Folk-Lore/Volume 2/The Scotch Fisher Child

781543Folk-Lore Volume 2, 1891 — Number 1 (March)
The Scotch Fisher Child.
Walter Gregor


IT may be safely said that children's amusements, as distinguished from children's games, have not engaged the attention of the students of man to the extent they merit. Many of these amusements are imitations of the work of men, and thus become a training for the work of life. Others, again, are in all likelihood the survivals of what were once customs followed by men. For example, can it be that the amusement of imitating burying alive in the sand is the survival of any sacrificial custom, or of the custom of burying a victim below the foundation stone of any large building?

Another question of much weight is: Do these amusements shew the mental development of the children? If so, it becomes a matter of much moment to collect not merely civilised children's amusements to as wide an extent as possible, but the amusements of uncivilised tribes and nations, so as to form a comparison between the mental development of the uncivilised man and that of the civilised child.

Another point worthy of comparison is the amusements followed by different classes of children, e.g., those of the fisher-folks' children with those of the children of the rural population. Such a comparison would probably bring out modes of thought, and traits of character, peculiar to each class, as it would assuredly set in clear light the differences of their occupations.

An attempt has been made to set forth some account of the child-life of the fisher-folks of the north-east coast of Scotland. My information has come from only a few of the villages, so that one must not judge that, because only one or two villages are mentioned as the home of an amusement or game, it may not be found in the same, or in a somewhat different form in other villages.

M. Sébillot has devoted much attention to this subject, and has given the fruits of his labours in L'Homme, 2e Année, No. 16, 25 Aout 1885, pp. 481-90, and in Revue des Traditions Populaires, 1re Année, No. 1, 1886, pp. 5-12, in which he formulates a series of questions for the investigators of this branch of the knowledge of man.

There is a very striking agreement of the amusements of the children of the fisher-folks on the coast of France with those of the same class of children on the north-east coast of Scotland. Is it because both have sprung from the same home in the north? A collection of the amusements of the fisher-folks' children on the coasts of Denmark and the Scandinavian Peninsula would no doubt give results of considerable value. My wish is that others more competent for this interesting task may enter upon it, and work it out to a good end. Much remains to be done with regard to the manners, customs, work, and beliefs of a most useful, worthy, and interesting portion of the inhabitants of the British islands—the fisher-folks.

I have arranged the paper as follows:—

I. The baby and the cradle.
II. Amusements of imitation.
III. Amusements with living creatures.
IV. Amusements with shells and seaweed.
V. Amusements with tide and waves.
VI. Amusements with the sand on the beach.
VII. Dances and games.

I.—The Baby and the Cradle.

A. The Baby.

(a) The "twalt oor" (twelfth hour), whether midday or midnight, is accounted an unlucky hour for the birth of a child (Pennan, Rosehearty)

(b) If a child is born during the time the tide is "flowwin" (rising), the saying is, that "the warlde (world) flowws on't" (Pennan).

(c) When a new-born child is being washed, if a boy, he is rubbed gently to make him good-tempered. A girl is rubbed more roughly to make her firm (Portessie). If the child cries much when born, its wrist is at times scratched to draw blood, so that the "ill-natured" blood might escape. This was done not many years ago by a midwife in Rosehearty, and she said that unless she did so, the child would be ill-tempered.

(d) In nursing their babies, the mothers or nurses often dandle them in a way to imitate the rocking of a beat on the sea (Portessie, Macduff, Rosehearty). Here is a nursing rhyme—

"Reekie, reekie, rairig,
Rin t' the fairy.
An ye'll get a pease-meal bannock,
Fin he comes back."

This rhyme was repeated to the child, as the mother or nurse sat in front of a fire, from which a good deal of smoke was rising.

Does the rhyme refer to the custom of the trial by fire? When a child was "dwinin", it was suspected that the real child had been stolen by the fairies, and one of their own left in its room. It was tried by fire. A large fire of peat was heaped on the hearth, the child put into a basket, which was hung in the "crook" over the fire. If the "dwinin" child was one of fairy origin, it made its escape by the "lum" (chimney), and the true child was restored.

