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Newhaven, Edinburgh: School, Community, and the Sea

This week we head towards the sea as we visit Newhaven, Edinburgh. Located a couple of miles north of the city centre, Newhaven is a former fishing village brimming with history, charm, and pride. It is a community that has retained its strong historic bonds while being open to visitors and newcomers alike. So put on your sou’wester and oilskins- for there be some choppy but fascinating waters ahead…

Deep Historical Roots

Regarding historical information, there are a couple of different sources that we utilised for this post that I would like to highlight. First, we want to send a big thank you to the staff at Victoria Primary School that helped us on our recent visit to the Wee Museum of Newhaven. We thought it entirely appropriate that Wee Walking Tours should visit this ‘Wee’ but wonderful Museum. We appreciate that they took the time to show us the Museum and their photo archives. All the historic photographs in this article are thanks to the Wee Museum's collection. We will return to the Museum in just a moment. However, I also want to acknowledge the Newhaven Heritage Centre (NHC) website. They provide an incredible wealth of information and knowledge and were a useful source for this article. Therefore, with that in mind, let’s establish a little historical context for Newhaven.

According to the NHC, Newhaven was founded in 1488 by James III and was originally called, Our Lady’s Port of Grace. The first fishermen to settle the village were Flemish and came to the area because they were fleeing religious persecution. In 1572, The Society of Free Fishermen was founded. According to the NHC, it had a “similar model to a Flemish guild” and “assumed the responsibilities of a local government”. This helped to create a real sense of community among those living in the village. The term Bow-Tow helps to encompass this feeling. According to the Citizen Curator, "to be Bow-Tow is to be Newhaven...the exact meaning has been lost, but in many ways it symbolises the relationship between the men and the woman of Newhaven and the land and the sea. A bond that was at the heart of this historic fishing village".

The Newhaven fishermen worked hard year-round- often for days on end sometimes with very little sleep. In fact, the NHC states that, “Newhaven’s fishermen were fully engaged in their occupation throughout the year. Their catch was seasonal - oysters in the winter, cod, haddock and ling in the summer and in late autumn the fickle but occasionally abundant herring. The herring were caught with drift nets, the cod and other white fish were caught on the line - 700 to 1000 hooks baited…”. The work was difficult and dangerous. The fishermen had to wear clothing that would protect them from the harsh weather and elements- such as heavy woolen items, leather boots that went up to the knee, and oilskins. However, such attire was also their enemy because, if they fell overboard, the heavy clothes would drag them down. The Society of Free Fishermen dissolved in 1989, but I think it is safe to say that that sense of community still exists today. Yet, it wasn’t just the men that were important to the community. Women played an integral role in the success of Newhaven as well.

As the saying goes, ‘behind every great man is a great woman’. But, let me tell you, when we look at the history of the fishwives of Newhaven, the phrase should be, ‘next to every great man is a great woman’. That’s because the Newhaven fishwives did not just stay at home. They had the typical expectations at the time to cook, clean, and raise their children. However, on top of that, the Newhaven fishwives also were active participants in the fishing industry. They gathered the mussels caught as well as prepared the fish their husbands caught to be sold. Then they walked up to the Old Town, hauling the fish in large creels (baskets) on their backs steadied with a band on their foreheads. The fishwives worked long days- up to 11 hours (or more when you factor in the housework). These women were known to be robust and no-nonsense for a reason! The fact that they worked outside of the home provided them with a sense of independence that other women did not have at the time.

From a culturally anthropological perspective, the Newhaven fishwives were incredibly fascinating. The iconic Newhaven fishwife can be seen in various pictures below and throughout this article and their distinct clothing clearly identified them. Their dresses or ‘uniform’ consisted of multiple layers of shirts, skirts, petticoats, aprons and more. They were known to sing songs as they walked along the streets selling their fish. In fact, there is a long cultural tradition of singing as seen in the history of the Newhaven Fishwives’ Choir as well as the current Newhaven Community Choir.

For more history on Newhaven, please be sure to check out the NHC’s website. Let’s continue our historical exploration with a virtual visit to the Wee Museum of Newhaven.

The Wee Museum of Newhaven is housed at the Victoria Primary School and is a partnership project with Edinburgh Museums and Galleries. The School was established in 1844 and is the oldest school still in operation in Edinburgh. The artefacts were drawn from the collections of both institutions and curated by the students. As former educators, we are strong proponents of education and active learning. It was thoroughly refreshing to see how much the students were involved with the creation of the Museum. It may only be one room, but the information held there is a wonderful introduction to Newhaven’s history. One artefact that stands out is a model of the Great Michael. The original ship was a carrack that was part of the Royal Scottish Navy. At the time it was launched in 1511, it was the largest warship in Europe. There are many other wonderful items on display including a helmet from WWII and historic toys from former Newhaven residents. If you are in the area, be sure to check out the Wee Museum of Newhaven, but be be sure to call ahead to arrange a viewing time with the school staff.

