Fortunes of the fisherfolk

6th February 1998 at 00:00
Raymond Ross visits a museum devoted to the history of the fishing industry, from whaling to salmon catching, from dug-out and yawl to steam ship

Hauf owre, hauf owre tae AberdourTis fifty fathom deipAnd thair lies guid Sir Patrick SpensWi' the Scots lords at his feit. The Fife coast abounds with tales, legends and ballads of the sea, making the kingdom the perfect setting for the Scottish Fisheries Museum.

Opened in 1969, this expansive museum covers almost every aspect of the Scottish fishing industry, from herring fishing and whaling to industrial salmon fishing and all the ancillary trades. From primitive dug-out boats to yawls, drifters, cobles and lifeboats, the museum is awash with vessels and artefacts. If you can't tell a clinker from a carvel, this is the place to go and learn.

"For any study of the fishing industry, there's a wealth of visual material here," says Tom Gray, Fife Community Services' co-ordinator for environmental studies. "Not only is it a living record of the fishing community, it's a superb facility which can be used to interpret many aspects of the environment studied in primary schools. It can be used to look at history, at how communities settled and grew up and the way people lived, including housing, food, engineering, crafts, boat-building, safety and religion."

In fact, going round the museum you're struck by many of the religious artefacts, including a "Gospel boat", a model with scriptural quotations painted on the sails - reminders of the precarious life led by fishermen and sailors.

Curator Kate Newlands also shows a pair of boots that are haunted and are said to walk about at night. The uniquely patterned ganseys (fishermen's jumpers) on display showed which village the seafarer came from. Superstition naturally plays a part. Once you've been through the modern engine rooms, galleys, fish shop displays and covered boat-builder's yard where vessels are still renovated , you can take time out to recall the fears of the fisherfolk as recorded on a museum hand-out. Some animals were considered so unlucky that they could never be mentioned by name. A pig was a "curly tail", a rat a "lang tail" and a salmon a "red fish". The kirk minister (never invited aboard) was "the man wi' the black coat" or "the queer fella", and even certain surnames such as Coull, Whyte and Ross were considered unlucky.

The museum is an education for all the senses. Part of it chills like a refrigerator where boats are still drying out (any artificial heat would crack the wood). When a couple of pupils from the local Guardbridge Primary School mention how cold this area is, the volunteer guide reminds them what cold, hard and dangerous work fishing was.

The museum is also liberally decorated with original paintings (some of impressive artistry, others more amateur but no less poignant or relevant) as well as with quotations from poems and ballads.

A schools' annual subscription to the museum at Anstruther (local pronunciation "Ainster") in the East Neuk of Fife must be a bargain at Pounds 40, especially if your school is engaged in a project on fishing.

Guardbridge Primary is one such school and, although it only has only 56 pupils, headteacher Jean Kemp regards the membership as "extremely good value".

"We get a lot out of it," she says. "Two years ago we started a North Sea project with schools from Norway, Sweden and Germany, and we have visited the museum half a dozen times in the past year. The pupils learn about their heritage, which could easily die otherwise. Using the Internet and e-mail, we communicate with our partner European schools, so pupils learn about new technology as well as the past.

"The museum is a brilliant resource for the curriculum on living things and processes of life, covering skills, knowledge and understanding."

The independent museum has local authority support, which pays for a full-time curator, manager and part-time staff. It also has more than 70 volunteers who keep it going, including 10 voluntary guides.

Some 2,000 pupils visited the museum last year. This year it plans to mail-shot every Fife school, and thereafter Dundee and Tayside.

It is not just a resource for primaries - Tom Gray points out that many secondary art departments borrow fishing materials for, say, still-life studies. The museum also boasts no fewer than 10,000 negatives to do with fishing, an impressive photographic archive in anybody's book. (A visit also provides an opportunity to watch John Grierson's pioneering documentary The Drifters, about the life of herring fishers.) Kate Newlands deals with hundreds of enquiries from around the world regarding Scottish boats. "Scottish fishing boats turn up everywhere," she says. "If people buy a boat or are restoring one, they'll contact us for information, whether it's a conversion job or an old wreck. A recent enquiry showed that a Scottish fishing boat had turned up in Canada."

The museum provides visiting schools with a post-visit educational pack. It is working on a pre-visit one. Although the museum does not organise town or harbour walks, it can put schools in touch with local volunteers who can help them get the most out of their visit to this beautifully preserved historic fishing village.

The Scottish Fisheries Museum, Harbourhead, Anstruther, Fife KY10 3AB. Tel: 01333 310628. Open seven days a week. Adults Pounds 3.50, children and concessions Pounds 2.50, schools' annual subscription Pounds 40

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