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Music & Dance

Folk Music

Singing The Fishing "Singing the Fishing" was one of a series of Radio Ballards, produced in the early 1960s by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker. The record incorporates songs and dialogue by the directors and others (e.g., Sam Larner, George Draper, Frank West and some Herring Lassies).

The overall effect is evocative of the life of fishermen and their families in the heyday of the fishing industry. Sam Larner is of particular interest in that he first went to sea in 1892, during the days of sail. At the age of 84 years he recorded his songs and stories here with vitality, and conveys to us something of the sound of those far-off days. This is complemented by the lively song of two Herring lassies. Many of these girls worked in Yarmouth and Lowestoft, having travelled around the coast to gut and pack the herring wherever it was caught. With the deminse of the herring fishery in the 1950s/60s this way of life sadly come to an end - and the herring lassies ceased to visit the ports where they added to the local life and colour.

Fiddle Music

William Wilson Among the various instruments used by fishermen on which to play their music, the fiddle seems to have been especially popular. This picture of William Wilson was taken in the early twentieth century when he was working in Hudson Bay, Canada. He was born in Gramsay, and lived his later years in Stromness. (With thanks to George Simpson, of Stromness, who provided the picture and recalled Mr Wilson.)

Violin This picture of this fiddle was taken with the kind permission of the curator of Orkney museums. The note with the fiddle in its display case says:

"Handmade tin fiddle: After his wooden fiddle got broken on board a herring boat, James Foubister of Newbanks in Deerness made this tin one, which survived. (Loaned by Mr Stanley Horne of Edinburgh)."

The quality of work here is a tribute to the fiddle's maker.

The fiddle can be seen in Stromness museum.


Many fishing ports had and have Fishermen's/Fisherlassies choirs, some of which still perform today. Examples here are the Filey Fisherman's Choir, The Loftus Fisherman's Choir and the Staithes Fisherman's Choir. They usually dress in ganseys with their town's traditional patten.

The Newhaven Fishergirls Choir, made up of local girls, was begun by a schoolteacher in c1900. The choir survived almost a hundred years, holding its final event in 1995. Titles of songs included: "The Lassies O' the Creel", "The Lifeboat Crew", "Cheery Jenny of Newhaven". "Oor Sonsy Fish Lassie" and "Caller Herrin'"

A Newhaven Fisherwoman's Choir was formed by accident! While members of a local Liberal meeting were waiting for the speaker to arrive, the women passed the time by singing.... The result was the formation of a choir in c1930, although this, too, has since folded (in 1977).

Although there are a large number of choirs around the coasts of Britain, with several in fishing ports, very few are specifically "Fishermen's choirs". The following are perhaps the most well-known - with a surprisingly high number based in Yorkshire:

The Filey Fishermen's Choir came into existence in the early 19th century, when the Primitive Methodist preacher, John Oxtoby, sought to convert the village population. Music was a popoular pastime, and the local churches soon introduced a number of innovations, such as the Filey Mission Bands and the Filey Fishermen's Choir. The choir became so popular that the fishermen, who would not fish on Sundays, travelled widely around the area to sing in churches and chapels. Following a break during the Second World War, the choir was reformed in 1960 to sing at the renewed custom of the Harvest of the Sea, Service of Song - 38 fishermen being recruited from the pubs, homes and harbour. In recent years despite the dramatic decline in the local fishing industry, the choir has continued with a few of the remaining fishermen and the support of local men who make up the lost numbers. The choir continues to sing at venues across the region, and has recently visited Holland to perform in the Dutch fishing port of Scheveningen. In return the Sheveningen Immanuel Choir visited Filey in May 1998.

The Filey Fishermen's Choir and the Staithes Fishermen's Choir have both recently produced tapes, videos and CDs of their music. And both continue using their talents to raise funds for local charities.

The Staithes Fishermen's Choir also seems to have developed in the 19th century. It, too, ceased to exist for a period in the mid-20th century - but was revived in 1985, and has since performed over 400 concerts.

The Marske Fishermen's Choir, of the village of Marske by the Sea on the North Coast of Yorkshire, was formed in the 1960s. After a hard day's fishing the men met at the Ship Inn to talk, tell stories and sing. An annual day trip in August took them to Staithes or Whitby, where the men enjoyed themselves visiting the pubs, meeting local fishermen and singing to the accompanyment of a banjo and accordian. When the pubs closed they gathered on the quayside where they continued their singing. Gradually the singing took on a more formal shape and metamorphosed into the Marske Fishermen's Choir, holding its first concert perfomance in December 1968. The choir has continued to grow in strength and now performs a wide variety of songs in a wide range of venues. As with other such choirs the group has produced tapes and CDs, and has raised thousands of pounds for charity over the last 35 years. The choir is currently made up of 24 members - in their own words, of 6 squeakers, 9 grunters and 9 groaners!