(e) A necklace of amber beads ("lamer") was worn round the child's neck to keep off ill-luck (Rosehearty).

(f) The belief in the influence of the planets on human life was at one time not uncommon. An old woman, that lately lived in Pennan, had an expression she used when she was nursing a child much given to crying: "Ye've been born aneth an ill planet", or "an unlucky planet".

(g) Shells form common playthings for little children. When the infant's teeth begin to cause trouble, a piece of "casle tangle"—the stem of Laminavia digitata is given, instead of a teething ring.

(h) On market-days, and at Christmas, many had the custom of giving a penny or half-penny to each child of the family. This coin went by the name of "the market bawbee", and "the Yeel bawbee". It was sometimes given by the grandfather, or grandmother, or aunt; and the children regularly, as the occasion came round, went to get the "bawbee" from the kind donor (Macduff).

(i) To frighten the children from going to the sea, they are told that a sea-otter or water-kelpie (Macduff), or otters or "selchs" (seals) (Portessie, Rosehearty) will come and take them.

B. The Cradle.

(a) If a cradle was borrowed, a fiery peat was thrown into it at the door by the borrower (Pennan).

(b) A cradle, if borrowed, was never sent empty, neither was it returned empty.

(c) The cradle is always carried with its head foremost, that is, the opposite way a coffin is carried (Rosehearty, etc.)

(d) In Buckie and Portessie a small wooden bowl,—"a cap"—lay constantly in the cradle. It was called "the craidle cap". My informant told me that her mother made her a present of one, and told her to keep it always in the cradle when in use. She did so, and when there was no baby the "cap" was laid up carefully till the next baby came.

(e) The cradle was sometimes called by old folks (Pennan) "the life-boat", and they spoke of putting the child into the life-boat when they laid it in the cradle.

(f) It is a common notion that if a mother meets a boy as her "first fit", the first time she goes out after having a baby, she will have a son as her next child, and if she meets a girl, she will bear a girl (Portessie, Rosehearty).

II.—Amusements of Imitation.

(a) Boys and young men construct boats and ships, commonly fashioning them with a knife. They rig them with much neatness. They are named and launched with due ceremony, and it is a source of much amusement to sail these boats and ships (generally round the coast). In many of the villages (Macduff, Pennan, Rosehearty) sailing matches or regattas were common, and betting was rife (Macduff). At the village of Pennan, not many years ago, there was a regatta on New Year's Day for some years in succession on the mill-pond of the farm of Clenterty, when many from the village, as well as many from the neighbouring farms, met to witness the race. Prizes were awarded for the victors. In Rosehearty, New Year's Day was specially devoted to the sailing of their ships by the boys.

(b) In sailing their ships they at times put small stones or shells on them to represent sailors. When the ships came to land they were carefully examined to see whether the men had been swept overboard. At times, two or more were launched in such a way as to run into each other, and so run one of them down. Great is the exultation of the owner of the stouter ship (Macduff).

(c) But almost anything that will float, a piece of cork, or wood, with a feather stuck into it, the carapace of a crab, a shell, etc., is used as a boat. Rock-pools, pools left by the tide, pools near streams, mill-ponds, if at hand and of convenient form.

(d) A favourite pastime is the making of canals and harbours in the sand. The children dig little ditches, allow the water to run into them, and then place in them as ships and boats small pieces of cork, wood, shells, the carapaces of crabs, paper boats. The water is confined, and, when everything is ready, the sluice is removed, and the water flows away, carrying with it all the little craft. A wide space is often made at one end in imitation of a harbour, and at other times a harbour is made at each end. The children of Rosehearty used to make "bridges", that is, locks in their canals, in imitation of the Caledonian Canal. The boys of Macduff built harbours, filled them with water, and at times put pieces of wood across their mouths in imitation of booms. In Portessie such structures are called "shories". This name arises, likely, from the fact that there were in many of the fishing villages no built harbours, but only natural creeks, or well-sheltered pieces of shore, commonly called "the shore".

