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Fishermen's Superstitions

For several years I have been in the habit of spending part of every summer in a Fife fishing village, and mixing a good deal amongst the old men who are past going to sea. They are delightful company, and, over a dram, splendid storytellers. There are a great many superstitions alive among them. They will laugh at them in conversation, but one can see they guard well against them.

If one man was to ask a match from another on a Monday. the giver would break a bit off the end of it, so as not to part with his luck for the week. They will on no account part with salt, especially at sea, as to part with salt is to part with luck. They won't speak about pigs, and if any one was to mention pork on board, it would be sure to bring on a storm. Rabbits are the same. I have heard them tell of a boat’s crew who landed on the May, killed some rabbits and started for home but were lost on the voyage. It was the rabbits.

They do not speak of the minister, as to do so is very unlucky. They call him “the man who lives at so-and-so.” Any boat who would give a minister a passage would have a stormy journey. Any one on their pier with a black coat on is unlucky. Flat-footed folk are unlucky. I have myself seen women go out of their road or turn back rather than pass a man with his fishing clothes on going off to sea. To cross his path or to pass him takes away his luck.

The younger generation do not pay so much attention to these things ; still, they have been reared amongst them, and they form part of their character.
The Weekly Scotsman.

Miss Betsy Birrell states that when her father had occasion to go out to his boat after dark, as he had sometimes to do, preparatory to the adventure the following morning, he would not return to the house by the door, unless it was opened for him from the inside; if the family were in bed, he would go round to the back of the house and get in by the window. He alleged that the witches always smeared his door-handle with butter after dark; and that to touch witch-butter would be detrimental to his next day’s catch, loss of tackle, broken bones, or general bad luck. Miss Betsy’s father died about forty-five years ago.

The fishers look on all maukens [hares] to be devils and witches, and if they but see the sight of a dead mauken, it sets them a trembling. Maukens are most terrible, and have bad luck, none will go to sea that day they see a Mauken, or if a wretched body put in a mauken’s fit in their creels, they need not lift them that day, as it will be bad luck, either broken backs, or legs, or arms, or hear bad accounts of the boats at sea.

St. Monans
Friday is ominous of evil, and no enterprise can succeed which commences on that day, a tradition being still in existence that St. Monan perished on Friday in a conflict with the malignant spirits. These superstitious ideas are, however, gradually declining, although a considerable remnant is still visible.
Jack, p. 75.

The superstitious feeling regarding the unluckiness of Friday continued to abide in the minds of many, especially of those in the seafaring trade. While Friday was considered an unlucky day, Sunday was thought to be the reverse, hence the old maxim,” Sunday sail, never fail.” This feeling has now almost vanished, but at that time some ship captains stoutly objected to sail on that day, or even on any other week-day, if they happened to meet on the morning of sailing with any one who was considered an unlucky person.
Stewart, p. 41.

St. Monans
Superstition held despotic sway over the inhabitants. There was always one amongst themselves on whom they looked with superstitious veneration, and by whose opinions their movements were generally regulated. How he acquired his pre-eminence is not fully ascertained. .
Under the baronship of Sir David Leslie [17th century], the oracle announced a valuable improvement in the science of demonology, touching the method of dissolving spell and removing enchantment. He experimentally proved that cold iron touched and named at the same instant, in any place, was an effectual antidote against the baleful effects of infernal sights, names, and cantrips, thus superseding the necessity of waiting the flux and reflux of the tide, or running to the kirk-stile and calling on the saint, either of which was extremely inconvenient and frequently unattainable.
Jack, p. 34.

An old experienced and efficient boatman at Limekilns and Charlestown, named John Knox, who will be remembered by many in connection with the Stirling and Grantown steamers, was in his younger days a sailor in a small sloop. The said vessel had got her cargo of lime all on board, but unfortunately had lain at Charlestown windbound for a fortnight. One fine morning a fair wind sprang up, and John and the mate got the vessel all ready for proceeding to sea. They were now only waiting the arrival of the skipper, who soon made his appearance. He at once told the men that it was of no use going to sea that day, for he had just met on his way to the ship that auld body Lizzie C——! This captain and others, when they passed “Auld Lizzie” on the road always put themselves between her and the sun. They thought she was endowed with the gift of second sight. This gift of second sight, as it was called, was possessed chiefly by the aged, those in “ the sunset of life,” hence the well-known words of the wizard in Lochiel’s Warning:

“‘Tis the sunset of life gives us mystical lore,
And coming events cast their shadows before.”

Stewart, pp. 41-42.

In Earlsferry the tradition is rife that the descendants of the men who ferried the Earl [Macduff] over are still known, and Saturday is counted a lucky day because on that day he is said to have crossed the Forth.

St. Monans
The herring fishing is a peculiar season, as it is generally more productive than any other, and there are more superstitions connected with it in many cases. When a boat returns in the morning. you may, with all freedom, ask where they have been fishing during the night, for, whether successful or otherwise, you will receive a polite answer; but when outward bound, no man may say, “Where are you going?” unless he be prepared to receive a broadside, this query being deemed very unlucky. To mention the surname of certain individuals at such a season is fraught with incalculable evil; therefore it is studiously avoided, they being called by the surname of their wives, and if single, they are surnamed after their place of residence, such as, the Wynd, the Nook, the Brae, etc.
Jack, p. 164.

St Monans
Till of late, there was no bell in the [Church] steeple, but this deficiency was made up by one suspended from a tree in the churchyard. This bell was regularly taken down during the herring-fishing season, it being alleged that the sound of the bell terrified and scared away the fish. On one occasion, however, this precaution was omitted, and the beadle commenced ringing the bell as usual, when the whole inhabitants of the Nether-town rushed simultaneously from their domiciles, as if the town had been in flames, ran furiously forward to the church­yard, threw the beadle over the wall, broke down the tree, and dashed the bell in pieces; and since that period, up to the nineteenth century, the beadle stood at the church door, ringing a hand-bell, to signify that public worship was about to commence.

This species of superstition received on this occasion considerable circumstantial support; for, before Monday, the fish, as it frequently happens, had shifted, and there was no take. The conclusion immediately was, the infernals, ever intent on mischief, being insulted by the kirk bell, had gratified their malice by carrying off the herrings or warping the nets in a spell.
JacK, pp. 72-3.

It is no less remarkable than true, that both in ancient and modern ages, a curious belief has existed on this coast, that should a man during the space of seven years make a regular excursion along the sea-beach every morning before the sun shows himself above the horizon, he would at the termination of that period, secure his fortune by discovering some casket of valuable treasure cast on shore by the waves.
Jack, p. 183.

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