Guest writer DUNCAN HARLEY tells us about Isie Caie, thought to be the last fish wife to hawk her wares from Cove to Aberdeen
An 1882 entry in the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland describes the Mearns village of Cove as a fishing village in Nigg parish with a railway station, post office and a harbour where locals engaged in the drying and smoking of haddock. The population was stated to be 550.
The village sported a busy public harbour, an Episcopal church and a hotel. Just five miles south of Aberdeen the village has been variously known as Cove, ‘The Cove’ and more recently as Cove Bay.
Alongside the fishing, Cove also featured a granite quarry dating from around 1790 and for some 140 years was home to a fish meal factory affectionately known locally as The Stinker. The factory latterly employed around twenty-five men and the business, The Aberdeen Fish Manure and Oil Company, was re-located to Aberdeen sometime around 1930.
Aberdeen music hall entertainer Harry Gordon (1893-1957) parodied The Stinker in Tak’ Me Back Tae Cove – A Song of Cove and penned a chorus with the immortal words “Oh Tak’ me back to Cove, tak’ me back to Cove, far the air is as strong as can be!”
A long gone local resident known locally as Isie Caie may very well have been the very last Mearns fish wife engaged in the daily export of fish from Cove all the way to Aberdeen.
Isabella Catto Caie was well known in Cove and well known in Aberdeen. In the days when catches were bountiful, she could be seen hawking her wares at The Green. Later, as landings of fish at Cove declined, she took to buying from middlemen at the Market in Aberdeen before taking up her usual stance on the cobbles.
She had her regulars and, in the early days at least, could be easily spotted walking the six miles into town, carrying a creel loaded with fish on her back to sell in the Granite City. Latterly, in old age, she took the bus.
According to legend, it might take two men to lift the heavy creel laden with fish on to her back before she set out on her journey into the city centre. Latterly, folklore led to some late fame and alongside a few pictures in the press she featured, at least the once, in a Press and Journal calendar celebrating the heritage of the North East.
Isie Caie died in May 1966 aged 86 and is buried at Nigg. Her grand-daughter, Chirsty MacSween recalls that “she sold at the Green to the end” and that she “had a reputation for always having a smile on her face, a happy woman”.
Modern day Cove features a sculpture in memory of the lady. Completed by Brazilian artist Albertina Costa in 2016, it sits on a grassy knoll high above the harbour and is known locally as ‘The Spirit of the Fishwife’.
DUNCAN HARLEY is the author of The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire and The Little History of Aberdeenshire. Both titles are available from Amazon in both digital form and in print. His latest book Long Shadows – Tales of Scotland’s North East is available in print from Amazon.