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Fishing Superstitions

All fishing communities have their superstitions, and Shetland is no different. The reason for the superstitions may be long forgotten, but many fishermen still abide by them today.

Margaret Umphray of Basta in Yell recalls a night she and a friend went to the herring, and her friend mentions seeing the ‘minister’ whilst onboard the boat. The crew landed no herring from their trip, and the friend’s mention of ‘minister’ onboard the boat was blamed for their bad luck.

If someone mentioned a taboo word like ‘minister’ it could be counteracted by calling out ‘cauld iron’, this was meant to stop the bad luck.

In order to avoid bad luck fishermen had their own language, for example: skeon [knife], upstander [minister], long-nosed fellow [pig].

Further examples of superstitions includes:

  • Whistling – it was banned at sea lest it bring on a storm.
  • A boat must be turned sungates [clockwise], never widdershins [against the sun].
  • Cats were very unlucky.
  • Certain people were unlucky to meet when the fisherman was carrying his lines to the boat.
  • If an old woman got between a fishermen and the sea he could forget fishing.
  • Seeing a circle of old women was fatal. You could forget fishing.

Even today, there are certain things fishermen will not do.

You can hear more about Margaret Umphray’s account here:

And Tom Anderson’s account here:

Umphray, Margaret, “The word ‘minister’ brings bad luck on fishing trip”, School of Scottish Studies, recorded by Prof. Alexander Fenton, SA1958.183,, accessed 08 February 2014.

Anderson, Tom “The skills of Shetland fishermen”, School of Scottish Studies, recorded by Prof. Tadaaki Miyake, SA1972.238, accessed 08 February 2014.

Do you know any more fishing superstitions that are still abided by today? Please let us know by emailing and we’ll update this post.