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Traditions and Superstitions of Newhaven

Fishing communities all over the world accepted that a supernatural realm controls their destiny.  Without irony or awkwardness this attitude was also paralleled by their unquestioning belief in the Almighty.  Newhaveners were no different.  The superstitions that guided them existed to both save their lives and to explain the unknown.

Tom McGowran’s authoritive story of Newhaven, Port of Grace reported on just a few.  Some of their superstitions had a degree of reasoning, many bible based, some were just plain daft to the modern way of thinking.

If a black cat, someone physically deformed in some way or a red-headed woman was encountered by a fisherman on his way to the harbour, he would turn back.  If a fishermen was greeted by someone who bid him “Good Morning”, he would turn back.  If he met a minister on his way to the fishing, he would turn back.  It is surprising the fisherman ever got to sea at all!

Some beasts or names could not be used once on board:- rabbits, hares, foxes, beetles, cockroaches or salmon all had their alternative names.  A pig was a particularly bad omen and to speak the name would result in the fisherfolk touching something metal and saying out loud “Touch cauld iron”.  

It was considered ill-fortune if someone sweeping the deck touched a net for he would be sweeping good luck overboard.  For the same reason of giving away good luck, you couldn’t seek a light from another’s pipe; a match to light it would have a bit broken off the end of the match if given away.

It was taboo to have a woman or a minister on board a fishing vessel.

Superstition also formed traditions such as weddings.  Even up to the late 19th century, weddings became a week long celebration of nuptials for the young couple beginning on the Monday with each dressing in their wedding finery and each going around their own relatives with suitable libation to invite them to the forthcoming marriage.  The following day, it was the turn of their young friends to be invited again with appropriate lubrication.  On the third day, fiddlers led a procession through the streets, and on the fourth, a feast called the Feetwashing was celebrated.  

Friday was the day of the ceremony when separate procession of the groom and his groomsmen dressed in their finery of blue coats, velvet waistcoats and white trousers and the bride’s procession of the women in their “braws”  — brightly-coloured striped skirts and paisley shawls — would proceed to the manse or to the bride’s home where the knot was tied.  Then a procession of all the wedding company and guests would parade around the whole of the village led by two fiddlers to the reception usually in the Peacock Inn or Marine Hotel.  Each guest would pay half a crown toward the expense except the bachelors who would pay 5 shillings. As many as a hundred couples would cross the threshold on a wedding day.

At the end of the dancing and revelries, came the bedding of the couple with many practical jokes being played upon them.  The following morning, the groom was roused by his supporters and made to prove his virility by shouldering a creel filled with stones until his new bride came out to redeem him with a kiss.

Another tradition - borne out of necessity in a village where so many intermarriages took place - was the use of nicknames.  Often bestowed at childhood but sometimes awarded from the workplace it was a name that stuck with the person the rest of their life.  Women generally retained their original surnames at least amongst the community although not on official documents.  The menfolk used this tradition when signing for their pay when their own surname was appended by their wife’s maiden name.

Newhaven Fisherwomen 1847

Artist : David Octavius Hill

Five fisherwomen from Newhaven, Edinburgh gather beside a stone wall. They are wearing striped skirts, aprons, black cloaks and white bonnets or scarves. One is carrying a creel and another lies on the ground in front of the group.

Picture courtesy of Edinburgh City Libraries and Museums —

Supported by Newhaven Action Group which is recognised as a Scottish registered charity: OSCR Number: SC042050