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The Fisherfolk

A misunderstood community that contributed heavily to St Andrews’ unique character.


Fishing has provided a food source since early settlers arrived in St Andrews over 6000 years ago. The first reference to a “fishing harbour” dates back to 1222. Both the Harbour and a Fish Market are shown on the Geddy map of c.1580. However, the fishing community remained small until the 19th century.

A storm halted local fishing in 1765, killing 11 fishermen and damaging 5 boats. The town restarted fishing in 1803 by bringing two boats and crews from Shetland. This began the community’s growth, peaking in 1881 with 200 fisherman and 57 boats.

A local lifeboat was established in 1800 and several served St Andrews Bay up until 1938, operated by volunteers that were mostly fisherfolk.

Culture of the “Ladyhead

The fisherfolk lived from the east end of North Street down to the Harbour, an area called the “Ladyhead”. This was a close-knit community with a distinct culture. The dangers of seafaring encouraged superstition. It was forbidden to harm seabirds, whistle on a boat, allow women on board, and use certain words. Replacement words, such as ‘pink-fish’ for ‘salmon’, formed part of the fisher dialect.

Women in the community, called fishwives, performed vital tasks. They gutted and sold fish, mended nets, collected mussels and baited lines. A fishwife might carry over 100 pounds of mussels for 2 miles. Some would carry fishermen out to boats during bad weather.

Fisherfolk used separate establishments to townsfolk. The Scottish Coast Mission Hall provided religious services and education before the Fisher School. All Saints Episcopal Church also served fisherfolk and was known as the “bundle kirk” for its charity. There was a Fishermen’s Reading Room on Gregory Lane, as well as three pubs by the Harbour and Shore: the Auld Hoose, Bell Rock Tavern, and Wallace’s.

Poverty and Decline

Miserable poverty covered the Ladyhead. Town authorities often blamed fisher lifestyles:

“The east end of North Street is open and airy…but it is inhabited to a great extent by fishermen, whose habits render it highly offensive.”

  • Dr John Adamson, 1842 Report to the Poor Law Commission

This attitude ignored the hardships of fishing and overcrowded living conditions. Housing was split into small dwellings, with up to 10 fisherfolk in a family living in one room. Outdoor toilets were shared by several households.

Provost Hugh Lyon Playfair (in office 1842-1861) established some improvements, including the Fisher School and a navigational light to guide ships. However, he banned mussel collection from the Eden and made fisherfolk purchase mussels from the Town Council. Those defying the ban could find themselves imprisoned.

St Andrews boats could not compete with steam trawlers that began fishing the North Sea in 1882. A sharp decline left just 11 local boats by 1906. The council started “slum clearances” of the Ladyhead in the 1930s and fisherfolk were moved to social housing in Boase Avenue, where the houses lacked equipment storage. The communal identity dissolved and most fisherfolk found new occupations.

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Houses of the Ladyhead

The traditional architecture of the Ladyhead shows the influences of trade and fishing. The Harbour had seen major trade with the Netherlands and Belgium, known as the low countries. Scottish wools and skins were exported to the low countries from the 12th century, followed by salt and coal from the 16th century. In return, ships brought back building materials and ideas to Scotland. This exchange combined Dutch and Flemish influences with local needs to create a specific style across many Fife buildings. Fisher housing in the Ladyhead showcases this style.

Steps and Pans

A key feature of this regional style is the combination of stepped gables with pantiles.

Gable: The triangular shaped part at the top of the wall, shaped by the slope of the roof. The edges can be formed into various designs, including steps.

Pantile: A curved clay roof tile, invented in the low countries. Often an eye-catching shade of red.

Skewputt: Border between the gable and the roof tiles

Pantiles were imported to Fife from Rotterdam in the 17th century, originally expensive and used for high value buildings. Local production in Fife started in the 18th century. Technological improvements made pantiles more commonly affordable by the early 19th century. Pantiles proved hardier than widely used thatch and were cheaper than slate.

