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Fishing Folklore: how to stay safe & how to be lucky at sea

Posted on 03.07.2020

Folklore and traditional folk beliefs are not just about ‘witches and fairies’ or about quaint old customs or irrational superstitions. Instead they are evidence of the different belief systems which have evolved over the centuries. These helped communities make sense of life in a pre-scientific and pre-literate world and are often about how to be lucky, ways to try and stop bad luck and are also about how to have fun!

Life was often precarious for many people in the past and a good or bad harvest on land or at sea could be the difference between a family being fed (respectable poverty) and destitution and near starvation. Added together with dangerous working conditions, the ever present fear of bad weather and storms, the high degree of ‘perceived’ luck in the success or failure of a boat’s catches, fishing was potentially one of the most dangerous and unpredictable of occupations. So it’s not surprising that fishermen and fishing communities throughout the British Isles and Europe have always been considered some of the most superstitious people and the Manx were no exception.

Some of the fishing traditions are fairly universal and can be found throughout the British Isles and further afield, whilst others are more specifically Manx. So what were the folk beliefs that provided the ‘rules and regulations’ for daily life (ones considered to have brought good luck and averted bad luck) for the Manx fishing community?

Fishing in all weather (rough weather but still catching fish) Ref. 1972-0205

Calm moonlit night (but possibly too calm & becalmed for fishing) Ref. 1991-0167

Perfect sailing conditions (and full nets) Ref. 1962-0235

Safe home through the storm (why fishermen wanted as much good luck as possible) Ref. 1990-0301

What can you say & what can’t you say?

The most significant and obvious folklore associated with ‘the fishing’ is the prohibition of certain words that were not to be used in general conversation and definitely not whilst on board ship. It was considered highly unlucky to name certain four-legged creatures (such as rats, rabbits, pigs and cats) and fish, therefore noa (new) words had to be used instead. Traditionally, fisherman would use terms such as bunny instead of rabbit, fer lesh cleaysh liauyr or ‘fellow with the long ear’ instead of hare and scraaverrey or ‘scraper’ instead of cat. In the case of rats, these were known by a variety of names such as ‘longtails’, ‘ring tailed gentlemen’ and ‘ringies’. If someone was foolish or careless enough to use one of the prohibited and forbidden words on board a fishing boat, they would be punished with the use of coul’ iron (for example, the removal of a hot nut off the ship’s boiler with one’s teeth!). Iron was seen as a very strong remedy and protection against bad luck, it was the reason for putting the iron tongs across the cradle to stop the fairies taking a baby. The use of coul’ iron was also a punishment that ensured that the misdemeanour would definitely not be repeated. The offender, often a young and inexperienced cook/ cabin boys on their first voyage, only tended to ever make that mistake once. The concern over the use of prohibited words on board fishing vessels is still prevalent in the modern Manx fishing fleet, although the punishment is probably less exacting. The use of noa words has certainly developed and evolved over the years, as salmon are no longer known as Red fish, but are now known as ‘john westies’ (after the well-known brand of tinned salmon).

A brown hare or fer lesh cleaysh liauyr or ‘fellow with the long ear’ (be careful – could be an elderly neighbour who can turn into a hare) Ref: 2004-0075

Interestingly, the prohibition of the use of the word ‘rat’ has changed from being a custom specifically observed by fishing communities (and certain rural communities) to being an Island-wide phenomenon. Since the major influx of new residents to the Island in the 1960s, each successive wave is told during their first few months of residence that various terms cannot be used, for example: the Isle of Man Steam Packet vessel is the ‘boat’ not a ferry, the adjacent landmass to the east is referred to as ‘across’ not as ‘the mainland’ and most importantly there are no R-A-T-S just ‘longtails’. This informal Manx induction course means that the use of the word ‘longtail’ is now almost universal and is considered to be a Manx tradition of long-standing. As a result older Manx-born residents who still use the term ‘rat’ in conversation can often horrify those around them and start a chorus of “No! longtails!” together with much whistling to try and avert any possible bad luck from using the R-A-T word.

A brown rat or a R-A-T or ‘longtail’, ‘ring tailed gentleman’ and ‘ringy’. Ref 2001-0051

What’s lucky to have in your boat?

If a vessel had good luck and successful catches, it was felt that everything in the boat was as a result considered lucky. Therefore nothing could or would be lent from the vessel, because that would be giving away the good luck. As a result, great care had to be taken not to lose anything either at sea or in port and thereby potentially lose the good luck. Equally well, if a vessel had poor luck with its catches, they also had ways in which their luck could be increased, often by various nefarious means. This could be done by ‘stealing’ the good luck of another fishing boat, an act that was particularly prevalent when in port and one could gauge the success of other vessels by the size of the catches that they were landing. To ‘steal’ the good luck, one needed to take an item of little or no financial worth or consequence from the other boat, a particularly effective item for transferring good luck was a dish cloth (the older and dirtier the better). Therefore if your own vessel was doing well, you had to be particularly vigilant against other fishermen trying to steal things from your own boat (something you’d probably tried yourself on various other occasions). Together with trying to avoid the use of prohibited words (and the associated penalties), the poor young cook, often a lad no more than 13 or 14 years old, was also responsible for ensuring that nothing (including the good luck) was stolen from the fishing vessel whilst in port.

Peel – preparing for the mackerel fishing off Kinsale, Ireland. Ref: PG/1095

Fishing fleet in Kinsale harbour, Ireland (time to be careful and ensure no dish cloths get stolen & all your good luck) Ref: PG/5314/2.

