St Andrews Saltire

Scottish Royal Lion Rampant Flag

 

 

 

St. Monans

Siminins, 

Mare Vivimus

 

  "By the sea we live --- From the sea we have life."

 

In the thirties, Siminins, aka St. Monans, aka St. Monance, harbour, four miles distant from Earlsferry was a beehive of industry. Herring  and bottom fish were very prolific in the Firth of Forth. Fishing and boat building were the life blood of the village. The boat building yard of Walter Reekie at the west end of the harbour and that of James N. Miller and Sons, Ltd  at the east end of the harbour could hardly turn out fishing boats fast enough to meet the demand.  In addition to North Sea fishing boats, Reekie's boat yard turned out round the world motor sailer cruisers, designed and built along the lines of the heavy canoe stern North Sea fishing boats to safely weather the worst storms at sea imaginable. The Miller yard in addition to North Sea fishing boats made both round the world  sailing yachts and also motor sailer cruisers that included the famous "Fifer" designs. The entire village echoed to the sounds of the men who built these craft which were all truly beautiful creations and works of art. The boat builders were a loud and jovial group. With heavy adzes they hewed the various massive sawn frame timbers into perfect shape and curvature.  And oh the wonderful smells that came from all the chippings and shavings of all the various woods. From Reekie's the woods of choice were oak for the keels, the ribs and the structural parts.  For the planking, larch or Oregon pine.  Decks were either larch or teak.  Wheelhouse structures were trimmed in Honduras or Philippine mahogany.  Miller's, for their yachts and motor cruisers, used a greater amount of the exotic woods such as African Iroko for the planking.  Now to these aromas, add the smell of tarry oakum, the stuff that gets hammered in between the planking, to make the seams leak proof.  But we're not done yet.  Tan-barked nets and ropes were everywhere and wooden boxes full of fish were stacked high and covered all of the piers. But wait; there's more, the best is yet to come. When the tide goes out, the floor of the harbour dries to expose a mushy layer of mud that's composed of rotting tangles, seaweeds and the remains of fish and other creatures of the sea.  The blending of all of these harbour aromas created the very essence of the village;  what St. Monans was all about, it's economy from the sea.  There have been  moments in my life that I'd have given anything for a nostalgic "whiff o' the smelly, mushy effluvia that emanated from the flair o' the Siminins herber."  At the nearby village of Cellardyke, Watson's prosperous and aromatic oilskin factory made waterproof garments for fishermen. Not far away another smell of wealth being created was at the town of Kirkcaldy where  hot linseed oil and rolls of jute were combined with crushed cork to make linoleum floor covering. Kirkcaldy was the home town of Adam Smith who wrote the world acclaimed classic book, The Wealth of Nations.

 

When launch day for the boat arrived the slipways were coated with a thick layer of soft soap.  Red, white, and blue ribbons were tied from the highest midway point of the boat to the stem and the stern posts.  A ribbon covered bottle of red wine hung from the bow. The local school closed for the day to let the children come to see the launching.  Everyone who could lined the piers to watch.  A lainch (boat launch) was a big event. A workman hammered out the last chock to release the boat.

 

The lady doing the honours swung the bottle of red wine against the stem.  "I christen thee, Morning Star. " ( or whatever was the name of the boat. ) " God bless this boat and all who go to sea in her." (The use of red wine at the christening ceremony of sea going vessels goes back to ancient biblical times.)

 

At first all is quiet then a great cheer goes up from all the by standing well wishers as the boat emerges from the boat building shed and picks up speed as it slides down the ways to become one with the sea.  I was always amazed that the water line that had been pre-painted on the boat was exactly where it should be.

 

Upper far left is my brother John Reekie. Lower far right is William Reekie, Walter Reekie's son.

 

During the years of World War II the British Admiralty commissioned the Reekie yard to build minesweepers and the Miller yard to build Fairmiles, high speed, hard chine, planing hull, motor torpedo boats.

 

At week ends when all the boats were in the harbour and rafted together it was at times possible to walk from the west pier all the way over boat decks  to the middle pier then over more boat decks to the east pier. Unlike today the boats  were virtually jam packed in the harbour.

