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Elphinstone Kist   Work, Folk-History

Becoming a Filleter     by: Robertson, Stanley

Source: Stanley Robertson, Fish-Hooses (Balnain Books: Nairn, 1990)


It wis a wee, pokie hole of a place in Old Ford Road and it teen me a half-hoor to find it. Whin I did, a tall impudent cove growled and snarled at me.

I wis only a laddie of fifteen years and a very quiet type of a loon and I wisnae accustomed tae lippie folks. At least I got the scabby job. I wis gan tae get thirty-eight shillings a week and for that coppers I wis gan tae hae tae work a forty-eight hoor week. In early 1956 that wis about the gan rates for loons of my age intae the fish trade. The gaffer telt me tae start the morrin and I wis glad tae get the job.

Mi sister Nina telt me that I wid get intae the wye of it cos she hid bin a filleter for donkeys of years. She sort of telt me some of the things that the hantel intae the fish-hooses wid dae tae mi. Tae tell ye the honest truth mi heart wisnae really intae daeing this kind of work but whin ye hae got naething then ye hae tae mak the best of a bad situation.


Weel, I pulled mi courage taegither and wint intae this scabby fish-hoose. As I didnae hae nae experience at onything, I didnae ken whit tae dae or whar tae start. The pure guffy of a gaffer screamed at mi like an animal, pointed ower tae a cauld finnin machine and booted mi airse ower in the direction of it. I didnae say a word, cos I wis feart of this powerful man. There wis a young red-heided hizzie on the finnin machine, wha hid a face on her like a pig. If onybody hid an attitude problem it wis this quine!

Her name wis Polly and she wis terribly impudent. Frae the very first minute I met her, I jist hated her. She gaed mi a bag of lip for nae reason and she cawed mi frae Heaven tae Hell. If ever I felt like gieing a dame a kick, it wis definitely this Polly wis gan tae get it. The selfish gaffer adored this dilly and I think they were haeing a bit of a cairryon taegither. He said that if I annoyed this Polly then he wid batter mi, so I hid tae hud mi wheesht. Underneath mysel there wis a madcap wanting tae brak loose but I bade mi time.

The first day wis awful. I wis on a rotten finnin machine an I wis getting electric shocks aff of the auld finner and mi hands were aa sair and skinned wi the fish. It wis a scabby, thankless job I wis daeing. The smell of fish wis sae scunnering that I nearly puked up. The gills really sickened mi and this selfish midden of a dame wis deliberately picking oot the fish een and burstin them in mi face. Mi moy wis aa speckled wi black dots frae the fish een and I could feel scabs brakin oot on mi face and mi hands, which were awfy sair. If it wisnae for shame I wid hae sat doon and grate. Tae mak maitters worse, the gaffer pit mi ontae the salty pickles, and the cuts on mi hands were stinging like mad and aa yella wi the cutler dye.


Maist of the ither women were aaright. There wis Big Ena, Rossie, Doshie, Uggie, Muggie and Beanie. Whit a right bunch of fish-wives they were as weel! They were maistly aulder women but they hid a funny sense of humour.

Doshie wis the fastest filleter, but a rough een. Beanie liked to gossip aboot aabody and aathing. I liked her cos she wis sic a braw character. Rossie and Uggie were the best of pals but they aye manged and miscawed een anither. If Rossie wis on the pickle, Beanie wid miscaw her like cat's dirt and vice versa, when Uggie wis on the pickle then Rossie wid blacken her name tae aabody ontae the filleting table…

Muggie wis an awfy bonnie worker and she teen pride intae her work, so aabody used tae get a bit jealous whin she wis asked for tae dae special orders and boss's fries. She wis also very neat in her appearance. Sometimes whin the gaffer wisnae in she wid teach mi tae fillet, but Doshie cliped on mi and sae did the dame Polly.