Using pantiles on the Fife coast did make roofs vulnerable to wind. However, extending the gable over the top of the tiles and adding a skewputt stopped wind from lifting tiles off a building’s sides. Raising the gable made it a more prominent architectural feature. This encouraged adding designs to gable edges, instead of plain straight lines. Stepped designs already existed in Scotland, but local steps were narrower than the Flemish style. The low countries did create more intricate designs, but Scottish stone was harder to shape than Flemish brick. This meant that local Fife designs retained the simple step.

‘Catering’ for Fisherfolk

Ladyhead houses differed to the rest of St Andrews, because they catered for fisherfolk. Landlords split houses into several dwellings and crammed families together. Outside staircases gave access to individual rooms within the same house and fishing nets were stored in shared lofts.

The Royal George was converted from warehouses by the Harbour to accommodation in the 1850s, dealing with the growth of the fishing community. It was a self-contained tenement block, with two pubs, a shop, and shared toilets in outdoor “towers”.

Against this backdrop of overcrowded housing, benefactors such as Annie and James Younger attempted to improve conditions. The Youngers and the legacy of T.T Oliphant contributed to the construction of All Saints Episcopal Church. They bought properties on North Castle Street and erected a tin church in 1903, replaced by a fully stone structure in 1924. The church hall hosted social and recreational events. There was even a Fisherman’s Gymnasium.

Annie Younger funded housing on Gregory Lane for fisherfolk displaced by the church. This housing, known as Saint Gregory’s, had the relative luxuries of indoor toilets and larger rooms. Its tiled staircase still presents a practical legacy, stopping nets getting caught as they were dragged up by fisherfolk.

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Preservation of Fisher Housing

The “slum clearances” of the 1930s began a local movement to save traditional buildings from demolition. Architect James Hoey Scott bought and saved two fisher houses in 1937, 12-16 North Street and 18-20 North Street. His renovations are an early example of historic preservation in Scotland.

Crowded Slum

Fisherfolk lived in 12-16 North Street for centuries. The first recorded owner was Alexander Bell in 1723. The Geddy Map from c.1580 shows a similar building on the site. A cannonball was even found during Scott’s renovations, potentially from the siege of St Andrews castle in 1547.

The house originally packed up to 40 fisherfolk into four rooms, each housing a family of up to 10. There were three front doors. Two doors led to ground floor rooms, whilst the central door led upstairs to two first floor rooms and the net loft. A pend ran between 12-16 and 18-20 North Street, providing shared access to a two-seater outdoor toilet for 80 people.

Romanticised Comfort

Scott created a romanticised coastal cottage, shedding fisher practicalities. He removed harling, the rough finish added to walls for weather protection, making stonework visible. Scott also took out the net loft, exposing the wooden ceiling beams.

The renovation turned slums into a comfortable residence. Scott introduced running water and indoor plumbing. 18-20 North Street was used for 3 bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room, and servants’ quarters. 12-16 North Street was used for leisure and entertaining. The ground floor was converted into a large sitting room and the wash house was turned into a sunroom. Scott created a lounge on the first floor and installed a minstrel’s gallery.

Culture and History

This romanticised setting suited the house’s continued role in St Andrews’ cultural history, hosting many guests and lodgers. This included Scott’s friends, apprentices at his architectural firm, and Polish soldiers based in St Andrews during the Second World War. Local artists also used the house as a space to collaborate. This included Annabel Kidston, Alison and Winifred Mackenzie, Ada Hill Walker, and Józef Sękalski. John Johnson, who lived in the house for nine years, described the scene from the minstrel’s gallery:

“…we sat up there, we put on the record player and played the Handel’s Messiah, we played Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, we played all the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, while we painted!”

The lounge also hosted meetings for the St Andrews Operatic Society and the Dramatic Society.

The Polish soldiers left their mark by carving their names onto a ground floor beam. Scott attached a Polish crest to the adjoining pillar in honour of Ryszard Diuke, a resident soldier that was killed during the war.


Scott and the house played further roles in preserving local history. The St Andrews Preservation Trust was founded in 1937. Scott was a member and his firm completed contracts on properties restored by the Trust. Scott eventually sold 12-20 North Street to the Trust and 12 North Street currently houses the St Andrews Heritage Museum and Garden. The museum highlights the social history of the town’s people, including the fisherfolk of the Ladyhead.