The Dreg Song Project

In the nineteenth century, Scotsmen fished for oysters in the Firth of Forth by dragging dredges over the oyster 'scalps'. To maintain a steady speed they sang as they rowed. Overfishing brought the industry to a close near the turn of the twentieth century and with it, the use of the dreg songs. In the 1930s James Madison Carpenter gathered some of these songs on wax cylinders and typewritten pages. For years the songs were hidden away - lost. Now, with the work of the James Madison Carpenter Project these songs have come back to life first at Mystic Seaport Museum and, this summer, in their home waters of the Firth! Three Scottish Coast Rowing Clubs: RowportyNewhaven Coastal Rowing and Boatie Blest  brought the songs home to the Firth at 7:30 pm on 20 June, 2012 near the Dalriada Bar. It was a memorable and historic evening!

Boatie Blest sings a Dreg Song

Here, at long last, is the sound of a Dreg Song sung by the good folks of Port Seton’s Boatie Blest. Leading the song are Gareth Jones and Archie Johnston with Shelley Jones, Angus McDonald, Lucy Hyde, Carmel Daly, Robin Abbey, Eilish Guy, Martine Robertson, Bernadette (Berni) Goslin, Stuart Mack and John Johnston. Tom Donaldson was also part of the group but not present on this occasion. The recordings were made by Michal Jankowski and Dr. Paul Ferguson of Edinburgh Napier University with the cordial assistance of Graham Weir.

Port Seton sings the Dreg Song:

Dreg Songs Everywhere

Word is spreading about last week’s celebration. Radio was first, then blogs and now video. The link to the BBC Radio Scotland programme is in a previous post.

Here is a report of the event on the Scottish Coastal Rowing website.

Gavin Atkin writes a maritime blog ‘In the Boatshed’. Here is his take on the Dreg Songs Project.

The Caledonian Mercury is an online news source for Scotland. David Calder’s lovely video is posted on their site and you can view it here.

Thanks to everyone for their coverage. May the songs enjoy a renewed life on the Firth (and I’ve just had a query from Orkney . . .)

Dregs In The Boatshed

Many thanks to Gavin Akin – it was he who first put folks from Row Porty (the Portobello rowing club) in touch with me and it was that contact which led to the whole Dreg Songs Project. Here is a link to his website and his report of the project. Thanks, Gav!

Dreg Songs on the BBC!

BBC Radio Scotland’s programme ‘Out of Doors’ broadcast last Saturday and Sunday included the Dreg Songs Project. You can listen to it here. The Dreg Songs portion of the programme begins at 1:18:45.  Enjoy!



What a Night!

HUGE thanks to everyone for an unforgettable evening! The singing, the rowing, the hospitality – unparalleled. A lovely crowd of locals and visitors gathered on the beach as five skiffs from the three clubs rowed into view. The groups brought the boats onto the beach and sang for the crowd who enthusiastically cheered and applauded. Then back to the pub where the special Dreg Songs ale was finished by 9PM! A good sing-song in the pub, thanks and congratulations all round. A fabulous success! As it’s gone quite late here, I’ll post a few photos for now and provide a fuller report and some multimedia later. Thanks again to everyone – you brought the songs back to life!

Edinburgh Napier Students to Record Dreg Songs

Thanks to Graham Weir students from Edinburgh Napier University’s MA Sound Production Programme will be recording the Dreg Songs on Wednesday overseen by Dr. Paul Ferguson. One way or another I’ll try to get some samples online following the event. If the Port Seton group’s radio performance last week is any indication, there’ll be some fine and fascinating music!

Edinburgh Napier University logo

One Week To Go!

Just one week from today the Dreg Songs Project will restore to the Firth of Forth the nearly-lost songs of the local oyster fishery. From 7:30 PM, just off Portobello Promenade near the Dalriada Bar three Scottish Coastal Rowing Clubs will offer their interpretations of these unique traditions both in their boats (weather permitting) and in the pub. This will be the first singing of these songs on their home waters in a century!

To add to this festive occasion, the Museums Department from the City Art Centre will be bringing traditional fishwives costumes from Newhaven and a display of photographs related to fishing in the Firth of Forth. In addition, a special ‘Dreg Songs Ale’ has been brewed by Inveralmond Brewery and will be available on the night. Of course, a celebration of oyster fishing songs requires oysters and Michael Pollington of Pollington’s Fine Food and Drink has arranged with a local fishmonger to have fine Scottish oysters for your pleasure.

This will be a truly historic occasion. Recognizing this, both the Edinburgh Napier University and Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh will be sending students to document the evening, interview participants and create an archival record of this once-in-a-lifetime event.