Although I wis a seven-steen weakling, naebody teen pity on mi. I wis the only laddie there and I wis fair croaked wi work. The sweat used tae lash aff mi brew whin it came tae unloading the trawl boxes of haddock, whiting, cod, tusk and black-jacks. I wis fair packered. Mi muscles were torn oot of their sockets and mi airms streeked sae far doon that I deeked like a monkey. Oh, bless us and save us! - it wis pure torture! Whin the gaffer wis awa then I could get a wee skive, but when he wis aroon it wis Hell upon Earth. It teen mi a couple of weeks tae get intae the set of things but nae maitter how hard I grafted, as far as this gaffer wis concerned, I wis jist a useless puddin. He gaed nae compliments or kind words tae me, but he aye paid compliments tae scadded, blurted Polly, wha wis obviously cocking her leg for him. I suppose if I wis a dilly then he wid hae bin okay tae mi as weel, but as I wis a boy he mortally hated mi.

Many a time he wid say: "Why dae ye nae wash yer neck, cos ye're awfy clatty."

Of course this wid cause laughter among the manishees, all except Muggie, wha wis a cut abeen the rest. Tae mak things worse, aa the folks kent that I wis a Traveller and they aye dropped snide remarks at mi. Tae mi they were only a bunch of dumpish Scaldies, so whit wis I gan tae worry mysel aboot them for. If I hid telt mi faither, wha could fecht like big guns, that this gaffer wis gaeing mi hassle, then he wid hae come doon and made mince-meat oot of him. Mi faither wis a man tae be reckoned wi… however, I jist stuck it oot for the sake of keeping the peace. I wis a quiet loon and I didnae like tae cause trouble.

Muggie liked mi cos she thought that I hid the gift of the sceond sight, and sae I did. I kent the wye tae read fortunes and this appealed tae the ither cullochs. They were kind of sleekit. Whin they heard mi reading Muggie's palm for a laugh, then they aa wanted it deen. They aa turned kind tae mi and even dame Polly changed her tune taewards mi. But I wisnae being taken in by them.

Somehow, I didnae trust Scaldies very far in that days so I bade mi time until I wid use them tae mi ain advantage. Polly got ontae the gaffer for bawling at mi and she started tae gie mi a fine roll every morning alang wi mi tea. Then I kent whit aa this palavering wis for: it wis for tae read rubbish tae them aboot their tea cups. Whin ony of the manishees asked mi tae read their cups I jist aye telt them it wis very unlucky. But I aye read Muggie's cup and I aye made up a guid story for her cos I liked her; but whin I did onybody else's then I wid mak things oot tae be bad. It wis aa jist a load of dung I telt them, but they believed every word. Mind ye, whit I did tell them did come tae pass. I telt Polly that she wis gan tae faa pregnant and that the boy wis gang tae rin awa and leave her. That really did happen. Pure coincidence? Or perhaps it wis mi secret evil curses that I wis pittin ontae them that wis really happening! Never mind, at least this silly games wis getting mi a bit of peace frae them constantly nagging at mi and it kind of kept the guffified gaffer aff mi back.

I must say the work wis very hard. Muggie aye telt mi tae aye look busy and if I didnae find something tae keep mi busy, she wid look for something for mi tae dae. She wis the first person tae start mi aff filleting.


At half-past five every night ye hid tae gang wi thousands of boxes doon tae the railway station tae load up the waggons. It wis an awfy scunner of a job and I loathed daeing it. It meant that whin ye hid worked frae afore eight in the morning ye were still haeing tae work overtime for about half an oor every night and ye got nixie for it. Nae even a word of thank you.

I wis wearying very quickly in this pokie hole of a fish hoose.

Noo it sae happened that Muggie wis haeing a birthday party and she wanted tae invite aa the hantel frae the work. She wanted me tae bring a pack of cards so that as a party piece I wid read some of this silly manishee's fortunes. I didnae want tae dae that but she said that I could bring alang a friend and that I wid get a little something for mi trouble. Whin ye dinnae hae twa wings tae rub, then it wis an awfy temptation tae be offered lowdy. Onywye, it wis jist a lot of skitter I telt the hantel, so they were pure burniegullies tae believe it in the first place.

Weel, me and mi mate went up for a laugh tae see if there wis ony talent, but Polly wis the youngest dame there and it wis mair like a hennie night. Mi pal and me decided nae tae bide that lang intae the woman's cane, cos we hid ither plans tae meet blondes later on in the night.

