Sea-Faring Traditions

The following article was published in the January 2020 Spotlight Magazine – Inverness and District; Nairn and District; Forres and District; Buckie, Keith and District; Turriff, Huntly and District; Strathspey and District and Lewis and Harris editions.

This article is in response to a reader’s request for information about traditions in fishing communities. This is an area where we have plenty of very good collections of traditions thanks to the sharing of stories and information that was commonplace in port villages. As such, it is a vast area of cultural research, but here is a small insight:

Any job at sea has inherent dangers. Many of Scotland’s coastal communities have relied upon the sea for income, food and survival since the earliest human inhabitations. As a result of the danger and the reliance upon powerful natural forces, it is little wonder that traditions and superstitions have developed.

Fishing and survival from the sea was already firmly rooted before Christianity was introduced to Scotland by the Scot-Gaels of Ireland and so, a combination of complex belief systems can be found within fishing traditions.

Every area has its own traditions and some of these are repetitions or adjustments on traditions which exist worldwide, like the belief that crossing paths with certain beings on the way to a boat is a sign of ill fate at sea. Examples of this in Scotland are the belief that meeting a cat, raven, rabbits, dogs or hares; which may be otherworldly beings in disguise, is a sign of extreme danger.

Upon meeting one of these creatures, a seafarer would return home, cross the threshold, and begin the journey to the harbor again. An unlucky sailor would have to repeat the journey several times!

The same was practiced upon the meeting of a minister en-route to the boat in some communities. It was also deemed to be incredibly dangerous to mention a minister either by name or position whilst at sea. This is thought to derive from the ‘sea-gods’ being pre-Christian or un-Christian. There are many examples of sea-gods and beasts around the Scottish coast, all of which appear to have developed as a way to explain the forces of nature by those who experienced them at close-quarters.

Forget St. Columba’s freshwater Loch Ness Monster; saltwater beasts such as the Shoney of Lewis, Manann MacLir and the Muireartach should instill much greater fear! The first two were similar to Davy Jones and are said to hold drowned sailors in their ‘locker’. The Muireartach was a hag of the sea, ready to create storms to drown the sailors at any moment. These un-Christian and other older beasts may also go some way to explain the use of an aquatic beast by St. Columba to evoke respect from those he was trying to convert.

Mermaids were no different, with a belief at Buchan and Peterhead that these sea-beings would entice boats onto specific rocks. This is similar to beliefs in fishing villages around the Minch, where the Blue Men of the Minch, who float waste deep in water, would lure ships onto rocks unless those on board could complete the verses of poems they were reciting in the water.

There are, as you can imagine, many more examples. But what should we make of these traditions? Are they mere fanciful storytelling? Or are they a deeper part of our cultural memory and understanding which have some historical and cultural truth? As with so many examples in our folklore, the latter is certainly true.

On the most basic level, they attempt to explain things like quick weather changes. But on deeper levels, there are examples of eyewitness testimony to shipwrecks, skilled insights into weather systems and efforts to ensure that the longevity of a fishing community would understand the fragility of the world in which they were toiling to survive. The records we have of these things are fragile and, like all heritage, must be conserved and recorded for future generations wherever possible.

If you have a topic you’d like to find out more about, or have local traditions and stories to share, please e-mail and visit to book your bespoke guided tour!

Andrew Grant McKenzie MA (Hons) FSA Scot


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