Crail and its Fisheries, 1550-1600

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Another book has appeared, based primarily on the rich resources available in Special Collections. Crail and its Fisheries, 1550-1600 is the first publication of the newly-founded Strathmartine Press, and represents the culmination of over 10 years of research by its author, Professor Thomas Riis of the University of Kiel.

The cover of Crail and its Fisheries, 1550-1600, by Professor Thomas Riis
The cover of Crail and its Fisheries, 1550-1600, by Professor Thomas Riis

The work demonstrates how the fishing industry of the East Neuk (and, by extension, other parts of Scotland) was organised in the 16th century – examining the personnel, the mercantile relationships involved, the business practices, the wider dimensions of the trade (such as import of wood for barrels, and salt, as well as the export of the produce), and even the mechanics of the business – the equipment they used, and the long months in the dangerous waters off the Northern Isles and in the Minch. It’s a vivid account of a trade which was vital to the economy of this part of Scotland, but which has previously received very little attention.

During his doctoral research in the late 1980s, on Scottish-Danish relations, part of which were conducted in St Andrews, Professor Riis was fortunate to discover some fishing contracts in the burgh court books of Crail, which are preserved (on behalf of the Keeper of the Records of Scotland) in the Special Collections Division of the University of St Andrews Library.

Pages from the burgh court books of Crail
Pages from the burgh court books of Crail (B10/8)

The Crail court books provide a wonderful record of the town’s business activities, since contracts were generally registered with the burgh court, for the second half of the 16th century. The discovery sparked an idea, which, after several more research trips to St Andrews during which Professor Riis has been a welcome visitor to Special Collections, has finally taken shape in the present book, which relies mainly on the information obtained from the Crail records.

The book launch, on 25th October, was generously hosted by the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther, where an invited audience heard comments both from Professor T.C. Smout, Historiographer Royal for Scotland, Chairman of the Strathmartine Trust, and long-standing friend of Professor Riis, and from Thomas Riis himself; followed by a beautiful and entertaining short recital of traditional herring songs given by Dr Katherine Campbell.

Professor Thomas Riis (left) with Professor T.C. Smout at the launch event
Professor Thomas Riis (left) with Professor T.C. Smout at the launch event

The publication marks the first venture by the new Strathmartine Press – a publishing arm of the Strathmartine Trust, which was set up by a bequest of the late Ronald Cant. It exists to encourage and support the study of Scottish History through provision of a research centre in St Andrews, the awarding of research and publication grants, and now publication under its own imprint. It’s thoroughly appropriate that this charity, based in St Andrews, has published as its first work, a book which is so thoroughly rooted in St Andrews and the East Neuk.

Dr Norman Reid
‎Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Scottish Historical Research – ‎University of St Andrews

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