Whit a lovely keir Muggie hid. Why, there wis a bonnie carpet fitted ontae the fleer, and this wis a time whin maist folks hid only pungo. She also hid a persian rug as weel. Even though the hoose wis in the Gallowgate and a very auld yin, it wis in marvellous condition. I hid never deeked a cane like it. Her ornaments were shining and everything intae her hoose wis spick and span.

She welcomed us aa in and she wis a perfect hostess. Beanie says, "I must say Muggie, ye hiv a right bonnie hoose. Ye hae deen yersel prood."

Ithers expressed their appreciation of the hoose in like-wise mainner. Muggie thanks the woman and she teen the orders for the teas or coffees. Wid ye believe it? The very moment that Muggie wint ben the hoose tae mak the teas, big Ena says tae Doshie, "Gie's a hand and lift mi up for a minute, cos I want tae see something for masel."

I wondered whit it wis that she wanted tae deek at. I couldnae believe whit I wis seeing. Doshie lifted big Ena up a few inches aff the fleer and big Ena pit her fingers oot ower the beading that wis up beside the frieze and she drew her fammels alang the length of it and she says tae aa the folks in the living room, "Jist as I thought: Filth!"

Fit a damn cheek she hid, takin liberties in Muggie's hoose. Muggie wis a spotless person and if ye cawed a wee settle of dust on a beading filth, then ye were nae much of a person. How could Big Ena and the ithers mang aboot their friend like that? Whit a sleekit, dirty action - I wis highly annoyed at them!

Muggie came ben wi the teas and coffees and aa this sleekit lot started praising Muggie up. I really felt like exposing them. Decky, mi pal, and me decided that we widnae bide lang in this crappie party. There wis naething there for us but a puckle foggies blethering rubbish. Muggie gaed mi five shilling so I made up a load of tripe - bonnie tripe for her but the ithers, weel, I gaed them horrible fortunes for being sae selfish and miscawing peer Muggie behind her back.

Decky and me left early tae meet some quines at a cafe wi a juke box and wi played records and hits aa of the evening. It wis great fun as I hid five shillings tae spend on the records and even lowdy for the ice creams.

Next day at work they were aa whispering aboot Muggie's hoose and the party and aa being sae sleekit and twa faced that it made me want tae vomit.

I hated this smelly fish hoose and resolved that I wisnae gan tae spend muckle mair time in this terrible joint. So I asked some of mi freens wha I kent in the fish trade, if there wis ony jobs gan and if there wis, tae let mi ken. I knew it wis time tae be moving on somewye else, but I wis feart at this big gaffer and didnae want tae pit in mi notice tae him. Yet I kent in mi heart that I couldnae stick it ony langer.

I hid met a pal of mine wha worked at the herring and he telt me that there wis a job gan intae the night shift whar he worked. So I wint roon and I got the job and wis telt tae start the following Monday evening at 6pm. Noo mi problem wis that I wis a bit trash tae pit in mi weeks notice cos this big ill-natured gaffer wid hae hut mi as quick as look at mi. I wis hoping that something wid happen so that I could leave withoot any ado.

Weel, it so happened that the gaffer that morning wis chappin aff the heids of big black-jacks for freshening and he gaed himsel a right kami-kazi cut. It wis horrible and the bleed wis aawyes. It wis like a butcher's shop. The fella jawlocked and he hid tae get up tae the hospital immediately, and Muggie hid tae pit a spoon doon his mooth tae save him frae dying. I wis scared stiff. He wis kept intae the hospital and though he wis oot of ony danger he wis gan tae be in there for a week. Noo this wis mi chance tae pit in mi warning tae the clerkess.

They got anither laddie tae tak mi place. I hid tae pay five shillings on mi apron and ten shillings for mi wellies, so I didnae hae muckle pay on leaving.

I said cheerio tae aa the manishees and bung avree as quick as I could.

I didnae feel nae regrets aboot leaving that scabby place.

