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A short story by James Runciman

North-Country Fishermen

Title:     North-Country Fishermen
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

The men who go away in the great smacks and remain at sea for many weeks at a time are used to call themselves fishermen; but the long-shore fisher does not consider these smacksmen as being members of his profession at all. A person who leaves his own village, and never comes home in the morning like a decent citizen, is regarded with much condescension by the owner of a coble. The bolder voyager calls himself a fisher, but he is really only a kind of sailor; and as such he is a being to be patronized by the true craftsman. Right up the coast, from the Tyne to Berwick, little villages are planted at intervals of about four miles; and these villages are mostly inhabited by men who only use open boats. The ethnologists say that, as regards height, chest measurement, and strength, the population of this strip of coast shows the finest men in the world. The Cumberland dalesmen are often very tall; but in weight and girth of chest the mountaineers are not equal to the Northumbrian fishers. Dr. Brown has published some curious statistics bearing on this point; and he is of opinion that the flower of the English race may be found within a circle of two or three miles around the village of Boulmer. The villages are much alike in every respect. The early settlers seem to have looked for places where a range of low rocks lay like the string of a bow across the curve of a bay, or where a cove nestled under the southerly steep of a jutting point. The beaches shelve very gradually, and are never shingly; so that a special kind of boat gradually had to be contrived in order that the peculiar nature of the landing might be suited. The early fishermen saw that the boat must have a very light draught of water, and yet be sufficiently weatherly to face the open sea. Thus, after years of experiment, the "coble" was designed in its present form; and these craft are as much the product of their special locality as are the men who man them. The coble has an exceedingly deep bow, which grips the water to a depth of some three feet, and which resembles in contour the breastbone of a grebe or northern diver. This great curve is rimmed with iron. But from the bend the lines slope upward, until at the stern the boat is quite flat-bottomed and only about three feet in depth. She is poised so that while her bow draws three feet of water her stern will float in one or two inches; and she will come so near the shore that one can climb over her stern nearly dryshod. In smooth water she may be rowed about very easily and safely; but it would be impossible to carry sail on a craft of which really only one-half of the keel is submerged: she would capsize instantly in a very light wind. This difficulty is cleverly met. As soon as the coble is put under sail her great rudder is fixed; and this rudder, which is very broad, goes under water to a depth of three feet or so. When the wind is on the beam the rudder acts exactly like a centre-board: if it breaks, nothing can save the coble; but so long as it holds the vessel will lie well over and sail with amazing swiftness. Years upon years of apprenticeship are needed before a man can manage one of these crank boats; in fact, the fishermen's proverb says, "You must be born in a coble if you want to learn anything about her."

The race of men who work in the cobles have good chances of becoming skilful, for they begin very early. When the fisher-boy has passed the merest infancy his steps tend to the water-side as naturally as though he were a young sea-bird. He carries the water-bottles down to the boats in the afternoon, and sees his father and the other men hauling off out of the shallow cove. The evening comes down, and he watches the race northward until the last brown sail has passed around the point. In the morning he is ready for the boats as they come home, and he can distinguish each craft exactly, although an outsider would be able to see not a whit of difference. He sees the fish carted, and then goes home with the stolid heavy-footed men. All the morning, while the fishermen are sleeping, the fisher-lad is busy helping the women to bait lines or spread nets, according to the season. He goes in an amateur way to school, but he is the wildest and most gipsy-like of scholars. His thoughts have suffered a sea change, and he takes badly to books and slates. A studious fisherman is hardly to be found, and it is only within the last twenty years that the accomplishment of reading has become known in the smaller villages. Since the Government school system spread, many little places have been established; but what can a poor schoolmaster do with a pupil who is wanted nearly every morning to gather bait on the rocks, and who must see the trouting boats off on the summer afternoons? The fisher-boy always goes barefooted. Big sea-boots suit him when he grows up, but the shabby compromise of shoes or "bluchers" is totally unacceptable to him. When he goes to school he sometimes puts the hated footgear on; but as soon as the prison-doors are passed he slings the boots round his neck and goes merrily home with his brown feet moving freely. He will charge through a clump of nettles quite indifferently; and this wondrous power strikes civilized children with awe. The fisher-boy's language is a strange mixture. No southerner can understand him; for, besides using old words, the fisher speaks with harsh gutturals that make a burring sound in his throat. He calls a wild cherry a "guigne;" he calls a swede turnip a "baygee," a gooseberry a "grozer," mud "clarts," a horse-collar a "brime." If he had to say "I fell head over heels," he would remark, "Aw cowped me creels." The stranger is puzzled by this surprising tongue, but the fisher is proud of it. No words can express his scorn for a boy who learns to talk "Massingem" (which is the fisher's word for English): he scouts that degenerate boy and refuses to consort with him. When the fisher-lad gets measured for his first oilskins he is very proud. To "get away Norrad" is the right of men; and he feels himself manly as he sits amidships while the coble skims out into the bay. He is usually sent to the trouting first; and then all night long he glides about on the dark bay and hears the sounds from the moor and the woods. It falls cold toward the dawn, and the boy grows hard and strong through his nightly ordeal. When his hands are properly hardened like his horny feet, he is allowed to row the coble with crossed oars; and then he becomes very useful, for the men are left free to haul nets and plash on the water to frighten the trout. When he reaches the age of sixteen, the fisher-lad clothes himself in thick pilot-cloth and wears a braided cap on Sundays. He pierces his ears too, and his thin golden rings give him a foreign look. The young fisher-folk are very shamefaced about sweet-hearting. A lad will tramp eight miles after dark to see his sweetheart; but he would be stupefied with shame if anyone saw him walking with her. The workman of the towns escorts his lover on Sunday afternoons, and is not ashamed; but the fisher-folk never walk openly in couples.

