Skiff clubs at Newhaven, Portobello and Cockenzie/ Port Seton have been busy with a project that combines rowing with music and fishing heritage on the Firth of Forth. For the first time in a hundred years, ‘dreg songs’ are to be heard drifting over the foreshore from the waters off these towns.
The dreg songs were sung by oyster fishermen as they rowed, towing dredges across the oyster beds of the Firth. The songs nearly vanished when overfishing ended the harvest a century ago. However they were recorded in the 1930s by the American Folklorist, James Madison Carpenter. Carpenter’s wax cylinder recordings and manuscripts contain many delightful songs but none more intriguing than the dreg songs which were sung by the fishermen as they towed the dredges (dregs). The songs were partly work songs setting a rhythm and partly superstitious with the belief that the music would lure the oysters into the nets. It was apparently bad luck if the men spoke when dredging and so the songs would go on for some time, covering standard words, local gossip and presumably basic instructions.
Cockenzie, Port Seton, Fisherrow, Newhaven and Leith were among the Scottish harbours visited by Carpenter. The Port Seton recordings that the skiffies have access to were sung by the grandchildren of the original oyster men….. ancestors of some of the Boatie Blest members.
The songs will be performed on the waters off Portobello Beach on 20 June 2012 from 7.30pm. The heroic rowing singers have collaborated with scholars from the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen and the Library of Congress in the USA to recreate these songs on their home waters. Musician/folklorist Bob Walser, leader of the project comments, ‘I’m thrilled at the chance to see and hear these songs on the water much as they would have been done a century or more ago!’
In honour of the event, Terry Magill of the Dalriada Bar on Porty Prom has arranged with Inveralmond Brewery for a special Dreg Songs Ale to celebrate the occasion.