Weel, on the following Monday night I wint doon tae the herring place and it wis massive. Aa of the day-shift crowd were coming oot as I went in. The gaffer wis anither big rough-deeking gadgie and I thought tae masel that this wis gan tae be anither guffie - but he wis a fine, cheerful man. There wis only me and him and anither fella wha worked the kilns. I liked these men. This gaffer telt me tae jist mak tea and light fires. He never bothered mi, nor did he ask mi tae come intae the smoking kilns; in fact I didnae dae muckle work there, for the twa men deen everything that needed tae be deen. I wis mair of a hindrance tae them, but they never said onything.

The hoors were awfy lang cos it wis frae 6pm until 6am and sometimes it wis 8am before ye finished. There were night-shift lassies came in aboot 10pm and whit a wild bunch they were! Aa they spoke aboot wis sex and they telt een anither aboot their secret passions. Een of them wis madly in love wi the actor Audie Murphy and she aye used tae imagine that her man wis him in bed. Being a naive cratur masel and nae kennin onything aboot onything, I wis getting taught mi sex education frae these women. The Travellers never spoke aboot sex like this, so I wis learning things that I never kent before. Whin the twa fellas started tae join in, then the air turned blue. They came oot wi scaldie terms for sex like gameroosh, bitties, VD and a hale amount of things that I didnae ken whit they were manging aboot, even though they were a really fine bunch tae work with. I often used tae help the lassies pack cos there wis naething else for mi tae dae as the men deen it aa.

Mi first pay wis £5 10 shillings and that wis a guid working man's wage. I felt like Airchie. The only thing wrang wi it, wis that I didnae get oot tae spend it. I went hame frae work and slept until mither wakened mi up tae gang back tae work. It wis nae life for a loon of fifteen. At least I stuck it. I didnae like Fridays cos the twa men used tae leave mi on mi toad and they wint oot tae the peever and widnae come back till well through the night. I wis scared being left intae this big guldridge of a place, for there wis supposed tae hae bin a mannie hanged himsel in een of the kilns, and I aye imagined him haunting the place. It wis okay whin the fellas came back half-drunk. They were fine lads and, apart frae their rough and vulgar language, I couldnae fault them.


Everything wis gan fine until the twa fellas wint on holiday and a pure guffie teen ower. It only teen one hoor wi him and I walked oot leaving him stranded in the kilns wi heaps of kippers tae tak oot on his own.

I wint doon next tae anither herring place and it wis a really big and tough place. There were stacks of loons and quines and a heap of really auld wifies intae it. Six of us started the same day. Een of them cawed Alfie said tae us:

"Be like a chameleon; blend in wi everythin and dae as little as possible!"

Yet I remembered the words of Muggie, "Aye look for a job tae dae," and so I teen her advice.

The boss, wha wis a very handsome auld man, showed me personally how tae wash herrin before they were pit intae the pickle. He showed me how tae dae this cos I wis the only een wi nae experience, the ither laddies aa said that they kent their jobs. It wis a hard, scunnering job. Ye hid tae tak full baskets of split-herring frae the back of the splitting machine and wash them by swirling the basket whin it wis immersed intae a huge tub of water.

Never mind, I kept up wi the machine and the four lassies ontae the kipper pickles. There were three auld wifies wha laughed and joked and asked the maist personal questions aboot mi sex life. There wis anither bonnie lassie on wi them wha hid kind of African features, though she wis Scottish, and I fancied her like mad. She kent that I liked her and she wid use her chairm tae get me tae dae extra jobs for her so that she could sneak oot for a puff of a fag. I didnae mind daeing it for her, but then the ither auld wifies started tae play on yer guid nature.

That very first day at the finish of the work, the six loons and mysel that hid aa started taegither (including the elusive Alfie, wha wis a right poser), wi were aa cried up intae the office, and the boss said, "All of ye lads dinnae bother coming back - except ye, Ginger. I hae watched ye aa working and ye were aa deid weight but ye, Ginger, worked awa regardless."

I wis shocked. It seemed the auld mannie liked mi. So Muggie's words were guid advice, "Aye look for a job tae dae."

At the back of this place there wis a white fish side and an auld woman used tae show mi how tae fillet. Weel I wis nae bad at it, as Muggie hid shown mi already how tae dae the basics of filleting.