 

I remember one tragedy that happened in the harbour.   Luckily on that day most of the boats were still out at sea. This happened in the evening.  For whatever reason a boat that was moored at the East pier caught on fire.  It's owner valiantly fought the flames.  When it got to the point that the blaze couldn't be extinguished the vessel was towed out to sea.  It was towed to nearby Newark Castle where it was cast adrift. The wind pushed it to shore where it burned till well after daylight. The radiant heat was so intense that watchers on the braes above the shore had to shield their faces.

 

Prior to Walter Reekie turning over a new boat to it's owner it was his custom to make one final tour of inspection of the boat.  One day in 1949 he was starting to do just that. On descending the iron ladder to get down and on to the boat he lost his footing on a rung.  He fell between the harbour wall and the boat.  In that instant he died.

 

After this sad event the Walter Reekie yard at St. Monans was bought by Walter's life long contemporaries and friends, the boat building Miller family.  Shortly after that Walter's boat building yard at Anstruther was also sold.    

 

Now fishing in the Firth of Forth has declined to the point that there is no longer a demand for new fishing boats and the villages of the East Neuk of Fife now cater to the many visitors who come to the region. The renting out of homes certainly brings money into the region but the transfer of money from one person to another, exchanges but doesn't generate wealth like the building of new boats and the fishing at one time did.

 

 

2007 A Miller Fifer moored to the east side of the middle pier in St. Monans harbour.

 

 

July 10th 2012   "New Seeker" in a quiet cove.

Conrad and Abby Myers of Portland, Oregon are the proud owners of this beautiful 38 ft. go anywhere in the world, twin diesel engine, St Monans, Scotland built Miller Fifer. With "New Seeker"  they regularly cruise the waters of the Pacific north west's San Juan Islands and British Columbia, Canada. What a way to go! 

 

Another member of the Miller family who achieved world wide fame, renown and acclaim in his own right is Niven Miller.  Niven elected not to follow into the family business of designing and building what were maybe the worlds best and most seaworthy boats.  Niven was blessed with a powerful, rich and wonderful baritone voice and his forte became that of an operatic singer and a singer of the songs of his homeland.  His voice held audiences, which included the Queen Elizabeth, spellbound wherever he went. Scots abroad who flocked to his performances were reduced to tears when he would sing, "O' my luve's like a red, red rose." However, as Niven said, "We can't "greet" for ever". But that's easier said than done when the saying applies to the absentees from the villages of the East Neuk of Fife.

 

In the 30's the village of St. Monans had a great "fitba" team named the Swifts although the team was also called The Swallows. At the start of play when the members of the team ran on to the field they were very smart in their white shorts, royal blue stockings and royal blue with white collar shirts. Matches were always well attended particularly on the days when with friendly rivalry they played against the Pittenweem Rovers. The Swifts captain who played in the position of center-forward was a man who went by the name of Jocky Wilson. He was also known to the supporters as "Curly". As encouragement to the St Monans team on days that the opposing team was the Rovers, the local supporters of the St. Monans team would take up the sing song chant,-------

 

Come away the Swallows, never be afraid.

Show the Pitten-Rovers how the game is played.

When Curly gets the ba', he dribbles through them a'

and scores another goal for the Swa-aw-llows.

 

St, Monans has some great place and street names: the Baslie, the Dawsie, the Burnside, the Braehead, the Backgate, the Pleruck, the Cribbs, the Braid Wynd, the Station Road, the Mair, the Coal Wynd, Millers Terrace, Rose Street, the Pans, the Roondle. Virgin Square, the Miller and Reekie Boat Building Sheds, the Aist Pier, the Blocks, the Middle, Pier, the Slip, the Wast Pier, the esoteric Offies, the Auld Kirk, Partan Craig, the Shang Craig, LongShank, the Pataleebies, the Sandy Kirn, Newark Castle. Names that along with the St Monans people all bring back great memories.

 

One of my favourite ploys as a boy was "scrannin for herrin." After the boats had unloaded the catch of the day on to one of the piers and before the boats were hosed out clean, boys were welcome to scramble over the boats and glean all the herring that had slipped out of the fish boxes and baskets and become lodged in the scuppers or some other nook and cranny. How proud I was when I had a great string of big fat herring to take home and to give away to others. Firth of Forth herring that were coated in oatmeal then fried became a meal fit for a king. 

 

Other great St. Monans dishes that the fishermen made possible were:

Big fat juicy smoked kippers.

Smoked haddock for smoked fish kedgeree.

Battered haddock fillets for great tasting fish and chips made from a local farm's Golden Wonder potatoes.

