Fisherfolk and the Ladyhead
St Andrews is one of the most ancient sea ports in Britain. From the fifteenth century onwards the fishing industry grew across Scotland, leading to an increase in the building of harbours. By the eighteenth century these primitive harbours had developed into bustling commercial ports, supporting close-knit communities of fisher people.
During this time, the waters around St Andrews were a rich source of white fish and herring. Local fishermen used line-fishing techniques from small boats which struggled to cope with the demand. They also struggled to compete with the large fleet of some 3,000 Dutch vessels, known as ‘busses’, which dominated North Sea fishing.
In 1765 a terrible storm in St Andrews Bay destroyed three out of the five boats belonging to the local fishing community, knocking the life out of this small industry for almost 50 years. It wasn’t until 1803, when local merchant Mr Cathcart Dempster organised the resettlement of fishermen from Shetland (Andrew Manson, Lowrie Davidson, Lowrie Burns and Archie Lister) and their boat to St Andrews, that the industry started to recover.
Throughout the nineteenth century the boats working out of St Andrews steadily grew in size and number. At its peak the fishing community, located at the east end of North Street, was home to around 200 families. This area was known as the ‘Ladyhead’, with families also living in the Royal George tenements at the harbour, now known as Shorehead. The area had its own shops, school, pubs and social clubs; the fisher people were a community in their own right.
Fisher women played an important role at work, home and in the community. Although men went out on small boats to collect mussels, the women often took the three mile route (known as the Mussel Road) to the mouth of the Eden estuary to collect them. In both summer and winter this was done bare-foot and the shells and rocks caused bad cuts on their numbed hands and feet. Once the mussels were collected the women carried them back home in heavy back creels.
The fisher women undertook most of the baiting of the lines, net-mending, fish-gutting, and fish-hawking (selling) as well as domestic chores and childcare. Women also helped to launch boats at the harbour, and they would often carry their husbands to their boats in order to keep the men’s clothes dry.
The invention of steam trawling in 1882 revolutionised fishing. Trawlers brought in huge quantities of fish which lowered prices and rendered line-fishing uneconomical. Fish stocks were reduced and fishing in the smaller ports like St Andrews began a gradual decline. St Andrews’ fleet of 145 boats in the mid-nineteenth century had depleted to only eleven by 1906.
The decline of the fishing industry in St Andrews also brought social reforms that effected the fisher people. Housing conditions had declined at the Ladyhead in the late nineteenth century, and overcrowded and uninhabitable housing had worsened at the Ladyhead and harbour over several decades.
In the 1930s much of the area was condemned. This resulted in many of the fishing cottages, complete with their traditional outside stair, being demolished. The development of St Gregory’s had provided some fisher families with new housing in the 1920s, but most were still living in substandard accommodation.
St Andrews Town Council acknowledged the need for new social housing and the first development to open was Boase Avenue in 1936. The Royal George tenements were considered unfit for human habitation, along with homes from the other ‘clearance areas’, and families made their way to new housing at Boase Avenue.
While these new homes provided a better living conditions for the fisher families, they were not practical for the needs of their occupation. Not only were they further away from the harbour, but they offered no storage facilities for nets and fishing gear. This move to Boase Avenue effectively brought the end of the fishing community in St Andrews.
One of the houses saved from demolition was 12 North Street, now the home of the St Andrews Preservation Trust’s Museum. Although it is approaching 100 years since there was a fishing community in St Andrews, the house continues to tell the story of this once thriving way-of-life.