On behalf of the James Madison Carpenter Project based at the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen, I’d like to thank everyone who has put so much effort into bringing this event to life. In addition to all the particpants, thanks are due to the National Endowment for the Humanitites (USA), the American Folklore Society and The British Academy for supporting the research that enables these communities to celebrate their traditions in this unique way.

See you on the beach!

Oyster fishing off Prestonpans, 1862

Oysters Ahoy!

Just to whet your appetite, Michael Pollington wrote that he’ll be getting oysters from a fine fishmonger between the Dalriada and Cockenzie. Don’t know the source the oysters, but the shop’s location is extremely appropriate, don’t you think?  I’m getting hungry just thinking about them!

Michael sent along this photo of his van. Look for it outside the Dalriada on the 20th!

Pollingtons Van

Ale Art Alert

Bob Hogg from Inveralmond Brewery sent this artwork for the Dreg Songs Ale pump clip. For those not familiar with real ale (my preferred style of beer, as it happens), the beer is pulled from the cask using a pump with a long handle to which a clip identifying the beer is attached. Here is Bob’s artwork:

Dreg Songs Ale Pump Clip

And, for a lark, here is a photo of my cellar ‘pub’ showing a pump clip in use. My hand is on the pump handle and the pump clip is right at the bottom of the image.

Bob Walser serving a pint of homebrew

Serving a pint of homebrew

Dregging Goes to University

Are you curious about the Dreg Songs? Come along to Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh on Friday, 22nd June where Bob Walser will present “Dreg Songs: Out of the Archive and on to the Firth“. This talk will trace the history of the dreg songs from the earliest descriptions and images, on to archival recordings including those made by James Madison Carpenter, up to the present work of the Scottish Coastal Rowing clubs and the 20th June gathering in Portobello.

Where? Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, First Floor Conference Room, 27 George Square.

When? Friday, 22nd June at 1:10 PM.

University of Edinburgh

An Historic Scottish Dredge

Gareth Jones of the redoubtable Port Seton rowers made the trek over to Anstruther to visit the Scottish Fisheries Museum in search of an oyster dredge. Here is the photo he sent of a large dredge that matches the one drawn by a student at the School of Scottish Studies back in the 1960s – the only image of a Scottish dredge I’d seen until now. See how the dredge is leaning against the wall to keep its mouth open – lying flat on the bottom there would be no way to get oysters into the net. This illustrates the purpose of the rowing songs: to maintain a steady speed while towing the dredge to keep that the frame at the correct angle so the mouth stays open to gather oysters into the net.

The second photo includes an interesting detail: the dredge appears to be lying on its back and you can see the angle of the cutter bar which suggests that the frame was intended to lie at something like a 30 to 45 degree angle from the bottom in order for the edge of the cutter to work properly. There’s your challenge, rowers!

Thanks, Gareth, for making the trek and for sharing the photos.

Brewing Progress!

Terry Magill of the Darlriada Bar met with the fine folks from Inveralmond Brewery the other day to check the progress of the Dreg Songs Ale. The report was entirely positive – as far as anyone can remember  . . .

Brewer Bob Hogg provided this background about the brewery:

The Inveralmond Brewery produce quality, award winning beers from their brewery on the outskirts of the City of Perth.

Established in 1997, Inveralmond was the first brewery in the area for 33 years. And it is an ideal area for brewing beer: the magnificent surrounding countryside and history has been the inspiration for the original recipes which, coupled with the Head Brewer’s experience, create beers of exceptional quality. The pure water sourced from Loch Turret, renowned as the main ingredient of the many famed whiskies once produced there, is an essential factor in the Inveralmond range of beers.

Managing Director Fergus Clark, a graduate in brewing from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, founded the brewery and is supported by Head Brewer Ken Duncan.

You can read more about Inveralmond on their fascinating blog: Mash Tun Musings, or find them on Facebook (I have!) or Twitter.

Inveralmond Brewery Logo

We Made the Evening News!

Check out this story in the Edinburgh Evening News. The story includes a lovely photo of Newhaven Harbour in 1900. I don’t know who put the bug in their ear, but thank you, whoever you are!

Press Release Available

Pass the word high and low, Dreg songs are all the go. The first Press Release about the project can be seen right here:

Dreg Songs Press Release 1 May 2012.

Cockenzie Harbour, 1963

Here is the harbor of one of the villages that was home to the Dreg Song as it appeared in the early 1960s. The harbors of the other Dreg Song communities, Fisherrow, Port Seton and Newhaven have seawalls much like you see here.

Cockenzie Harbour ca 1963

An ‘Aha!’ from The Scotsman

Gareth Jones from Port Seton’s Boatie Blest brought together some of his rowers and two older Port Seton gentlemen for a Skype chat about the dreg songs. Turns out that one of the older fellows got to hear his grandfather’s voice through the marvels of technology. From what I could tell (an ocean away) Tom seemed to take it in stride!

