Song Of The Fishgutters

by Ewan MacColl

Come a’ ye fisher lassies, aye, it's come awa wi me
Fae Cairnbulg and Gamrie and fae Inverallochie
Fae Buckie and fae Aiberdeen and a’ the country roon
We're awa tae gut the herrin, we're awa tae Yarmouth toon.

Rise up in the morning wi your bundles in your hand,
Be at the station early or you'll surely hae to stand,
Tak plenty to eat and a kettle for your tea,
Or you'll mebbe die of hunger on the way to Yarmouth quay.

The journey it's a lang ane and it taks a day or twa,
And when you reach your lodgins sure it's soond asleep you fa,
But ye rise at five wi the sleep still in your ee,
You're awa tae find the gutting yards along the Yarmouth quay.

It's early in the morning and it's late into the nicht,
Your hands a’ cut and chappit and they look an unco sicht,
And you greet like a wean when you put them in the bree,
And you wish you were a thoosand mile awa frae Yarmouth quay.

There's coopers there and curers there and buyers, canny chiels, And lassies at the pickling and others at the creels,
And you'll wish the fish had been a' left in the sea
By the time you finish guttin herrin on the Yarmouth quay.

We've gutted fish in Lerwick and in Stornoway and Shields,
Warked along the Humber 'mongst the barrels and the creels;
Whitby, Grimsby, we've traivelled up and doon,
But the place to see the herrin is the quay at Yarmouth toon.

: salt water
Canny: careful, crafty
Chappit: with cracked skin that has been exposed to cold, especially when wet.
Chiels: chaps, boys
Coopers: men who make or repair barrels
Creels: woven baskets for fish
Curers: men who preserve the fish, e.g. by using salt or smoke
Fae: from
Greet: weep, cry
Unco sicht : terrible sight
Wean: child

Ewan MacColl included this song in the Ewan MacColl – Peggy Seeger Songbook, and his note says:
“It was once the practice for the herring fleets to be followed around the coasts of Britain by a great band of Aberdeenshire women and girls, who worked as fish-gutters and packers in an industry which, at the turn of the century, was turning out four-million barrels of prepared herring annually. The herring industry has declined considerably in the years between the two wars and today (1963) the army of buxom fisher-lassies has dwindled to a small band.” Buxom or not, they are no more to be found.

This song formed part of a BBC radio documentary called Singing The Fishing, one of the series of Radio Ballads created by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger with the support of producer Charles Parker in the 1950s.

This format overturned the conventional use of actors to read a written script, and used instead “actuality”, the actual recorded words of the people interviewed, slotted in with songs written by MacColl which also captured the words and thoughts of the working people whose story it was.

Against all expectations for the new radio format, the first episode was a hit and they went on to create seven more Ballads. Ewan MacColl’s autobiography, Journeyman, goes into detail about the methods used to create this new form, and the important musical contribution made by Peggy Seeger.

Traditional singers, the 20 year-old Elizabeth Stewart and her sister Jane, made their first railway journey down to Birmingham to record “Song of the Fishgutters” as part of the programme. In Journeyman, MacColl remembers them sitting “beside the big Bluthner Grand with their hands in their laps” and “looking apprehensive, like patients in a hospital waiting-room”. Nevertheless they made a great job of the song, which has been a favourite of Sangschule’s since we first learned it.