Perhaps the largest and most well known internationally of the fishermen's choirs is the Polperro Fishermen's Choir of Polperro, Cornwall. The choir, which was formed in 1923 by Eva Cloke and Thomas Mark (a lay preacher known localy as the "Fishermen's Bishop"), is immensely popular, its activities include having given performancies in the USA and Australia, and an appearance on Songs of Praise. The choir's website provides a brief history of its work, and lists the music available on CDs, tape and video. there is also a very full concert timetable. The site can be viewed at:


Dance is not usually associated specifically with fishing communties, although there are some notable exceptions such as the Sword Dance, with different versions being held on the island of Papa Stour in the Shetlands and at Flamborough in North Yorkshire.

The Papa Stour Sword Dance is described in Stella Shepherd's book, Like a Mantle the Sea (Pub. by the Shetland Times, 1971:93):

"We are particularly keen to have a photographic record of the sword dance, as it is so rarely performed. This dance is very unusual, almost unique. Unlike the Flamborough sword dance for eight men, this is performed by only seven men. Each man represents one of the saints of Christendom: St George of England, St James of Spain, St Denis of France, St David of Wales, St Patrick of Ireland, St Anthony of Italy and St Andrew of Scotland.

Led by the fiddler, they enter the room in single file. Each wears dark trousers, white shirt and a coloured sash over one shoulder, and carries a sword. They form up in a semicircle and stand, while St George speaks the prologue, addressing the assembled company, introducing each saint in turn and speaking of his prowess in the knightly arts. As each saint is named, he steps forward, holds up his sword and dances a few steps. After the prologue and introductions are over, the dancers form a circle and begin to weave an intricate series of patterns and movements, stepping over the swords which link them, and going under the swords held up to form arches. The lacing and interlacing culminates in a dramatic climax when the swords are formed into a seven-pointed star, held aloft by St George. Each man reclaims his own sword, shoulders it, and St George recites the epilogue, after which they march out in single file accompanied by the fiddler."

A description of the dance can also be found in early editions of Sir Walter Scott's novel, The Pirate. (Incidentally, the novel is based on the exploits of John Gow, of the fishing town of Stromness in the Orkneys, who was executed in London in 1725)

The Flamborough Sword Dance is performed on occasions and at various venues through the year, but especially on Boxing Day.

Flamborough Sword Dance 2003
Photo S. Friend, Dec 03.
The dance has eight men (two more than the usual six, and one more than the seven men in the Papa Stour sword dance), dressed in blue fishermen's ganseys, white trousers and flat caps. Sword dances usually involve swords, but the Flamborough dancers prefer wooden sticks, or 'laths', which are held in the left hand rather than the right. As such, they appear to represent implements rather than swords, and may symbolise the making and repairing of nets. The "swords" are usually made of ash or larch, and measure about 3 feet in length. The dance involves an intricate weaving and threading pattern, symbolic of 'threedling' the fishing nets.

The dance appears to have developed during the 19th century. The earlist account seems to have been recorded in the Bridlington and Quay Gazette on 3 Jan 1891. Cecil Sharpe later recorded dance in 1911, and in a letter to a friend he said

"On the whole the Flamborough dance may be regarded artistically and from a spectacular point of view as one of the best of Yorkshire sword dances."

Flamborough Sword Dance 2003
Photo S. Friend, Dec 03.
There is also a children's team. The children dress identically to the men, but wear red hats rather than flat caps. Although traditionally a men's dance, the event continues to change and develop. There was, for example, a Flamborough Sword Dance boys team in 1910-12. On a visit to observe the dance I asked if women are excluded - but was assured that this is not so, although the women have not recently come forward to join the dance.

For a while in the 20th century the dance ceased to be performed, but was reintroduced to the village by a women's team in the 1950s, and was also later performed by a school-children's team. In the 1970s the men's team was revived, and in recent years the team has performed outside the village, notably visiting Belgium and dancing in front of Antwerp Cathedral.

The members of the team, the village and the local school, all regard the dance as a vital, and changing, custom of their heritage.