2/6 People & Songs of the Sea by Shona McMillan

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  • EAST LOTHIAN LIFE 30

    On 14 October 1881, a massivestorm hit the east coast ofBritain and from Edinburghto Eyemouth 189 fishermen

    were drowned. For the small fishingdependant town of Eyemouth the losswas catastrophic. Of those who had setout to fish on that calm sunny morning,129 did not come home. Known inEyemouth as Black Friday it was astorm which wiped out a generation ofthe towns men. In Scotlands close-knitfishing community it was a shared loss

    did I fully understand, but for Archiessurvival, I and my family line wouldnever have been born. Archie lived on,naming his boat the Provident (in thehands of God), he passed on the disastersstory, never forgetting the lives of thoselost. 125 years later, the People of the Seaarticle was to mark for me the beginningof a life-changing journey. Three yearslater, I have built an archive of thousandsof photos from which I have produced 20 exhibitions in Scotland. In associationwith Greentrax, I have also produced aPeople and Songs of the Sea compilationalbum (and educational booklet) with 21 tracks from Celtic musics finest artistsand fisher folk from the Forth. First in aseries of four on the albums fishingheritage, here I explain the personal storybehind People and Songs of the Sea.

    Born in Edinburgh, I grew up in ahouse with views from Leith to BerwickLaw and over the Firth of Forth to Fife.It was the only house my parents everbought because my mum, Jane (Jean)Ritchie Thorburn, needed to see the sea.Indeed, several times a day she wouldlook out to check the weather. Thatneed to know, was a continuation fromher life in a fishing family where those athome waited on the safe return of thoseat sea. Mums grandfather Auld Arch,Archie Thorburn was a fisherman andthen Fisherrows Harbour Master for 16 years. On Archies retirement, the postpassed on to mums father Billy and then

    on to his brother. On the female sidethere was an equally strong connection tofishing. Archie had married fishwife Jane(Jeannie) Ritchie and it was after her thatmy mum was named. The hard work offishwives was much respected,establishing their business when single,after marriage, they continued to beknown by their maiden name. Mum tookgreat pride in her name acknowledgingboth fishing familys from whom she wasdescended. To differentiate betweengenerations, by-names were used, Jeans

    People andSongs of the Sea. Shona McMillan reveals the personal story behind the project.

    The author, Shona McMillan, at Eyemouth harbour.

    Fishing boats in Fisherrow harbour.

    not to be forgotten. From a fishing familyin Fisherrow, the place from where theboat the Alice had been lost, I grew upaware of the disaster. I heard too of mygreat-grandfather Archies miraculousescape, washed from his boat but sweptback by a massive wave. Yet, not untilEast Lothian Life invited me to write anarticle for the disasters 125 anniversary Fisherrow Thorburns: L to R: Wilma, Jean, Billy, Lily,

    Crissie, Christina, Archie.

  • EAST LOTHIAN LIFE 31

    was Cloaker een (Dark eyes). Spendingmuch time with my grandparents inFisherrow, the passing on of thesetraditions was so natural I found itstrange when Edinburgh friends did notunderstand expressions like, its aMackerel sky (small broken clouds).Also passed on was my familys love formusic, my mum and grandparents, allfine singers. Indeed, my granny Crissiesang with Fisherrow Fishwives Choir andoh, how I loved to join with her at theFishermans Walk when the communitycame together to celebrate. Singing anddancing in procession through the town,the women in bright fishwives costumesof Paisley shawl, flowery blouse, navyapron and striped red and yellowpetticoats. These happy times were astrong part of my childhood but in theseventies, changes in the industry saw thefishing boats stop sailing from Fisherrowand the Fishermans Walk wasdiscontinued.

