NEFA - The North East Folklore Archive

Customs and Beliefs

Fishers' Customs, Beliefs and Superstitions by Morag Skene

"Sky Pilots", "Sandy Campbells" and "Mappies"For some unknown reason the trout seemed to be an omen of bad luck and one caught in a working boat’s net resulted in a bad fishing season. In fact there seems to be a few creatures within this category where even to mention the name is a sure sign of impending disaster. As Peter Buchan describes in his book, this led to names being changed thus a pig became a “grunter” or a Sandy Campbell or “Sonnie Cammie”; the salmon became a “reid fish” or simply “caul iron” and the rabbit became a “fower-fitter” or a “mappie”.

"Sky Pilots", "Sandy Campbells" and "Mappies"

One man told the story of himself as a young lad coming home after a day’s shooting and proudly showing his fisher dad the one rabbit he’d managed to bag. In the man’s own words — “This gentle mannie ah’d kent a’ ma life wint aff his heid an’ accused me o’ bringing him bad luck. An’ it didna help ony fin ah suggested ah’d gie him it’s fit!”. One article I read even went as far to suggest that it was not an unknown practice for a dead rabbit to mysteriously appear on a rival’s boat.

Certain people also come into this category, namely women and Ministers. Women being the supposed bringers of bad luck has always been a mystery to me especially as many figureheads are in the form of a woman. Maybe this stems from the myth of mermaids luring boats to their doom. J. McPherson explains that in the early part of the nineteenth century one such incident supposedly happened to a Peterhead fishing boat. It is reported that a mermaid was seen ‘pitching upon the bowsprit of a small Peterhead vessel, causing the aforementioned boat to smash against rocks near Slains Castle. All hands perished except one.’ And in the words of Peter Buchan, again, the mere mention of the word ‘minister’ on board was and I think still is, considered to bring bad luck. They are therefore referred to as ‘sky-pilots’. I have been told that even to pass a minister on the way to the boat, especially on a Sunday, brought forth fears of impending doom. I found this attitude towards ‘men of God’ very strange but was informed (on good authority from a very learned ‘man of the cloth’) that this superstition stems from the story of Jonah and the Whale. “A very interesting story” he informed me. “In fact een ah shid ken better masel’!”

Certain actions were also strictly taboo, including whistling against the direction of the wind; turning a boat around that was heading out to sea and correcting a ‘ganzie’ that had been put on inside out by mistake. In ancient times no effort would have been made to save a drowning man or indeed bring ashore a drowned man or even to touch the corpse of a drowned man. It was believed bad luck would befall those who attempted the rescue because, as quoted by an R. Grant, fisherman during the last century, “The sea maun hae it’s nummer!”. The origin of this belief and many others seem to stem from pre-seventeenth century days when fishermen believed in a Sea God. A god which had to be constantly appeased by human sacrifice, whether official or accidental. Deprive him of that sacrifice and risk bringing forth his terrible wrath.

Some years ago I remember being told that the caul covering certain babies when they are born (there may be a local name for this), was at one time very sought after as a good luck mascot by fishermen and was nailed to the mast of the boat. I mentioned this to one retired Peterhead fisherman, “Na, na,” he said “they wir nivver nailed tae the mast. They wir worn ower the heid. Ye see, they thocht since the bairnie floated inside them fir nine months an’ nivver drooned, they’d surely be protected fae droonin fir the length o a trip!”. I’m sure he had a wee gleam in his eye as he walked away.

When it comes to objects, there seems to be some disagreement about the single gold earring worn by many fisherman — although I think nowadays it’s more a fashion statement — with some saying it is merely a good luck charm and others stating it acted as a kind of insurance policay — “it wid provide enough siller tae bury ye, shood ye dee in a strange port!”