Cod roe, steamed, sliced, coated with ruskoline then lightly fried.

Partan Crabs and Lobsters.

Oh. My! These were the days!

 

Below is an old faded and water stained painting of yesteryear St Monans which poses questions that will never be answered.  Many years ago I was traveling on the Oregon coast and saw a going-out-business sign in the window of an antique shop. In a corner of the shop was a collection of stuff that was being discarded. After turning over a few of the items this small painting in it's original very old glass frame was looking at me. For me there was no mistaking what it was. How did this very old painting of the St. Monans harbour end up on the Oregon coast and be on the brink of being cast into oblivion when I happened by to rescue it ?  Who had been it's carrier to this part of the world ?  It's my guess that a very long time ago it had been the nostalgic possession of someone from St. Monans, a reminder of home.  The painting predates the building of the outer zigzag breakwater which is known as The Blocks. This breakwater was added to the East pier to shelter the entrance to the harbour from south easterly winds and the present day Miller boat building shed has not yet come on the scene. 

 

August 2007---I took the old painting back to St. Monans where I believe it now  hangs on a wall in the village's Heritage Museum.

 

Auld, auld St. Monans 

Today, March 14th 2011, Jean Wilson, nee Small, who is from St. Monans

but who has lived in Cheshire for over 40 years, wrote to tell me that she may

have the answer as to how this old painting came to be on the Oregon

coast. Jean writes, "In the 1920's my Auntie Jane Small married a

salmon fisherman who was from Elie and emigrated with him to Oregon.

My auntie at that time lived at 34 West End which is at the top of

The Dawsie Wynd and within 10 yards of where the picture would have been painted."

 

My uncle Alex (Sandy) Ferguson lived alongside of the Inverie Burn that flows by the Kirk and for many years he was the Auld Kirk's beadle and general caretaker. Several times he let me climb with him up the series of ladders inside the steeple when he went to clear away the accumulation of doopoo, courtesy of the pigeons that made the steeple their home. ( In Sandy's garden grew the most beautiful peonies, gladiolas and old world hollyhocks. )

 

Sandy's dad, Peter Ferguson, who was my grandfather, had an interesting sideline. Peter was empowered by the village to collect "The Custom". The Custom was a fee that out of town merchants who came in to the village to hawk their wares had to pay to do so. One such was "Come-Out."  Come-Out went around the village pushing a large hand cart as he rang a brass hand bell while he called out to the ladies who were indoors, "Come out, come out, where ever you are,---- fine vegetables and juicy pears" or whatever were his specialties of the day.  Peter kept half of the money that he collected and the other half went in to the coffers of the village. 

 

Just a few minutes walk westward from the Auld Kirk is the ruined Newark Castle or as the locals  called it, "The Castil". There, today, especially on Sunday mornings the ruined castle is a very quiet, peaceful and serene place but in the days of my youth on Sunday mornings it was anything but. In these days on Sunday mornings it was where a number of fishermen who were home for the weekend met to play cards and gamble and just have a fun time. Several large blankets were spread on the grass and Poker, 21 and other card games got going. Money was wagered against the luck of the draw. Loud laughter and hilarity prevailed as money was made and lost. I doubt that gamblers at the casino tables at Monte Carlo or Las Vegas had as much fun as these men. Boys from the village also came to participate in the fun of gambling. Their games were "Odd man wins" and "Pitch."  In "Odd man wins" each boy placed a coin on the back of one hand and covered it with his other hand. When all were in the game the covering hands were withdrawn to reveal which sides of the coins were up. If one boy's coin was heads up and all the rest were tails then he collected every one else's coin. In "Pitch" a stick was placed through a hole in a blanket then stuck in the ground. From a distance each boy threw his coin at the stick. The boy whose coin was nearest to the stick collected all the other coins.

 

Then there were days that members of the Salvation Army Band complete with an entourage of loyal followers marched through the village : which reminds me of this one of their author unknown chants.

 

Don't go near the bar room brother,

Shun it as an evil place,

It will bring you desolation,

Cover you with deep disgrace.

 

Friends and kinsmen all around you,

Counsel you to pass it by,

The pleadings of your darling mother,

Strengthen you once more to try.

 

 

When Monday mornings came the hardy St. Monans fishermen fired up the engines of the Paragon, the Green Pastures, the Breadwinner and all the other fishing boats and headed out past the May Island to the often tempestuous North Sea to once more  gamble with their lives.