------------ STONEHAVEN GENEALOGY ------------
----- WEEKLY UPDATE SEPTEMBER 12, 2004 -----
FISHER LIFE & HABITS IN PORTLETHEN - 1895
PART 1 OF 2
I would like to thank Stuart Christie who sent me the
following thesis from 1895.
(With special thanks to Philippa Crabbe) ENJOY!
Fisher life and habits in relation to disease, with special
reference to the question of intermarriage
(An M.D. Thesis by Robert Haldane Cook, M.D., C.M. Portlethen
Law Library, University of Aberdeen, 1895, Transcribed by
The writer, until recently held the universally accepted
opinion that marriage between cousins was responsible in
many cases for insanity, lack of intelligence, poor physique,
and albinism. For the past two and a half years however, he
has had excellent opportunities of observing a small community
of about 340 people, where inter-marriage has been a custom
handed down from father to son, and his observations have led
him to change his opinion entirely, so far as this community
is concerned. With regard their life and habits, the following
pages go to show that though the sanitary arrangements are of
a most rudimentary kind, yet, for various reasons, the general
health is most satisfactory. The writer has been absolutely
the sole medical attendant of this community for the past two
and a half years.
The fishing village of Portlethen, of which this thesis treats,
lies on the coast of Kincardineshire, about eight miles distant
from the towns of Aberdeen and Stonehaven. It is triangular in
shape with the base to the sea. It lies on a considerable slope,
the first house being 100 feet and the last, 160 feet above the
sea level. The houses are built in rows across the slope facing
the sea, and are nearly all joined on to each other, only a few
being detached. The distance between the rows varies from 40 to
90 feet, and between some of the rows there are small garden
plots, & an occasional wooden house, in which the fish are smoked.
There are 17 houses, 6 being vacant. The streets or roads are of
the most rudimentary description. Between the months of October &
April, they are simply mud with stones of various sizes sticking
up through it. The back wall of a row of houses rises out of a
ditch varying in depth from l to 6 feet. During wet weather, the
rain water gathers in these ditches and as they have no drains,
it remains there for a considerable time, gradually sinking into
the ground. Each house is provided with a midden into which all
the refuse, including water, is poured. Most of these middens are
between the rows of houses, so that the water from them finds its
way by gravitation into the ditches at the back of the next row.
Most of the household water is however thrown right out at the door.
The drainage of the village is very primitive. There are two drains.
The main drain runs from the top of the village down the centre,
taking the course of one of the roads. It is built of stone and
lime, is 18" square and is 6 ft. from the surface. It is in good
working order. Into this main drain channels run frombetween the
various rows of houses. These channels are about 3" deep and are
open. The end, some in iron branders, others in a hole which
communicates with the drain. But they enter very slightly into the
lives of the inhabitants, for as we have seen, they mostly fling
their liquid refuse either into the middens, or straight out at the
door. The other drain runs on the north side of the village from in
front of the highest row of houses. It is about 12" below the
surface and being built without lime, is frequently choked. There
are channels run into this drain from between the rows of houses
just as in the case of the main drain. Both drains discharge their
contents separately, 20 yards in front of the first row of houses,
at an altitude of 95 feet from the sea level. The drainage then
finds its way over grassy cliffs down to the sea.
The soil is generally speaking, clayey with occasionally patches of
gravel, the whole resting on a basis of hardpan.
Temperature: Mean annual-F 45; Summer mean -F 58; Winter mean -F 37
Rainfall: Mean annual -32.5 in. with 193 wet days on the average
The village has no shelter of any kind, and is exposed to the full
force of every wind that blows. No one wind is particularly prevalent,
but as a general rule, more winds come off the sea than off the land.
PRIVIES & MIDDENS
Such a thing as a privy is unknown. There never has been one in the
village. The men deposit their excrement all round the outskirts of
the town, according to where their houses are situated. Some go over
the walls on either side of the village, while some go to the cliffs
in front or on either side of it, with the result that the immediate
vicinity is in a disgusting state. According to the weather and the
time of day or night, the women follow the example of the men, or
else throw their excrement from a pail into the middens. The
children are even less fastidious then their parents with consequent
defilement of the streets, more especially about the doors. There is
no scavenger in the village and individuals do not attempt to supply
his place. The middens which contain household refuse, human excrement
and fish offal, are emptied by various farmers who come at their own
convenience, so that a midden is often full to overflowing. Some of
the men pay almost the whole of their rent from the produce of their
The water supply is plentiful and good, coming to a cistern at the
top of the village from the hill behind it. There are four pumps in
the main streets.
