US folk project dredges up historic Forth oyster songs

Newhaven Harbourin 1900

Newhaven Harbourin 1900

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THEY were sung by the oyster fishermen on the Firth of Forth more than a century ago, with some believing they helped to “charm the oysters into the nets”.

Now for the first time in more than 100 years, the “dreg songs” will be heard again over the waters of Portobello beach thanks to a project started by an American folklorist.

The songs were previously sung by oyster fishermen as they rowed their boats, towing dredges across the oyster scalps of the Firth of Forth.

Now Bob Walser, who lives in Minnesota, plans to resurrect the forgotten songs at an event at Portobello beach next month, which will see crews from three rowing clubs – Newhaven Coastal Rowing, Rowporty from Portobello and Boatie Blest from Port Seton – take to the water to sing the dreg songs.

Dr Walser, 58, said: “Cockenzie, Port Seton, Fisherrow, Newhaven and Leith were among the Scottish towns visited in the 1930s by the American folklorist, James Madison Carpenter, in search of sailors’ songs and other folk songs.

“Carpenter’s wax cylinder recordings and manuscripts contain many delightful songs, but none more intriguing than the dreg songs which, it was said, would ‘charm the oysters into the nets’.

“It’s thrilling to have the chance to see and hear these songs on the water, much as they would have been done a century ago.”

The Dreg Songs Project is a collaboration between Dr Walser, the three rowing clubs, scholars from Aberdeen University and the Library of Congress in America to recreate the songs on home waters.

It is a small part of a much larger project in which Dr Walser is also involved – preparing the James Madison Carpenter Collection for publication.

Dr Walser, who will fly to Edinburgh especially for the event on June 20, said: “The south shore of the Forth, from Newhaven onwards to Musselburgh, Fisherrow, Cockenzie and Port Seton, was the only place in the whole world where these songs were sung.

“By about 1900, there were just not enough oysters left to make the fishery viable. The last time the songs were sung was around then.”

Dr Walser used Carpenter’s recordings to research the songs and has been planning the event for the last six weeks.

He said: “Some local museums are interested in sending along people in costume as oyster fishermen’s wives and making a bit of a party of it.”

The event will start at 7.30pm.

Making waves

AN excerpt from the singing of David Ross of Cockenzie, collected by James Madison Carpenter in the 1930s:

I’ll begin my morning song, morning song

And did you ever waken wrong, waken wrong

I will sing and you may say

I’ve been at the dreg all the day

And fain would I my netting lay

To dreg a mussel and a clam