Fishing has always been a dangerous life and many of Scotlandís fishing communities have had to cope with tragedies and hardship. To give themselves the best chance of survival, fishermen wanted to ensure that they had good luck. Fisher folk acquired a reputation for being superstitious and following rituals, including superstitions about words. Herring were called siller darlins because fishermen believed that if they used the name herrin the fish would stay away. Other words were considered unlucky and people often used code names to get round this problem. Many of the Scots words used in this way are very descriptive. Pigs were called grunters and salmon were called redfush. A dog was a beelie-biter and a horse was a hairy-tailed craitur.
The fishing industry has totally changed, but the older traditions are celebrated in festivals and gaitherins. Eyemouth still has its Herrin Queen Festival at the end of the season. A theatre production by Kenny Ireland based on the wonderful Neil Gunn novel Silver Darlings has toured Scotland recently. It gives a touching portrait of a family forced to take to fishing after the Highland Clearances forced them off the land. Folk songs such as Lady Nairneís well known Caller Herrin record how important fishing was:
Caller Herrin (fresh herring)
Buy my caller herrin!
Though ye may ca them vulgar farin,
Wives and mithers, maist despairin,
Ca them lives o men.
Wastlin (west coast) herrin was another less familiar cry. Wastlin herrin were often considered the pick of the market. Poets have also made reference to the cries of fisher wives (gudewives or luckies). Robert Fergusson does this in Leith Races:
The Buchan bodies throu the beech
Their bunch o Findrums cry
An skirl out baul, in Norland speech,
'Guid speldings fa will buy?'
Findon (pronounced 'Finnan') is in the Mearns and this is where finnan-haddie originated. This dish is a great favourite with visitors to the area. Finnan-haddie were often smoked over peat or hardwood sawdust. When there was no suitable chimney, the haddock were smoked in an old cask open at both ends. In her book The Scots Kitchen (1963) F. Marian McNeill adds a note to 'Mrs. Dalgairn's Recipe' which refers to the word 'Findrums' for haddock: 'in the 18th century, the hard, salty, peat-cured haddock were known as Findrums'.F. Marian McNeill records other traditional fish recipes in this book. You can try recipes entitled cabbie-claw (in the Shetland dialect, a young cod is a kabbilow), or the Edinburgh dish salmon hash (sometimes called Tweed Kettle). Crappit (or stappit) heids was another popular dish. The words crappit and stappit both mean 'stuffed'. The dish is mentioned in Sir Walter Scottís Guy Mannering; or, The Astrologer (1815): 'Run up to Miss Napierís up o the Squar, and say I wad be sair obleeged till her for crappit heids.'
Other traditional methods of cooking fish which use Scots words are recorded in The Scots Kitchen with words such as blawn fish which means that the fish are hung up to dry in an open passage or somewhere there is a good current of air. In Orkney, cuiths (Shetland piltocks and in the Hebrides cuddies) are prepared in this way. Other fish are smoked as the term reisted in the reek describes beautifully. Arbroath smokies are renowned worldwide. You might be less familiar with haggamuggie which is a sort of fish haggis. The muggie is the stomach of a fish.
There are many other fish festivals to enjoy in Scotland which celebrate these older traditions, such as the St. Monans Sea Queen Festival. There is a fish festival in Fraserburgh at the end of July if you are visiting at that time and one in Aberdeen in August which has exhibitions and demonstrations. You can find out more about any of the Scots words used in this article in the Dictionary of the Scots Language.
Jarvie, F. (1995) Festivals in Scotland. (part of the Scotties series). Edinburgh: NMS Enterprises Ltd.
McNeill, F.Marian (1963) The Scots Kitchen. Glasgow: Blackie and Son Ltd.