(e) The catching of fish is often imitated. So many of the players act as fish, and so many as fishermen. The lines are thrown, and the children that represent fish seize the line, sometimes in their teeth, and sometimes the line is thrown round them. They are pulled ashore, and then the whole process of cleaning the fish is gone through, the first step always being to imitate the cutting of the throat. After being dressed, sand is sprinkled over them for salt (Portessie, Macduff, Rosehearty).

(f) The boys and girls often imitate the arrival of the boats from the fishing ground. The fish, for which small stones are used, are divided in the usual way, and then carried up and dressed, and the "skulls", or baskets with the lines, are brought ashore with all formality (Portessie, Macduff, Rosehearty).

(g) A common amusement is the making of "houses" and gardens on the beach or smooth grassy spots convenient. This is done by laying stones in a line on the sand or grass in the form of a house. Porches are sometimes added, as well as other houses for other purposes. Furniture, in the shape of small stones, pieces of wood, limpets, or the bones of the larger fish are put into them. There are always two pieces of furniture, "the bench", a kind of open cupboard for holding stoneware, of which fisher-folks are commonly very fond, and "the dresser", which in the fisherman's, as well as in the country kitchens, stands underneath the " bench". Shells of various kinds, broken pieces of stone and earthenware, often called "lehmns", are used for dishes. The fisher-girl seats herself inside the house, and busies herself with the arrangement of her furniture and crockery.

(h) Gardens or "yards" are enclosed with a row of stones, or with a line of sand thrown up by the hand, and planted with pieces of seaweed for flowers and trees (Portessie, Macduff, Pennan, Rosehearty). The children of the country do the same. Only they plant their gardens or "yards" with flowers.

(i) Keeping a shop, or acting the merchant, and buying and selling, are favourite pastimes. A house is made as a shop, and the various kinds of goods are put into it. Shells, chiefly, but often pieces of broken stone and earthenware are used for money. The penny is represented by a large shell, or piece of stone or earthenware, the halfpenny by a less piece or shell. Silver coins are represented by the smallest shells, or fragments of ware (Portessie, Macduff, Pennan, Rosehearty).

(j) In bathing, boys pretend to be salmon, eels, or any other fish; and in Rosehearty the boys have in bathing a leap called the salmon-leap. The boys of Macduff use the expression "to dive like an eel". They also use the expression "to dive like a scrath", and they speak of "scrathian" to indicate clever diving.

III.—Amusements with Living Creatures.

(a) A great amusement is to catch eels and transfer them to other ponds, repeating the words:

"Eelie, eelie, cast a knot,
An ye'll win into the salmon-pot."

A variant of the last line is:

"An ye'll win into the water-pot."

The formula in Macduff is:

"Eelie, eelie, cast yir knottie,
An ye'll get in o' yir water-pottie."

(b) The children amuse themselves by catching the green shore-crab (Carcinus Mænas) called "the craib" in Macduff, and the eatable crab, or "parten" (Cancer pagurus), and using them as horses. They tie pieces of cork, wood, or any other light substance behind him, in imitation of carts and coaches, and then set them off to pull them. They at times take a few of them, hold them in line, and then let them go, as if in a race, on a given signal (Macduff, Rosehearty, Portessie). They also use them as cows and horses, and tether them in imitation of the agricultural population.

{c) The boys and girls at times amuse themselves by catching fish among the rocks and pools, cooking them on fires they kindle on the beach, and then feasting on them (Rosehearty).

IV.—Amusements with Shells and Seaweed.

(a) The children of Macduff have a custom of taking limpet shells, boring out the centre of them, and then sticking them on their eyes under the name of spectacles. They carry them in this way for a considerable time when amusing themselves.

(b) The girls often gather shells, bore them, and make necklaces of them (Rosehearty).

(c) They deck themselves in seaweed. Some of them, as "belly-waar" {Fucus nodosus, and F. vesciculosus), they use as curls for their hair. The larger ponds of "bather-lyocks" (Lanunavia digitata) are used as waistbands, whilst the smaller ones are formed into bands for the brow and the neck. Sometimes chaplets are woven and placed round the head.