One lady remembered her mother placing a coin (she thinks it might have been a shilling) in one of her father’s socks before every trip. Her mother believed this would protect him. And staying with metals, iron, in various forms, seems to be thought of as lucky. Hence maybe the saying ‘caul-iron’ in place of salmon. In fact I think ‘caul-iron’ was shouted immediately after the inadvertent use of any of the ‘taboo’ words mentioned earlier. Horse-shoes nailed to the mast were a common protection from bad luck, bad spirits and even witches. J McPherson says “I came across this verse (which may be part of a longer poem) addressed to Ann Silver —the last “spae-wife” (fortune teller, charmer) in Peterhead. It goes as follows:

Ann Silver says we’ll a’ be nip’d
And won’t get out the morn
But we’ll nail the horse-shoe to the mast
And let her blow her horn.”



‘The Fite Rubbit’ by Peter Buchan (from ‘Fisher Blue’).
‘Primitive Beliefs in the North-East of Scotland’ by J McPherson.

"Fishermen, who for their subsistance depend upon forces which they cannot control, are more open to emotions which give rise to superstitious feelings than any other body of men."
Findlay's History of Peterhead, 1933.

PS After Morag Skene spoke on Radio 4 about local superstitions the Archive received this letter from Dr Patrick of East Sussex:

"Listening to a recent Radio 4 programme about Peterhead, the commentator remarked that no one knew why local fisherman would not use the words 'salmon', 'pig' or 'rabbit'.

"I think a possible explanation is that these were very powerful pre-Christian and especially Celtic symbols relating to 'the old gods', in which case one can see how talking about them may have been taboo. There are many references to all three animals in Dr. Anne Ross's well-known book Pagan Celtic Britain (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967). Dr Ross is a Gaelic-speaker originally, I believe, from the Isle of Skye and she has gathered material from all over Britain but especially, of course, from Scotland. She points out that both the trout and the salmon were widely considered to be sacred creatures and the salmon especially revered by the Celts. Salmon, apparently, appear as symbols on Pictish stones too. In England and Wales they are thought to have been manifestations of the Celtic god Nodons.
The pig, or rather the boar, she says "is, without doubt, the cult animal par excellence of the Celts." Evidence from South Uist suggests possible veneration of the boar or pig about the turn of the Christian era. There are many old Welsh stories associated with magical boars, particularly Culhwch and Olwen.
Rabbits and hares seem to be interchangeable and, before the rabbit was introduced, the hare was regarded as a sacred animal by the British and there are many antiquities on which it is depicted. Among other things it was thought to be able transform itself into all sorts of different creatures, especially witches. The Cornish tin miners also have a complicated relationship with the rabbit. On this web site: it says: "Rabbits are an alchemical symbol for tin. To the ... tin miners of Cornwall and Devon, who also lived by burrowing tunnels into the earth, rabbits were considered lucky, feet included. On the rooftops of several churches in Devon are "tinner's rabbits" - three tin rabbits joined at the ear - bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Triple Goddess." Whatever was lucky in an earlier belief system would often, of course, become the reverse in whatever replaced it.
These trios of goddesses were widespread in pre-Christian Celtic Europe and are, according to Ross, "an iconographic statement of a fundamental Celtic belief in the threefold power of the divinity." Perhaps this points to an explanation as to why the names of three creatures are, or were, anathema to the fishermen. On a site about Welsh witchcraft the boar, the salmon and the hare all feature and are said to be associated with the goddess Ceridwen. She is famous for her cauldron and is often regarded as the archetypal model for the portrayal of the witch. The following from the on-line Encyclopedia Mythica has, I believe, some remarkable parallels with the fishermen's taboo words: "Ceridwen is a magician who features in the mythical version of the life of the genuine bard Taliesin. Ceridwen had an ugly son, Afagddu ("ugly"), whom she wished to make wise. She brewed a magical liquid and had her kitchen boy Gwion tend it. Three drops scalded his hand and he licked them off, instantly acquiring all the knowledge. In an ancient, ancient hunt she pursued him: first she became a greyhound and he a hare, then she an otter and he a fish, then she a hawk and he a rabbit. Finally, she became a hen and he a grain of corn, and she ate him. She became pregnant with him and he was born nine months later, a boy of astounding grace and beauty whom she named Taliesin and put into a coracle in the sea."

Dr. Patrick Roper, East Sussex

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