    Years passed and through my love ofmusic, I took up the fiddle and travelledextensively during my studies. Interestedin different cultures, I worked in tourismand moved to Inverness in 2003 to set upHighland 2007, a national celebration ofHighland culture. With familyconnections to Kinlochbervie, a weefishing village, I wanted to remain in theHighlands when my contract finished.Moving on to a permanent role inHighlands and Islands development, myremaining ties to East Lothian were myfamily but increasingly, I found myselfcollecting old postcards of the coast.

    familys history. The magazine came outat the time of my mums 80th birthday,21 May 2006. Celebrating at Fisherrow,we were looking out to sea when sheremarked its fine to celebrate Highlandculture but whos celebrating our culture?Eyemouths 125 is approaching. Is it nottime to celebrate the culture of the fishingcommunity? I agreed I could collect herstories but No she replied. Not me oreven our family, we are just a small partof that larger community and its all thesefolks who need remembering. I laughedat the enormity of that project but said I could make a start, take some photosand see where it went. Hearing of this,East Lothian Life invited me to write anarticle for Eyemouths 125.

    I increased my search for old photos;took my own photos, recorded and wrotedown what I heard. Mums stories hadled me to write my tribute to the 189 lostin 1881. I called the article People of theSea and dedicated it to her, Jean RitchieThorburn McMillan. It was an emotionalpiece to produce and even more so, todistribute at Eyemouths 125 event on the14 October 2006. Unknown to those whoread it, two weeks earlier when I hadcompleted it, that day, mum went in tohospital and cancer was diagnosed. Hadshe known her time was slipping away? Ido not know but all was done except onelast request. Jean wanted folks to cometogether and talk. Show that old photoof me, my sisters and friends collectingfor the RNLI at Fisherrow. I think peoplewould like to see that. A few days laterat her funeral, I distributed copies ofPeople of the Sea and put up her fisherchildren photo on display. I saw copies ofEast Lothian Life, with my People of theSea cover story on sale in the shops thatChristmas, it seemed that all I had set outto do was done. Yet, in the weeks whichfollowed, request, after request arrived.Were there more photos? Were there

    more stories? Would I do an exhibition? The first date for my mum and dad

    (Hugh) had been to Port Seton to watchthe fishing boats coming in. A storyunknown to me when I had chosen myphoto of Port Seton harbour for themagazine cover of People of the Sea.Visiting Port Seton library in 2007,approached about my photos and article,I was invited to do an exhibition in 2008over the 60th anniversary of Cockenzieand Port Setons Gala. Coinciding withwhat would have been my mums 82ndbirthday, I agreed. It seemed a way togive something back to the people of aplace which my folks had regularlyvisited over 50 years of marriage.

    A hundred came to the launch of myexhibition and 800 viewed it in its firstthree weeks. Scottish Borders CouncilConvener, Alasdair Hutton, opened myevent, Jane Fairnie in fishwives costumeled everyone in Will Your Anchor Holdand an impromptu ceilidh followed. RoyCarbarns on guitar, Graham Dixon onNorthumbrian pipes, myself on fiddle andsinging, John Carnie on guitar. The eventwas much enjoyed but was there a CD?

    For 2009s Year of Homecoming, adream formed in my mind. My visionwas to launch a programme of 14exhibitions for fishing communities fromEdinburgh to Eyemouth and over theFirth of Forth to the Scottish FisheriesMuseum in Anstruther. Accompanyingthese events, I wanted to produce acompilation album in association withGreentrax Recordings of Cockenzie.Combining music, stories, photos and art,I saw a legacy project in celebration ofthe rich cultural heritage of Scotlandsfishing. On the 21 of May 2009, Peopleand Songs of the Sea was launched inCockenzie.

    In my following articles, I detail thestories reflected by the albums 21 tracks.

    Jean Thorburn (2nd from right) with sister Wilma (1st right) Christina is holding the RNLI flag.

    Gran dancing at the Fishermans Walk.

    Then, on a visit to Fisherrow and PortSeton, an over whelming feeling to returnhome pushed me to relocate. That firstmorning back, I went to Portobello towatch the sun rise over the sea. Acormorant flew down and with the sunrising behind it at Cockenzie it made agorgeous photo. Later that morning,seeing a copy of East Lothian Life at amarket, I jokingly showed the stall-holdermy cover picture. He turned out to bethe editors husband and I was invited towrite a feature on Cockenzie and PortSetons history. The first I ever wrote, myin-depth research awakened in me adesire to learn more about my own

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