Courtship is a very unpoetic affair with them. No one ever heard a fisher use such a word as "love:" he would not consider himself a man if he once learned such a fragment of "Massingem." If by any chance the village grows crowded and some of the young men have to go southward to the seaports, then those who return may bring sailor-like ways with them; but the natives always remain hard and undemonstrative.

It is difficult to say when the fisher-lad is considered to have reached man's estate. A good deal depends on his physical development. The work to be done at sea is so very heavy that only a very powerful fellow can perform it. It sometimes happens that a very strong lad of eighteen can do a "man's turn;" but usually a fisherman must be thoroughly "set" before he is counted as one of the elect. He then begins to think of marriage, and his long Sunday evening journeys become frequent. He must marry a fisher-girl; for if he chooses a hind's daughter he is as badly off as a one-armed man. The work done by the fisher-women needs long and special training: the baiting of lines is a delicate and subtle operation, while the business of seeking bait is one which no country-woman ever learns properly. Moreover, a country girl who has been used to wearing long dresses and shoes can never take kindly to bare feet and brief petticoats: the cold and exposure are too much for her. A fisherman who marries a girl from inland is considered to have wrecked his chances in life, and the gossips bewail his fate. He is shut off from social intercourse; for his wife, even though she may have lived within two miles of the sea, cannot meet the clannish fishers on equal terms. If, however, the fisherman marries according to natural law, he and his wife begin their partnership without any of the frivolities of wedding trips and such like. The girl settles down quickly; and in a week she is baiting lines in the stone-floored kitchen, or tramping inland with her great fish basket slung round her forehead. She bows her strong figure under her burden, and the great pad which prevents the rope from cutting her brow looks like a strange head-dress. Her husband is too secretive to exhibit any pride, but he is satisfied with his helpmate.

The fisherman has no amusements. In the afternoons, when his sleep is over, he walks up and down in the Row and gazes around; but he rarely laughs, and few things interest him unless he is religious. Fishermen seldom gossip like rustics. Sometimes they have a queer dry humour which comes out in short phrases, but they never carry on sustained conversation. The faculty of expression is granted them in very sparing degree. The fisherman's courage is perfect, yet he cannot speak of his own actions. He will do the most brave things in a stolid, unconscious way; but he could not frame a hundred consecutive words to tell anyone what he had done. He never shows any emotion excepting when under the influence of religious excitement. The melancholy of the sea seems to have entered his nature, and his chief efforts aim at self-restraint. When the little Methodist chapel resounds with the noise of appreciative groanings and sighing, it is very rarely that anything like gesticulation or vivid facial change is seen. Deep-chested men utter sonorous ejaculations and the women sigh, but there is no shuffling of feet and no movement. As a class, the fishers have grown to be more religious than almost any other body of men, and they like powerful excitement; but they are always severely decorous. In his behaviour toward his social superiors the fisherman is rugged--perhaps morbidly rugged--but his brusque familiarity is not offensive. To touch his cap would be impossible to him, but his direct salute is neither self-assertive nor impolite. The fisherman toils on till the time comes for him to stay ashore always. His life is a very risky one, and the history of every village is largely made up of stories about drowned men, for the coast is an ugly place, and the utmost skill and daring can hardly carry a man through a lifetime without accident. If the accident is fatal, there is an end of all: the bruised bodies are washed up; the women wring their hands, and the old men walk about silently. But if things go well, then the fisherman's old age is comfortable enough. The women look after him kindly, and on sunny mornings he enjoys himself very well as he nurses the children on the bench facing the sea.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: North-Country Fishermen