Village Community

When you are in Newhaven, it is easy to forget that it is nestled among the larger city of Edinburgh. It still retains a bit of that village feel to it. A common theme that comes through everywhere you read about Newhaven is that it’s all about the people and their stories. It is about a sense of community. The Newhaven Heritage Centre highlights this on their website. In fact, they encourage visitors to “share their vision” which includes the following idea- “knowing about the past of your community helps to anchor it in your mind and keep you part of it. We see ourselves as nourishing the roots of belonging to Newhaven as a community”. The NHC came into existence after the Newhaven Heritage Museum closed in 2007.

The NHC has excellent online historical resources including photographs of community life, artefacts, and information about Newhaven in general. Of particular note, is the ‘People’s Stories’ section that provides audio files of an interview with lifelong Newhaven resident, George Hackland. Mr. Hackland was born in 1921 and provides an incredible account of his life that “saw Newhaven from its glory days to its sad demise and transformation”. It is crucial to get interviews and first-person accounts for the historical record, and I am glad that there are people conducting such important work. It is captivating to listen to those who lived through such incredible history and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Mr. Hackland tell his life story.

Regarding the possibility of a larger museum returning to Newhaven- all hope is not lost. Victoria Primary School will be moving and getting a new location soon (word is sometime in 2020). And while it is sad that it will no longer have the status as the oldest school still in operation in Edinburgh, there are some fantastic hopes for the building. The ‘Heart of Newhaven’ project is a committee that spun-off from the Newhaven Heritage Centre group. According to NHC, this project “has been set up to try to acquire the school as a community asset transfer to act as a community hub”. The NHC states that, if this were to happen, they would look to having a Heritage Centre "on part of the site".

Newhaven Fishwife display as seen at the People's Story Museum in Canongate

Newhaven is more than just a historical site. There are fun activities for the family, locals, and visitors. Lets continue our 'explore and discover' mission around the village.

Climb & Dine

alien rock climbing centre

One unique feature in Newhaven can be found in a former church that now provides a very different experience. alien rock indoor climbing centre (the lowercase spelling is on purpose as it is how the business is branded) is a large reason we spend a lot of time in Newhaven. As outlined in our post on alien rock/bloc and our post on the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena, the Wee Walking Tours family spends a lot of our free time at indoor rock-climbing facilities. We are at alien rock almost weekly and it is where our love of Newhaven started.

Newhaven also has some lovely areas outside where you can walk around, sit, and contemplate the beauty of the area. Starbank Park is one such location as it affords a peaceful play to relax and enjoy the gorgeous views out over the Firth of Forth (you can read more about the Forth here). Sawyer really enjoyed his time there on our recent visit and was all too happy to stop and pose for pictures.

As we continue our walk around Newhaven, it is obvious that much has changed over the decades. Unfortunately, much of the original architecture and buildings no longer exist (e.g. the distinct fishermen’s cottages). However, if you take the time to look, there are some wonderful reminders of the area’s former life as a fishing village. Below are some pictures that highlight this.

One unassuming fountain was a particular surprise. The Fishwives' Fountain once stood at the end of the promenade leading to Leith but was removed and lost for quite some time. Fortunately, it was re-discovered and now stands proud once again in Newhaven.

If you are looking to get some fresh seafood in Newhaven (and considering the history, you really should be), then be sure to check out the Loch Fyne restaurant. It is located in what used to be Newhaven’s Victorian fishmarket. On our recent trip we had some of the best fish and chips that we've yet to taste here in Edinburgh.

Well, there you have it. A very brief overview of Newhaven. There is a plethora of online resources available if you are looking to learn more about this incredible village within Edinburgh. For those interested, I highly recommend you take the time to explore the Newhaven Heritage Centre website and their companion website- Newhaven-on-Forth. But, be forewarned- you can easily lose track of time while reading all of the captivating history and current information.

It is our sincere hope that this blog will help potential and virtual visitors get a real sense that Edinburgh is so much more than just the Old and New Towns. Those are important parts of the city and we adore them. After all, we do walking tours there to help others explore and discover while they are here. However, Edinburgh is a city rich in history with diverse components that make it a magnificent whole.

We may live in a different part of Edinburgh than Newhaven, but we love and visit every part of our city as much as we can (although I fear a lifetime is not enough to do it justice). It is areas like Newhaven, (or Colinton or Liberton) that help to contribute to the beautiful tapestry that makes our capital city unique and rich in all it has to offer.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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