The girls of Pennan make thimbles of the air-vessels of "belly-waar".

(d) The children amuse themselves with "carle tangles", the stems of Lanunavia digitata, in the following way. Each player selects a few; one holds up one, the others strike it crosswise. If it breaks, the player holds up the one that broke it, whilst it is in turn struck till it is broken. This is playing at "sodgers". Instead of tangle, "carle doddies" (Plantago lanceolata) are used. Country children, and sometimes grown-up folks, amuse themselves with playing at "sodgers" with "carle doddies".

V.—Amusements with the Tide and the Waves.

(a) An amusement is to gather stones and build a little hillock, or to heap up one of sand, when the tide is rising, and then to take their stand upon it, and cry out:

"Willie, Willie Weet-feet
Winna get me."(Pennan.)


"Willie, Willie Weet-feet,
Dinna weet me,
An a'll gee ye a Scots bawbee."(Macduff.)

They wait till they are nearly surrounded by the rising tide, and then jump. Such a little mound is called a "lockie-on" (Macduff).

(b) In Rosehearty this hillock is called "a prop", and the formula is:

"Knockie, knockie, nocean wash me awa',
Ten mile, ten mile, ten mile jaw."

When the sea struck it, the player jumped and roared. Girls, in doing this, often took off their shoes and stockings, and tucked up their clothes to keep them dry.

(c) A similar amusement is for the children to run up to meet the rising tide, and then to run back out of the way of the wave, shouting the same words. In doing this, the girls often kilt up their clothes to keep them dry (Rosehearty).

During a storm the children run up to meet the wave, shouting:

"The nineteent jaw,
Come, an wash me awa'
Ower the sea an far awa'."(Rosehearty.)

(d) They plunge into the masses of foam that are thrown up during a storm, and shout and dance in face of the gale (Macduff).

(e) When the tide is rising, the children cast up dykes or ridges of sand to stem the water, and then watch their overthrow. They proceed to build another to meet the same fate, and so on for any length of time.

VI.—Amusements with the Sand on the Beach.

(a) It is a great amusement to lie down on the soft sand and leave an impression of the body on it. The same thing is done when there is snow.

(b) Another amusement is for one to lie down on the sand, when it is damp or hard, and stretch out every limb to the widest, and for another to take a sharp-pointed stone or piece of stick and draw the outline of the figure. Sometimes it is an imprint of only a hand with the fingers fully spread out, or of a foot, that is taken. The same thing is done in snow.

(c) The children amuse themselves by imprinting their footsteps on the sand, and after a time returning to see if the impression still remains.

(d) Another amusement is to make drawings of houses, men, or of anything that strikes the fancy, on the firm sand. A boat is a very common object to be drawn. It is done in profile, and its name written on it. At times it is drawn bird's-eyewise, and the boys then go within it, sit down, and act as if fishing.

(e) Writing their names on the sand is a favourite amusement, and a boy's and a girl's name are often written together. They are called "the man and the wife" (Rosehearty).

(f) It is an amusement to make or build up of wet sand the image of a man, then to run past it and strike with the hand to break it. This amusement is called "Vullin' the Rooshians" (Rosehearty).

(g) One goes along the beach making as long paces as possible. The other players follow, and their aim is to place their feet in the footsteps of the leader. The one that fails to do so is beaten (Rosehearty). The same thing is done in snow.

(h) A not uncommon amusement is to dig a hole and allow the water to fill it. The water is then carefully covered, often by sprinkling fine dry sand over the water. The one on whom the trick is to be played is enticed to walk along in the direction of it, so as to stumble into it and have his foot made wet or get a fall (Macduff). In Macduff this amusement is called "Maskin' a trap". In other villages (Portessie, Rosehearty) the hole is not filled with water, but covered over with anything found convenient, so as to conceal it.

