Fishermen Superstitions: What Brought Good and Bad Luck

Fishermen superstitions included numerous beliefs that certain things caused good or back luck. For instance, seafarers claimed a newborn’s caul would secure its wearer from drowning. There was also a belief that breaking up an old boat would bring bad luck and that those engaged in such a task were “sure to come to grief in some way or other.”[1] Northern fisherman claimed it was positively “dangerous” to mention the word “horse” when at sea because bad luck would follow.

Fishermen superstitions

“The Fisherman,” by Charles Napier Hemy, 1888. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides those three things there were many other fishermen superstitions with one of the most frequently being linked to a fisherman’s net. For example, if a fisherman experienced no luck for a time, it was suggested the fisherman cast his net on the opposite side of the boat. If a fisherman believed another fisherman was getting his catch, he was told to “take a mouthful of water from a running stream, under a bridge, where the living and the dead pass (the latter on their way to burial) … and sprinkle this over his nets.”[2] Another suggestion to improve a fisherman’s luck involved affixing silver pieces (such as small coins) to his net on the first day of the year or hide a small piece of silver somewhere on his boat.

fishermen superstitions

1885 image of a fisherman.  Author’s collection.

Fishermen superstitions also included the belief that animals sometimes created good luck. One animal said to be lucky to the fisherman was the mouse because if a mouse ate a fisherman’s nets after the nets were put away for the season, the fisherman was promised “great expectations.” Because mice were so lucky, some fishermen purposely kept oats in with their nets hoping to entice the mice to visit.

Home from the brook: The lucky fisherman. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Another lucky animal for the fisherman was the cat. Apparently, the cat was thought to be good luck to a fisherman when it washed its face with its paws and particularly when it washed the back of its head. Cats were also lucky on board, which is demonstrated by the following story with a Dundee ship that was caught in a vicious gale. During the storm, the cat somehow fell overboard, and two crew members quickly leapt into the sea to rescue the cat. The captain stated over the event:

“There was a very heavy sea running at the time; to heave the ship too was a task of some risk; to lower a boat was still more dangerous; but both were done as speedily as possible, and the men (one of whom had the cat on his neck), were picked up somewhat exhausted. I remonstrated with them on their folly, pointing out that it was almost certain death to jump overboard in such a sea. But neither they nor the rest of the crew could see any ‘folly’ in the action. On the contrary, they one and all firmly believed that if the cat had drowned the ship would never have reached land.”[3]

Common house cat with kittens. Author’s collection.

Some fishermen superstitions had more to do with the fisherman or his actions. For example, good luck was said to be the result of a fisherman not lending his boat during the fishing season. Superstition said that by doing so a fisherman was “liable to give his luck along with it.”[4] Another superstitious belief was that a broom, salt, or an old shoe thrown at a fisherman before he went to sea would bring him success. A newspaper reporter for The Graphic wrote:

“I know one little village where on a certain day in the fishing season there is supposed to be great luck in getting drunk, and going to the sea in that state, on the principle, the bigger the spree the bigger the chance.”[5]

There were just as many things that could bring a fisherman back luck. For instance, a fisherman was never to start out in a new boat on a Friday unless he wanted trouble. To demonstrate the unluckiness of Friday, one wealthy merchant dared tested it:

“[He] devised a notable scheme to give a fatal blow to the superstition … He caused the keel of a very large ship to be laid on a Friday; he named her the Friday; he launched her on Friday; he gave the command of her to a captain of the name of Friday; and she commenced her first voyage on a Friday, bound for China with a costly cargo … The result was that neither ship nor crew was ever heard of afterwards.”[6]

If a fisherman lived on the Banffshire coast, bad luck would follow him if he spoke of salmon. In fact, if there was one thing that bothered a Banffshire fisherman it was someone saying “‘there is a salmon in your pump,’ or some such harmless expression containing the name of the hated fish.”[7] There was also no way to overcome someone saying salmon as was pointed out in the following way:

“There is no remedy for this, if he [the fisherman] would retain his luck, [he had to call] … ‘cold iron’ immediately afterwards, or if that is not done he must bark his nets afresh, which entails much trouble and more expense.”[8]

A Victorian Fisherman Mending the Jib, Author's Collection

A Victorian fisherman mending the jib.  Author’s collection.