Within doors, things are much more pleasant. Except where drunken
or thriftless habits prevail, the interiors of the houses aremarvels
of cleanliness; and this is more striking when one considers the
state of things around the very doors. Three times a year everything
is taken outside and cleaned, in the most thorough manner, while the
interior of the house is treated with soap and water or whitewashed,
as the case may be. The woodwork in the better class houses is left
unpainted and is scrubbed with soft soap and sand, so that in a few
years it gains a most beautiful polish. Even the rafters are so
treated. Once a week the houses are cleaned and every other day all
about the fireplace is whitewashed. The outside walls of most of the
houses are also frequently whitewashed.
Such a state of affairs is not found in every house, and a small
minority of them are as remarkable for filth as the majority are for
cleanliness. The houses themselves are mostly old and thatched, the
newer ones being slated and rather larger than the old ones. They
are all very draughty, none of them having porches, while as often
as not, the door has to be left open to make the fire draw. All the
houses consist of two rooms - a "but" and a "ben" with a loft above,
where nets, oars etc., are kept. The family live and carry on their
work in the "but" end, and here they clean fish and bait their lines,
except during the summer months.
In many houses they also smoke fish in a large open chimney at the
side of the ordinary one. Some have smoking houses for this purpose.
In many of the newer houses the floor in the "but" end is wooden,
but in most cases it is earthen. There is one box-bed in this room.
In the other room, or "ben" end, there is always a wooden floor and
from one to three box-beds, according to the size of the family.
This is the principal sleeping room and is always used as the lying
It is a matter of common observation that fishers, both men and
women are as a rule, very clean and tidy in their personal appearance.
One reason of course is that their market depends quite as much on
their own appearance as on that of their fish.
LIGHT & FIRING
It is about thirty years since the last "cruisie" was burnt with its
spluttering light and stinking flame. Instead of the pith of a rush
and fish oil, we find good paraffine lamps and occasionally candles.
Peat is the universal fuel, the village being about a mile from a
peat moss. The peats are burnt on the open hearth stone above which
is a large chimney occupying one third of the end of the house. Coal
is seldom used.
Fishers as a class may be said to wear more clothing than ordinary
people and those in the village of Portlethen bear out the statement.
The men always wear flannel next to the skin, above that, one, two
or three ordinary cotton shirts, and then the distinctive garment
of the fisherman - the surcoat. This is a shirt which opens all the
way down the front. It is made of coarse blue serge. On the legs
they wear thick flannel drawers - one or more pairs, according to
their thickness, or the season of the year. Their trousers are of
heavy blue cloth. At sea they wear long waterproof leather boots
which reach the hips and their costume is completed by a double
breasted waistcoat with sleeves, of similar material to the trousers.
They always discard this garment when at work on the oars, or the
lines, but resume it again when sailing. One or two of the old men
still adhere to the fashion of their youth, and instead of flannel
drawers wear tailor--made knee breeches of blue cloth. In warm
weather one sees them going about the village in this picturesque
attire, having left off their trousers.
The women wear a white cotton chemise next to the skin, stays, two
or more jackets of cloth, a knitted jacket, and a small shawl
around their neck and shoulders. In cold weather they add another
shawl which they wear round the head. Only a few of the older women
wear the white caps or "mutches". None of them wear drawers of any
kind, but always a white flannel petticoat, above which they wear
two or three skirts of heavy blue serge. The top one is generally
"kilted", a custom peculiar to fisherwomen. The children are clad in
much the same way as their parents, but there is a growing tendency
to use ready-made clothing which is very much inferior to the
splendid blue -serge and blue cloth which the older people wear.
A small percentage of the younger men, & nearly all the girls and
younger women, On a Sunday, wear clothes similar to those of their
neighbours in the country. thus losing their celebrated
picturesqueness. It is a fact worthy of notice however that
directly the morning service is over, they once more resume their
Watch for PART 2 of this most fascinating thesis in next weeks
Jim Allan, Moderator
Victoria, B.C. CANADA
STONEHAVEN WAR MEMORIAL
ANESFHS Member 10387