previous crews and a brief history of the station and its boats. I shall have to go back to have another look when the boats are in.

On a personal note, my ancestors were boat builders and farmers in the Orkney Isles and almost certainly fishermen as well. A cousin showed me an old photograph of some of my ancestors gathered around a big boat that they were building taken from the wall of an Orkney pub. Also from hints my father dropped, I think he served on fishing boats at the end of WW2 removing mines and destroying them with 303 rifle fire. He did say that it was a good idea to be a long way from them when they went up.