The Scottish Traditional Boat Festival goes all superstitious

Red-headed Scottish Traditional Boat Festival volunteer Vivien Rae with seafaring superstitions guide

Visitors to the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Traditional Boat Festival at Portsoy (23rd-24th June) are being urged to observe centuries-old superstitions to help ensure the event is plain sailing.

The event’s organisers have been having a bit of fun: they have produced a ‘helpful’ online guide of dos and don’ts so that none of the 16,000 visitors unwittingly bring bad luck, including pouring wine over boat decks and talking to anyone you meet who happens to have red hair.

I’d suggest that last point could be a bit impractical – surely in a country like Scotland, which is supposed to have many flame-haired people, talking to all those red-heads could conceivably lead to missing a tide… And I don’t really warm to the idea of wasting wine in that way!

Many of the observances were to supposed to avoid angering the seas. Throwing stones into the sea was regarded as disrespectful, and would result in retaliation such as giant waves and storms.

Women were advised not to board any ships, as they would distract the men on board and that this would also anger the seas and cause bad luck for the vessel.

Animals had a part to play in all this – seeing a black cat was lucky, but no-one was allowed to say ‘pig’ when on board.

Even inanimate objects had a role… a stolen piece of wood built into a ship was thought to make a vessel sail faster.

Mike Smylie’s Herring: a History of the Silver Darlings is now in the shops

Mike Smylie Herring - A History of the Silver Darlings

Fishing historian Mike Smylie’s latest book Herring: A History of the Silver Darlingsexamines the effects of herring and the herring trade on the communities who catch them over the past 2000 years, including the way of life, superstitions and of course their boats.

Herring’s importance to the coastal peoples of Britain cannot be measured – at one time tens of thousands were involved in catching, processing and selling the fish from Stornoway to Penzance, and many towns on Britain’s East Coast grew rich as a result. In Herring: a History of the Silver Darlings Mike also explains the natural history of the herring and even includes recipes including baked buttered bloaters, salmagundy and super sgadan.

Also known as Kipperman, Mike Smylie has been researching the history of the herring for nearly 30 years. He has also written extensively on fishing vessels and the fishing industry, including the books Fishing the European Coast, Fishing Around the Bristol Channel and Fishing Boats of Cornwall published by The History Press. He often appears at maritime festivals smoking herring for the public.

‘O hear us when we cry to thee, For those in peril on the sea’

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The Storm by William Miller

The Storm engraving by William Miller after Van de Velde, published in 1858.
From the Wikimedia

We’re in the midst of yet another storm here in the UK. I might have enjoyed them as a child, but now they set my mind racing, first to worrying about safety on the roads and to property such as houses and boats, and then I start thinking of those at sea, and finally the lifeboat crews who have to go to sea in a storm that’s already raging when they leave the land. It’s enough to stop me sleeping, but in the scheme of things that’s a minor irritation.

Last night I found myself thinking about grandeur and truth of the hymn For Those in Peril on the Sea.

Here are the lyrics complete with written-out music.

Here they are again with a playable midi sample.

Here The Daily Telegraph newspaper tells the hymn’s story.

For a little history, read a historical discussion of how Scottish fishermen coped with storms before the days of weather forecasts and also about how storms affected the fishing community at Polperro, Cornwall.

Again, here’s a 19th century story of heroism in the North-East of England.

I’ve also been thinking about the terror of going out onto a big sea in a small open without the benefit of a weather forecast. No doubt that spawned a host of superstitions and the slightly neurotic activity described in the song The Candlelight Fisherman. There’s a joke that some allegedly lazy fishermen wouldn’t go if the flame didn’t blow out, on the grounds that there would be no wind to carry them home, and like most jokes I’m sure it had some grain of truth.

Also, see Out on a Shout, the RNLI’s rescue activities as they happen. In case you’re wondering, there have been a lot of launches in the bad weather of this winter.

I started off by saying that we’re thinking about storms here in the UK, but I’d argue the weather is making many of us think of more than just the weather. Stay safe and stay alive, everyone.

PS – If you get a moment, print out the Miller engravings – on some nice paper, they could be just what you need to hang on your wall!

The Shipwreck, engraving by William Miller after J M W Turner

The Shipwreck engraving by William Miller after JMW Turner, published
as part of a series of 120engravings from Turner’s paintings.
From the Wikimedia

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