Shellfish, Sma’lines, Seaboots and Shows: Semester 1 in Review

As the current semester draws to a close in St Andrews, I want to look back on the progress of the past months in my academic coursework for HI4997 , gains made in my related 18th-century living history pursuits, and equally get excited and update you, my readers, about upcoming public history projects in ‘fishy fashion’ and Georgian-era nautical recreation.


[photo by Amy Chubb]

‘Seven Months at Sea’ MUSA talk (Nov. 17)

The first major performance of this course was an hour-long evening talk I gave at MUSA (The Museum of the University of St Andrews) on November 17th. Entitled ‘Seven Months at Sea,’ it explored my time and lessons learnt in sailing in 2014 and 2015 on the recreated frigate l’Hermione, built by the Rochefort-based Association Hermione-Lafayette. This formative experience kindled my present interest in researching maritime history, and certainly gave fresh insight on the large difference between American and European perspectives on this period! Overall, my main themes throughout the presentation were that respecting authenticity adds integrity to any historical project, whether commercial or nonprofit, and that this type of history can be pragmatic and self-sustaining in both attracting and engaging audiences (in the case of Hermione, with ticketed admission providing 60% of the funding for an over $29 million project!). Diligent research and attention to detail also forces modern viewers to pause and look closer, and ideally allows them (and myself) to empathize and viscerally understand the experience of past generations: something which is not possible with cheap costumes or cynically commercial ‘history-lite.’ Whether this then means hauling on a recreated capstan to lift a ship’s boat, or simply handling my hand-stitched recreated wardrobe and personal effects (see below), the resulting connections made between past and present can be powerful. And crucially, when choices are backed by academic diligence, any lingering questions or issues of interpretation simply become a fruitful dialogue between the public and the historian about the research behind the endeavor. And, as always, the feedback of the incredibly varied audience at MUSA was one of the most rewarding pieces of being able to tell my story – for instance, unique input from fellow academics, or meeting an elderly former student who had worked in the whaling fleet off of Antarctica after graduating in the 1960s! Such encounters enrich my experience, and then allow me to offer further analogies and anecdotes in future discussions. While technical difficulties precluded me from recording that night’s performance, here is a link to footage of an analogous speaking engagement with my home-town’s Lincoln Historical Society in January of 2016 – please do get in touch if you’re interested in a repeat showing, or have any further questions, critique, or input of your own!


‘Are you a pirate?!’ Barron performance (Dec. 2-3)

As for drama, this Saturday saw the climactic performance of ‘Are you a pirate?!,’ an ‘academic play’ (imagine a costumed historical TED talk onstage) that I co-wrote with a fellow history student, Peryn Westerhof Nyman, and which uses clothing to discuss the wider perception of the 18th century maritime past. In its first portion, I began just in my hand-stitched underwear, and dressed piece-by-piece in the layers of a contemporary mariner’s wardrobe, explaining with each new garment how ‘sailor fashion’ functioned in practice, what it can tell us about contemporary society’s relation to those sent to sea, and the sources with which we can understand both. In its animated second portion, Peryn and I had a dialogue about pirates (whom I despise, but she finds fascinating), their legacy in pop culture, and the challenges and opportunities this genre presents for historians today. The play then concluded by discussing the educational work we’ve been doing this past semester, and, as at MUSA, had a heartfelt appeal to the self-fulfilling power of authenticity – that our memory and experience of heritage is as strong as we make it, and that we can use the past to both critique and build on our modern present.

‘Historical Foraging at the Eden’ nature walk (Dec. 4)

To get some fresh air after this performance, we also co-led a group on a seaside nature walk on the morning of December 4th, alongside Fife Coast & Countryside Ranger Tony Wilson, as a way to explore the natural and human past on the very ground where it happened; namely, the seashore of the Eden Estuary just northwest of St Andrews. For centuries, local fishwives walked ‘the Mussel Road’ from town to this long strip of tidal mudflat, and gathered shellfish for baiting fishing lines outside their homes along the town’s North St (see below). Without shellfish and fishwives, fishing could not have happened, and this was an attempt to remind participants of this neglected story, and to talk about what it may imply for current environmental beliefs. In short, the way in which the community regulated this over time, both environmentally and socially, can tell us a great deal about changing technology, economics, and the ways in which humans interact with their natural world, both in the past and today. Specifically, while increasingly industrial deep-sea net fishing dominated from the 1800s onward (but has since collapsed), near-shore line fishing continued unbroken from prehistory, and is now being re-asserted as a lucrative, environmentally friendly alternative. And tasting fresh scurvy-grass, dodging golf balls, and examining the fresh casts of lugworms at low tide in the bracing winter wind of Scotland was certainly a visceral way to explore this topic!

