The skills of Shetland fishermen; boats; disasters at sea; s...

Date 18 December 1972
Track ID 71716
Part 1

Track Information

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The skills of Shetland fishermen; boats; disasters at sea; superstitions.

At one time nearly everybody in Shetland went to sea, on merchant ships or to the fishing. Fishing was done in a sixareen [six-oared boat], which was smaller but otherwise exactly the same as the Viking longships. There were many disasters. The worst were in 1832, when over 100 boats were lost; in 1881, when over 100 boats were lost; and again in 1900. The old sixareens were 21 feet long and would fish 40 miles off. Compasses were very simple, and the fishermen relied on skill to get home. They could read the moder dy [shoreward drift, literally 'mother swell']. Tom Anderson describes seeing this himself in St Magnus Bay. The men had to understand the boat and the motions of the sea. But when they were caught by a sudden storm 40 miles from shore there wasn't much they could do.

Fishermen were very superstitious and had their own language, e.g. skeon [knife], upstander [minister], long-nosed fellow [pig]. When hauling fish on a line, you didn't say, "There's another," you said, "White under white," or, "Licht idda lum [light in the chimney]." Whistling was banned at sea lest it bring on a storm. When the boat is pulled down stern first it must be turned sungates [clockwise], never widdershins [against the sun]. Even nowadays Tom would observe these superstitions. If someone accidentally said a taboo word, the antidote was to say "cold iron". Cats were very unlucky. Certain people were unlucky to meet when the fisherman was carrying his lines to the boat. If an old woman got between a fishermen and the sea he could forget fishing. A circle of old women was fatal. If the minister came in when the fisherman was baiting his lines, that was bad luck. Even today [1972], there were certain things fishermen wouldn't do.

Recording Location

County - Shetland

Parish - Lerwick

Island - Shetland Mainland

Village/Place - Lerwick

Item Location

County - Shetland


English, Scots





Source Type

Reel to reel

Audio Quality