To the gathering someone brought an article from The Scotsman, Edinburgh’s newspaper, published in 1963 on the subject of the Dreg Songs. The article was written by Francis Collinson, the only folklorist up to now who devoted any energy to these  songs. I contacted the paper who kindy supplied me with a scan of the article which reminded me of parts of the tradition that I’d forgotten in my focus on the rowing.

Collinson, like some of the earlier writers who mention the songs, describes the power of the song to coax the oysters into the dredge, as if by magic. He writes “… it would appear as if the fishermen sang to the oysters to charm them into the net!”. Collinson also highlights improvisation as a hallmark of the songs. Then it hit me: I’ve been focused on the rowing songs (naturally enough for a someone who studies worksongs) but ignored another sort of dreg song: songs sung not to coordinate work, but for other purposes as in this quote:

…and we marvelled whether the oysters of Loch Hanza have the same ear for music as their brethren in the Firth of Forth, who require a continuous dredging-song to lull them to their doom, so that the wily fishers must perforce keep up an incessant monotonous chaunt, in which all their conversation mast be carried on. Various collectors of old ballads have from time to time gone out for a night with the dredgers, hoping to add new songs to their store, but all agree in saying that the same words never occur twice unchanged ; and so they only gain the bitter cold of a night in an open boat in one of the months ” with an R,” which you perceive excludes all the bonnie summer nights. One allusion to this graceful fancy is found in a charming ballad which begins : —

” The herring loves the merry moonlight,
The mackerel loves the wind,
But the oyster loves the dredging song,
For he comes of a gentle kind.”

(from In the Hebrides by C. F. Gordon Gumming, Chatto & Windus, Picadilly, 1883 pp. 2-3)

We now have three groups working on the rowing songs (thank you all!) but I think there’s more to the story. Come to think of it, there may be two or three of these somewhat mystical songs in the Carpenter Collection . . . There’s more to explore!

They’re Off!

What a thrilling day – the Dreg Songs are on their way ‘home’!

The rowing clubs from Newhaven, Portobello and (s00n) Port Seton met with me (online) to learn what I’ve discovered about the Dreg Songs (if you were at Mystic last June or the American Folklore Society meeting in Bloomington last October, you know what I mean). They now have access to musical transcriptions, sound files and historic images all of which they will use to reconstruct these songs on the water. Meeting online was a bit ethereal (Minneapolis, Portobello, Newhaven, Kent and Angus) but the enthusiasm was solid. The energy around this project is wonderful. Thanks everyone!

Newhaven Coastal Rowing

Greentrax Comes Aboard

Who’d have guessed that one of the villages with a dreg song tradition would be, today, the home of a folk music record label! Greentrax is a premier producer of folk music recordings in Scotland and is based right in Cockenzie where several versions of the dreg song were collected by Carpenter. While interest in our project does not imply any particular result, I’m delighted to include them as a supporter and to encourage anyone reading this blog to drop by their website: I can vouch personally that they produce exceptionally fine music!

Greentrax Logo

Special Dreg Songs Ale

Now here’s some great news: a special beer for the project. That’s how to celebrate tradition!

Terry Magill of the Dalriada Bar has arranged with Inveralmond Brewery of Perth to produce a special ‘Dreg Songs Ale’. It will be available on the night at the Dalriada so ale-lovers, you now have another reason to join us on the 2oth of June!

Thanks Terry – I’m sure we’re going to work up quite a thirst!

The Game Plan

How will the dreg songs return to the Firth? In April I’ll do a video conference with the three rowing clubs and interested musicians and share with them the results of my research to date. They’ll have a chance to hear the original recordings and see the notations and texts gathered by James Madison Carpenter. After the video conference they will receive copies of these materials to study at their leisure.

Over the following couple of months each club will have time to work out their interpretation of the tradition using the materials provided plus their own boats and experience.

In June, we’ll all gather first in Edinburgh at the beach near the Dalriada Bar where each group can demonstrate their interpretation of the tradition – and have the opportunity to compare and contrast them all. At the weekend following we’ll all head up to the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival in Portsoy to row, sing and celebrate!

Dredging off Cockenzie, ca. 1873

So how was oyster dredging done in the Firth? Here’s an image from J. G. Bertram’s The Harvest of the Sea. London, John Murray, 1873.

Oyster Dredging at Cockenzie

The Dreg Songs Project is Underway!

With the cooperation of Rowing Clubs, Universities, Archives, Folklorists and enthusiasts, the ancient rowing songs of the Firth of Forth will be returning to their home waters on June 20th, 2012! Watch this space for news about the project and all the participants.