Who don’t you want to meet when you’re about to go to the fishing?

There’s a lot of people who are unlucky to meet between leaving home and getting onto the fishing boat ready to sail. You don’t really want to bump into any women (in particular anyone with red hair) on the way to the quayside. Meeting clergy could a problem – the Catholic priest would probably be fine, although meeting the Vicar might be a problem. The one person and the unluckiest of all to bump into, would though be one of the Methodist minsters, if you were on your way to the boat. Finally, once you have set out for the boat, it wouldn’t matter what you’d forgotten to bring with you, it would be very unlucky to turn back to collect it – so you don’t – you go with what you’ve got with you.

What do you need to be careful of when leaving the harbour?

‘Three’ was considered the fishermen’s unlucky number, so Manx fishing boats would always try not to be the 3rd (unlucky) vessel to leave the port. This might mean trying to leave early as the 1st or 2nd boat out or hanging about until the 3rd boat left. One way though to ‘cheat the devil’ was for the 2nd and 3rd vessels to be lightly lashed together until the harbour mouth had been cleared, so that technically neither vessel was the 3rd to leave (according to the Ramsey Courier in 1926, a tradition still being observed as the reporter noted that ‘superstitions still cling to the Isle of Man herring fishery’).

Hopefully not the 3rd boat out of Peel. Ref: PG/5880/06

The following newspaper articles are about Manx fishing superstitions:

As well as trying not to be the 3rd boat out of port, the skipper also had to ensure that if he had to turn his boat in the harbour for any reason that he always did it ‘sunwise’ (clockwise). Everything had to be done ‘sunwise’ (clockwise) for good luck, whether that was turning a boat or even stirring the paint when painting the boat, it always had to be in the same direction as the sun moves (towards the right). Interestingly, this is part of a general folklore tradition found throughout Europe (but predominantly in Scotland and Ireland), where sunwise/ sunways (rightward/ clockwise) movement is considered to be lucky whatever one is doing while withershins (leftward/ anti-clockwise) movement is considered extremely unlucky – unless it was being used for cursing or ill-wishing and then it would be both appropriate and effective!

Paint to be stirred clockwise at all times. Ref: PG/14444/2/25

How to get bad luck out of a boat?

Sometimes it didn’t matter how much the fishermen tried to improve their luck, they still might need to finally resort to symbolically driving out back luck from a vessel and ‘cleansing’ it with fire and driving the ‘witch’ out of the boat. The ritual involved taking oakum (strands of rope) and tying them around the end of a stick, dipping it into tar and then setting it alight. The skipper, starting at the stem-head of the boat would then use the burning brand to symbolically ‘burn’ and drive out the ‘witch’ as the crew called out where the ‘witch’ was in the boat. This would be done over the full length of vessel with everyone looking in every nook and cranny of the boat for the ‘witch’. When finally the ‘witch’ was on the rudder-head and to get away from the flame, she would have to jump into the sea and the flaming torch would be thrown in after her and the bad luck would have been driven out of the boat.

What do you get for your money when you buy some good luck for the boat?

Good luck was also something that could be purchased (for a price) from one of the wise women or a Fairy Doctor on the Island. Some of the most popular and well-known people to go to for herbs were Nan Wade or Teare of Ballawhane (the Fairy Doctor). They would pick a selection of herbs to sell to the fishermen, which would then be boiled up and all the crew would drink the herbal mixture. The remaining liquid would be thrown over the nets and the luck (herbs) would then be tied to the tail of the net.

While at sea, if a vessel was becalmed and wanted wind, a knife would be stuck in the mast on the side the wind was wanted. Another way to ‘summon’ the wind was for someone to whistle (carefully whistling up the wind) as whistling ‘bothered the wind’. But the wind could also be bought in the form of a length of thread with knots in it from a wise woman (selling the wind) and as each knot was untied, it would provide the required wind (BUT never untie 3 knots or there will be a storm!).

Nan Wade, wise woman of Poortown, German. Ref: 1959-0270

Teare of Ballawhane (the ‘Fairy Doctor’) original pen & ink illustration by Archibald Knox for Sophia Morrison’s Manx Fairy Tales. Ref: 1970-0149/12

Witch or Wise Woman? (the Witch of Slieu Whallian). Printed book illustration by Archibald Knox for Sophia Morrison’s Manx Fairy Tales. Ref: 1970-0149/36

What to always carry with you?

Traditionally fishermen would carry a ‘Crosh Bollan’ (Bollan Cross) as a charm or good luck token, as protection against drowning and injury at sea. The ‘cross’ is actually the throat bone and part of the upper palate of a Wrass (a rock-fish). The Wrass is known as ‘Bollan’ in Manx Gaelic and its triangular shape was seen as representing the cross, so the bone became known as a ‘Crosh Bollan’ in Manx.

‘Crosh Bollan’ or fisherman’s charm. Ref: 1954-1713

So if you remembered to say the right things (and none of the forbidden words), didn’t meet anyone unlucky as you went down to the boat, weren’t the third boat out of the harbour, were careful about whistling or untying knots, kept hold of your dirty dish cloth in port and definitely didn’t upset the local wise woman or fairy doctor – you might just get some good catches and miss the stormy weather (if you’re lucky).

For further reading, check out:

  • Folklore bibliography (Manx National Heritage Library)
  • Folklore books in Manx National Heritage Shop

(Yvonne Cresswell, MNH Curator of Social History)

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