THOSE researching family in East Lothian will very likely come across a nautical affiliation.

Our current temporary exhibit of photographs, letters and fishing documents demonstrates the importance of fishing to East Lothian.

Fisherrow, Prestonpans, Cockenzie, Port Seton, North Berwick and Dunbar are all existing harbours that have been used for fishing to varying degrees.

Most early fishermen did not stray far from the shallow coastal shores, fishing for seasonal flat flounders and coalfish or ‘saithies’ that bred in large shoals amongst kelp and seaweed.

The saithies were caught, dried and stored, making an ideal food supply for small communities.

In 1492, a law was passed ensuring all royal burghs and baronies built larger boats to encourage deeper sea fishing. Previously, most fishermen typically used small rowing boats with four to six oarsmen and one or two masts. These boats were made of wood and light enough to pull up on the beach.

Unfortunately, they were also unstable while being un-decked and were often wrecked when venturing further afield.

Boats of a larger design than this were used primarily for sailing into foreign ports.

At the end of the 16th century, the continual growth of Edinburgh’s population, castle and royal household required fishermen to look toward the treacherous North Sea. This incredible bravery was rewarded with an abundance of valuable herring.

The Dutch were the great leaders of the herring industry in the 16th and 17th century and held monopoly over the North Sea and greatly influenced the Scots. Their efficient approach to fishing meant that fewer crew were required in comparison to the Scots and English.

Fishing on the turbulent North Sea also proved to be an effective form of naval training. In many ways, the Dutch success intimidated (and annoyed) the government. That said, at the end of the 17th century, Scotland was importing boats from the Netherlands in an attempt to emulate their methods.

Boats called busses were regarded as catching and curing factories. Slow-moving, spacious and sturdy, they lay overnight with drift nets to catch herring which was salted and then placed into barrels onboard smaller boats called yaggers or jaggers. By the 18th century, many Scottish fishing boats became larger and sturdier.

Subsidies introduced by the government encouraged men seeking a fortune. Often crofters and farm workers would work as part-time fishermen. In 1785, the government introduced barrel bounties which were paid upon the amount of cured herring produced and in-turn encouraged curers to contractually guarantee a price for the fisherman’s catch.

In 1848, the Washington Report (so called after Captain John Washington) was commissioned after a violent storm. The report gave recommendations for a change to the smaller fishing boats. It argued for boats to be decked to prevent water inundation. This report was met with a mixed response but was soon to be thought safer. Skaffies, fifies and zulus are the three types of this improved design.

Drowning at sea in the 18th and 19th century was an unsurprising occurrence that warranted the start of sailor societies to protect the dependents of seafaring men. Unusual superstitions were an additional way of protecting oneself from harm.

An 18th-century account of Satan revering fishermen at Morrison’s Haven, by Prestonpans, tells of a parish minister praying and protesting against the fishermen setting sail before the Sabbath was past. To protect themselves from the minister’s prayers, the fishermen made a small effigy in rags and burnt it on top of their chimneys using a form of black magic.

Fishing in East Lothian continued with varying success over the late 19th and 20th century and still continues today, but on a significantly smaller scale. Fishing has, without doubt, made a considerable mark on the East Lothian way of life.

by Anna Canelli, John Gray Centre