In the Encyclopedia of Superstitions published in 1996 other fishermen superstitions were explained. For example, in the book it was claimed:

“Fishermen almost everywhere believe, or did until recently that the fish upon which they depend for their living are aware of what happens on the coast, and are affected by it. If blood is shed in anger there, or if someone kills himself, they will desert the coast, perhaps for a number of years, perhaps forever. Eleanor Hull relates in her Folklore of the British Isles how the herring forsook Loch Carron for several year after two men had drowned themselves, until the fishermen lit two great bonfires … to appease the fish. Along the coast of Normandy, it is said that the fishing has declined because the fish followed Napoleon [Bonaparte] into exile, or according to another version, because they left when the French monarch fell, and will not return until it is restored.”[9]

Some fishermen superstitions brought other types of bad luck to fishermen. For instance, if a fisherman spoke about “a four-footed beast, particularly a hare, while at sea,”[10] the fisherman was supposed to grasp cold iron (such as an anchor) to prevent back luck. Other fishermen superstitions also noted how the hare was bad luck as it was said that “should a hare cross the path of a man going down to his boat, he would not more think of going to sea than he would attempting to swim the Firth.”[11]

Witches were another of the popular fishermen superstitions that could affect luck, but it was difficult to get fishermen to talk about such things. One journalist who attempted to learn about such “fisher folks’ superstitions”, found he could only get one former fisherman to talk about the power of witches. In this case the one-time fisherman candidly stated to the journalist:

“Being unsuccessful for a long time, he went and consulted a lady who practised the diabolic art. She told him at once that she had sold his luck to a man of his acquaintance; but it was beyond her power to exorcise the mischief that season. She would arrange with him for the next, however, if he promised secrecy, and without that nothing could be done. When he agreed, she gave him a sixpence as like any other as could be, except that it had two letters marked on it. — G.L. … ‘And did the herring come next season?’ My inferred scepticism met with immediate rebuke, and this warned me that if I would learn I must be content to listen and not interrupt. Form what followed it appears there were instructions given with the sixpence. It was spliced in an eye of the rope that fastens the nets to the boat. After this there was splendid fishing up to the first Monday of a quarter, a fishing would have doubtless continued equally successful to the whole of the season, had my informant been as wakeful as he ought to have been. Though he knew the first Monday of the quarter to be a critical time, he neglected to watch his boat, with the result that when he went to see after it, behold the eye of the rope was gone, sixpence and all! ‘Now sir, I knew … there would be no herring after that, and as sure as death there was [none] … got after it.”[12]

The Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse, 1886 showing a supposed witch. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One famous witch who many people knew of was described in the following manner:

“Some years ago an old woman, of a masculine type, best known as ‘Bell Royal,’ made a good thing on the Caithness coast out of the reputation which she gained for herself as a witch. She got her name up in a very simple manner. A fisherman having given her enough old rope to make a tether, she thanked him, and added in a jocular vein, ‘This will be forty crans to you to-morrow.’ The fisherman, who was then on his way to sea, returned on the morrow with sure enough the exact quantity of fish that Bell had promised him. After this her fame went fast abroad. There was something in her appearance, however, which helped her as much if not more in making a name than her one lucky guess. Besides wearing a man’s jacket on her back, she had a natural virile ornament on her upper lip, which, although it might have filed many a youth with envy, gave her a sinister expression, especially as she affected as manly a style of dress as possible, wearing a shepherd’s palid, and carrying a thick heavy stick whenever she went. Perhaps her style was studied for the object which she had in view. Her speech was pompous and authoritative, as became a person who could give a good fishing or keep the fish away altogether. On fishing days she went about the quays flourishing her stick and exhorting her friends to give ‘Royally’ as their future success depend entirely on their present liberality. Her manner was so imposing that they did give royally, fully believing she had the power of giving or withholding a fishing. When herrings were plentiful, she received incredible quantities, which were passed on to a curer, and so turned into money. In addition to this half-crowns and crowns were frequently passed into her palm with a wink. Those who refused to give were threatened. She was their fear at the time … [and] she was never turned away empty. [However] poor Bell has since gone the way of all things.”[13]

Although fishermen might pay witches off like they did Bell Royal, there was a much cheaper way for them to protect themselves against a witch’s evil influence. It involved “nailing an old horse-shoe inside the stern of [the] boat.”[14] Doing so supposedly deprived the witches of their power to do harm. Mountain ash was also said to be “equally efficacious” against witches and, in fact, it was used more regularly as a protective mechanism than a horseshoe because there was less ridicule.

References:

  • [1] “Salt Water Superstitions,” in Shields Daily Gazette, Friday 28 June 1895, p. 4.
  • [2] “A Few Fisher Folks’s Fancies,” in The Graphic, 18 November 1882, p. 550.
  • [3] “Salt Water Superstitions,” p. 4.
  • [4] “A Few Fisher Folks’s Fancies,” p. 550
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] “Salt Water Superstitions,” p. 4.
  • [7] “A Few Fisher Folks’s Fancies,” p. 550.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Radford, E. and M.A. Radford, Encyclopedia of Superstitions, 1996, p. 163.
  • [10] “A Few Fisher Folks’s Fancies,” p. 550.
  • [11] “Salt Water Superstitions,” p. 4. 
  • [12] “A Few Fisher Folks’s Fancies,” p. 550. 
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Ibid.

Google+ Comments

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Comment