Caller Herrin’

When I began thinking about this design, I was reading about the intertwined histories of fishing and knitting, and Tom and I were coincidentally (and very happily) going through a kipper-eating phase (Fortune’s are my favourite). I wanted to make a hat that was an homage to the herring – the humble-yet-once-highly-lucrative fish whose annual Southward migration occupied communities up and down Britain’s North-Sea coast.

Scaly shapes lend themselves quite nicely to charted design, but I wanted the hat to suggest the shifting colours of shoals of herring too. I first tried working with two Alice Starmore colours (Kittiwake and Shearwater) , and shifting the foreground and background about. My prototype chart looked a bit like this:

But after a few repeats, I realised it wasn’t quite what I was after, so I adjusted things, and added in another four shades from my Starmore stash. Success! My scales now moved through graded transitions that were reminiscent both of shoals of herring and the cool light and water of Scotland’s East Coast. Ye gods, how I love Hebridean 2ply. For subtlety and depth it is quite peerless, and the yarn’s colour references in the Scottish landscape can sometimes seem spookily precise. Please to examine in the following photograph how well the shades of the knitted fabric echo those of the water and the wintry horizon. Starmore is a genius.

The colours are Selkie, Shearwater, Summer Tide, Pebble Beach, Kittiwake and Solan Goose. For many reasons, I find Pebble Beach one of the most interesting Starmore shades (you can read about its colour development here).

I have long been fascinated by how mercurial Pebble Beach can be, and when knitting with it this time I found its colour-behaviour as bamboozling as ever. To demonstrate: if you enlarge the pic of my peerie-sampler hat on the right, you will notice a pale turquoise – almost minty – colour popping out of the dull browns and pinks. That pale turquoise shade is Pebble Beach. But in my new tam, set against cool teals and creams and blues, Pebble Beach becomes a pinkish-brown itself:

It seems almost stridently resistant to being absorbed by the other shades. Evidently, I am obsessed with Pebble Beach, but while knitting this tam I developed a deep love for every one of the colours I used. Solan Goose is top-of-the-milk creamy; Summer Tide is deliciously light and fresh; and Selkie such a rich, involved, brownish-purplish blue. Um, did I mention that I heart Hebridean 2ply?

If you hadn’t guessed already, these photographs are taken at Newhaven Harbour, which is a short walk from where I live. The old fish-market now houses a couple of restaurants, but it used to be home to a nice wee museum, staffed by local retirees. When I first visited this museum, I got chatting to a formidably knowledgeable elderly gent, who told me that I would be a foreigner until I had lived in Newhaven for seven years. It is actually seven years ago this weekend that Tom and I moved here. Do you think we can count ourselves as locals yet?

This design obviously has local resonances too. Caller means fresh, and “Caller Herrin'” was one of the traditional street cries of the fishwives who carried their laden creels up from the Newhaven harbourside to sell their wares around Edinburgh. This street cry, in turn, gave its name to a song, written in the 1820s by Jacobite poet, Carolina Oliphant, to a tune by master Scots fiddler, Nathaniel Gow. In Gow’s music you can hear the pealing church bells of Edinburgh as well as the cries of the fishwives, while Oliphant’s words play on the notion that the true cost of fish could only be measured in the lost lives of the men who caught them. This sentimental sales pitch might be used by canny fishwives to boost their prices.

Wha’ll buy my caller herrin’?
They’re no brought here without brave darin’
Buy my caller herrin’
Ye little ken their worth.
Wha’ll buy my caller herrin’?
O ye may ca’ them vulgar farin’;
Wives and mithers, maist despairin’,
Ca’ them lives o’ men.

The familiar refrain of “it’s no fish you’re buying, it’s men’s lives” became the stock-in-trade of countless representations of Scottish fishwives over the century following Oliphant’s song (see, for example, this by Millais). I’ve included the text of the rest of Oliphant’s song (for those who are interested) together with my pattern. My favourite verse is probably this one:

An’ when the creel o’ herrin passes,
Ladies clad in silks and laces,
Gather in their braw pelisses,
Toss their heads and screw their faces.

But I am happy to say, that my Caller Herrin does not have the same olfactory effect on those who pass by. . .

. . though you might be forgiven for thinking that I was sniffin’ something fishy from this interesting shot that Tom managed to take of my nostrils.

Anyway, if you fancy making your own fish heid, you can buy my Caller Herrin’ here or here.