It wis a rough place but I liked the folks there. I liked filleting best cos that wis whit I wanted tae dae, and filleters were the highest paid in the fish trade. But somehow, ye aye seemed tae get pulled back intae the herring side. It wis an awful smelly, clatty job and the red dye stained yer hands and widnae come aff. Also I hid tae hurry aa the time tae keep up wi the splitter.

Hanging the kilns wis anither job that I hated. The kilns hid eighteen spars and it reached right up intae the lofters. Usually it wis me, Hans and Ackie wha deen the hanging of the kilns. It teen ages tae dae. I liked being at the very top best, but Ackie wis a better worker than I wis at the top. He could swing wi nae bother. The lassies doon below aye handed up the herring ontae tinter sticks up tae the first laddie and he handed it up tae the second yin and then up in turn tae the laddie at the top. It wis aaright tae start wi, but as the tinters got heavier and heavier, yer airms got sairer and sairer. The kiln got filled up frae the top spar first and ye sort of worked yer wye alang and then doon. By the end ye were aa getting crushed beside these kippers and tinters. Somehow, the top laddie aye ended aff sitting on the second laddies heid. The second laddie hid the hardest job because he hid tae maneouver these tinter sticks full of kippers withoot letting ony faa. The top laddie placed them aa in order. The tinters aye scraped yer face and tore yer hands and the red dye trickled doon upon yer heid. Apart frae that, somebody aye farted on yer face, for ye were working at een anithers airse aa the time. By the time ye came oot, ye were aa shattered. It wis best tae wear slack troosers, cos tight jeans wid rupture ye! Straddling the kilns, ye hid tae hae a fit up and anither leg doon a couple of spars and yer legs got cramped; though whin ye got accustomed tae it, the job wis a doddle.

The smell wis the worst part of working at the kippers. Everybody wore their wellies hame tae their dinners whin they were finished. Ye aye kent the herring workers on the bus coming hame cos they hid a distinct guff emitting frae them. The white fish hid a completely different kind of savour. It wisnae quite sae horrid as the herring. Come time, ye got used tae the smell but it made ye very touchy when non fish-workers wid say things like:

"Whit a horrible smell of fish!" Ye jist turned roon and gaed them a tear of lip, or a look like a summons.


Noo working here, I wis beginning tae get influenced wi the ither laddies. Mi language wis getting a bit stronger and I started tae smoke and drink. Often I wid meet the laddies in the city and wid gang tae the pub wi them. For the first time I wis starting tae mix with scaldie laddies and lassies and really, they were aaright. It wis me wha hid a complex and I aye imagined that folks were speaking aboot mi, and I would get bad-minded. Really the folks were fine enough, I jist hid a lot of social problems. Being a Traveller laddie, I hid never really mixed wi Scaldie folks, but now as I wis beginning tae like them I wint up tae their hooses. Although mi closest pals were aye Traveller fellas I did rub shooders wi the lads that I worked wi, and I still hid an awfy crush on this lassie at the pickles.

Een day, the mannie on the splitter wis aff and there wis only a lassie on the boner. She couldnae work the splitter cos it wis a fast machine. It teen a fish every second and ye hid tae place it intae a smaa grip that opened for a split second. It looked like the chain of a tank. I wis able tae work the splitter, so the boss kept mi on that job aa the time, and I hid nae mair tae hang kilns or wash herring. I enjoyed the splitter cos I wis mi ain boss and naebody bothered mi. Eventually I learned tae fillet as weel.

At last I felt it wis time tae move on and try tae get a job as a filleter. Filleters got better wages and a bit of respect as weel. Naebody shouted at them. I wint and I got a trial in anither fish-hoose and somehow I done very well and the man wis impressed, so I got the job. At last I wis a filleter! Noo the fish trade wis open tae me and I felt I hid accomplished something at last and the fish trade seemed tae hae something better tae offer mi. The wages were gan tae be better too…

There are hundreds of stories tae tell aboot the fish hooses intae Aiberdeen, but noo I wid be able tae tell ye aboot them seen through the een of a filleter.



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