"By the sea we live --- From the sea we have
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!
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"
But that's easier said
than done when the saying applies to the absentees from the villages
of the East Neuk of Fife.
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,-------
away the Swallows, never be afraid.
the Pitten-Rovers how the game is played.
Curly gets the ba', he dribbles through them a'
scores another goal for the Swa-aw-llows.
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,
Craig, LongShank, the Pataleebies, the Sandy Kirn, Newark Castle.
Names that along with the St Monans people all bring back
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
Other great St. Monans dishes that the fishermen made
fat juicy smoked kippers.
haddock for smoked fish kedgeree.
haddock fillets for great tasting fish and chips made from a
local farm's Golden Wonder
roe, steamed, sliced, coated with ruskoline then lightly fried.
Crabs and Lobsters.
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
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
auld St. Monans
March 14th 2011, Jean Wilson, nee Small, who is from St. Monans
has lived in Cheshire for over 40 years, wrote to tell me that she may
the answer as to how this old painting came to be on the Oregon
Jean writes, "In the 1920's my Auntie Jane Small married a
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
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. )
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.
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
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
Shun it as an evil place,
It will bring you desolation,
Cover you with deep disgrace.
Friends and kinsmen all around
Counsel you to pass it by,
The pleadings of your darling
Strengthen you once more to try.
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.