Material matters…

In practical terms, too, several material projects likewise bore fruit this past semester. First of all, working alongside the expert traditional basket-maker Liz Balfour (who has been partnering with the St Andrews Social Anthropology department’s SA4059 module, and working on a wider Woven Communities project on traditional basketmaking), two friends and I completed copies of three traditional fishwives baskets – a back creel, display cob and arm creel – for use in our outreach and educational programs. This work was made possible with a generous £300 grant from the St Andrews Student Development Fund. This meant not only the chance to learn a new skill (basket weaving) or to work with a new material (willow), but also to have useable copies of original artifacts that will allow us to speak to the fascinating story of fishwives, who were integral players in nearly matriarchal pre-industrial fishing communities, and provide us a fascinating and empowering case study in 18th-century gender history!

Additionally, with the labour of the master traditional cordwainer Sarah Juniper, as well as the insights provided by archival research alongside Jen Gordon, curator of the Fisheries Museum’s Costume Collection, I am now the proud owner of a pair of hand-made eighteenth century leather seaboots! While lesser period equivalents would have been cheaper, such as Continental clog-boots, or simply tarred canvas leggings tacked onto shoes, there is nothing more substantial and effective than such a pair of heavy thigh-high waxed footwear, which will allow me to work in small watercraft in wet conditions, wade through calf-deep surf while landing such boats, and tramp around in muddy inter-tidal conditions gathering bait, just as fishermen and sailors did historically.


[photo by Noel Heaney]

And in personal terms, smaller day-to-day sewing has resulted in other new useful pieces of wardrobe – a finer ruffled shirt for my ‘shore-going rig,’ a twin pair of striped linen petticoats for my colleague Peryn’s fishwife impression, new recycled ‘stocking-sleeves’ for my winter waistcoat, and other details. Such work allows both fresh research angles and new manual techniques, and is also simply the bread-and-butter of living and working in a recreated historical wardrobe, as we both hope to do professionally in museum work after graduating.

Finally, with the gracious help of Charlie Trzeciak, Learning and Access Officer at the Fisheries Museum, we have amassed all the necessary raw and finished materials to make a copy of a traditional ‘sma’line’ for inshore fishing – a technique which was practiced for millennia in Scotland, and only ended commercially, at least in Gourdon Scotland, in 1986[1]. With sources ranging from a local hardware store, to regional veterinary abbatoirs, to a traditional London ship chandler, sourcing appropriate materials in the modern day was a challenge over several weeks! Yet this is critical, since this copy will be a means of engaging visitors while it is built as an open-air demonstration (with a full 1,200 hooks whipped via spun horsehair to individual hemp strands along a larger-diameter line stretching over a mile), and will also be a way to preserve the embodied knowledge of a passing generation of Scottish fishermen whose hands-on ‘embodied knowledge’ otherwise risks being lost.

Combined with the above examples, these material projects are not just interestingly niche historical case-studies, or simply practical boons for my own historical recreation, but also fundamental for the living history programming I’m currently doing with school groups and weekend volunteering in Anstruther. A recent workshop attracted a healthy crowd of local youngsters, who were taught how to make sturdy rope from toilet paper, pierced their own nautical tattoos with ink and needle into the skin of grapefruits, and learned some basic tenets of seamanship, with more visits planned for the future.


[photo by Charlie Trzeciak]

And fundamentally, when children respond to the clatter of my hobnailed boots on the sidewalk, when elderly Fife residents animatedly recognize the distinct fashion of a recreated fishwife, or even when people simply stutter ‘Are you actually a pirate?,’ this is the past coming to life in a meaningful way for residents of towns who were universally maritime working communities until recently, and still strongly define themselves with this legacy today. The beauty of this public living history, to me, is its ability to combine archival research (including written sources contextualized alongside a wealth of visual and material research) with recreated material culture (including practical objects, theatre, and hands-on experience) that makes history relevant today and connects diverse audiences to their pasts.

So what, then, is to come after this onslaught?

First of all, reproducing the sma’line as discussed above, as well as a simpler hand-line in the boatyard of the Anstruther Fisheries Museum. Beyond spinning horsehair and splicing dozens of hook lengths, this may require tarring or ‘barking’ the line in a tannic acid bath when completed. Ideally, this will ultimately culminate in the ‘experimental archaeology’ of actually fishing using this recreated line in the waters of the Firth of Forth with the Museum’s Boat Club on a period-appropriate boat!

Secondly, in addition to outreach workshops this winter and spring, there is the potential for future collaboration with the Reaper, the Museum’s 1902 seventy-foot ‘Fifie’ herring drifter that tours Scotland’s coastal communities each summer; or equally, a return to the shipyard of l’Hermione in France to work on related programs there; or potentially other projects like the modern sail-borne shipping lugger Grayhound (which a friend recently returned from sailing aboard).

In professional terms, I hope to work this summer with the Fort Ticonderoga Association to continue advancing my manual training in historical tailoring. Yet, no matter where I find myself, I will continue to periodically publish and promote  new work and information – so stay tuned to see how this develops, and, as always, make this public history your own by sharing, commenting below, and e-mailing me for any further queries or conversation!


[photo by Amy Chubb]

[1] Celia Craig, A Tribute to the Women of Gourdon, 1837-1986 (James A. Bruce [printer], Stonehaven, 2015) – accessed via Scottish Fisheries Museum research library

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