(i) As an amusement, burying in the sand is not uncommon. At Macduff the boys dig graves in the sand or shingle, put stones or pieces of wood into them, cover them up, and then set up stones at the head of the grave. A not unfrequent amusement is burying one of the players. A grave is dug, and one stone is placed at the top and another at the bottom. After it is finished, the one to be buried is laid flat on his back in the hole—if a girl, with her clothes tightly tucked round her—and all covered up with small sand or shingle, according to the nature of the beach, except the face. After lying a time an exit is made in the best way the buried one can (Portessie, Macduff, Penan, Rosehearty).

VII.—Dances and Games.

{a) The boys and girls at times amuse themselves by dancing on the sands any of the ordinary dances. One, however, used to be danced called "Sea-brackin". The players take their stand behind each other, and, on a given signal, the first one in the line stoops, then suddenly rises and throws up the arms, and then sets off at a run, stooping and rising and throwing up the arms. The others do the same. Thus they run on, imitating the rising and falling of the waves or roll of the sea. If one falls it is called a "shipwreck", and the unfortunate one must lie and allow the players behind to leap over (Rosehearty).[1]

{b) A game, called "Beat the Bear", is played by the children of Portessie in the following way. One is chosen as the bear and another as the guard. A circle is drawn, and a stone is placed in the centre of the circle. On this stone the bear seats himself, and gets into his hand a piece of string by one end. His guard takes hold of the other end of the string, and sets himself in a position to defend the bear. He holds in his other hand his cap, or handkerchief plaited. The other players all stand round ready to fall on the bear and pelt him with their caps or plaited handkerchiefs. The one the guard strikes first becomes in his turn the bear, and the former bear becomes the guard. The game continues as long as the players wish.

The same game was played at Keith when I was a boy, with this difference, that the bear crouched on his hands and knees with his head stuck down between his hands as far as possible to save it from the blows inflicted by the players. The game is played in the island of Samos, under the name of γλυκὺ κρασὶ, or "sweet wine".[2]

(c) At Portessie there is a rock called the "Scatt Craigs", which is left dry by the retiring tide. The children take their stand on it, when the tide is ebb, and shout:

"I warn you once,
I warn you twice,
I warn you three times over.
Take up your wings
And flee awa', for fear o' Johnnie Rover."

They then jump from the rock, and run as fast as they can back to the top of the rock, to repeat the words and the action till they become tired.

(d) A round stone, called the "tamie", is placed upon another. The players then take their stand at any considerable distance agreed on and throw stones to displace the "tamie". The first who knocks it off a certain number of times previously agreed on wins the game (Portessie).

(e) A stone is thrown a certain distance. The one that throws it leaps the distance. The other players try to do the same. Those that fall short of the distance lose. When all have leaped, the stone is again thrown, and the leaping proceeded with as before. This goes on for any length of time (Rosehearty).

(f) A great source of amusement was to place a stone, or, best of all, a bottle, at a considerable distance, and throw stones to break the bottle or knock down the stone.

(g) "Corking the bottle" is a common pastime both by girls and boys. A longish, somewhat tapering stone is selected, and the boy or girl goes to a deep pool and drops the stone with the sharp end down into the water, and then watches for the air-bubbles rising when the bottle is corked.

{h) "Skiffin" is another amusement with a stone. This is done only when the sea is smooth. A flat stone is taken and thrown along the surface of the water. The aim of the player is to make it rebound the greatest number of times on the surface before it. The children inland, that live near streams, lochs, or ponds, have the same pastime. It is called "skippin'" (Keith), and the first stroke on the water used to be called "the drake", the second "the deuk", and the rest "the young deuks" (Personal).

{i) Another pastime among boys inland was "cuttin' the water". A thin, sharp-edged stone was chosen, and the boy took his stand beside the pool or pond (if a little above the level of the water so much the better), and tried to strike the water without dashing it up. To do so with neatness requires a good deal of practice.

  1. I think Miss Gordon Cumming somewhere gives a description of a similar dance in one of the South Sea Islands, but I cannot find the exact reference.
  2. Folk-Lore Journal, vol. ii, p. 58.