Reaper arrives with the Sea Queen on board
St Monans windmill
The old swimming pool on the coastal path
A couple of weeks ago, I took a trip around the East Neuk to St Monans to watch the annual crowning of the Sea Queen. It’s a tradition I first came across in Mike Hildrey’s documentary, Sunrise to Sunset: East Neuk Fishing, and a prime example of the role of women in a fishing community. Since this is exactly the topic I’m examining in my own documentary, I seized the chance to see the ceremony first hand.
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Once a place where the fishing industry thrived, St Monans Harbour still berths a smattering of boats, though nowadays these are mostly for leisure instead of work. It’s this historic connection to the sea that gave rise to the practice of selecting a Sea Queen. Every year for over half a century, a St Monans girl has been selected to assist with the organisation and smooth running of community events. She is chosen by her peers on the merit of her existing dedication to the community. This year it is Caitlan Duncan’s turn, the latest in a long line of Sea Queens to serve her community, and there is an entire day built around honouring the new ‘monarch’.
Brightly striped stalls lined the harbour front, offering refreshments, raffles – typical gala fare. Over the course of the afternoon, locals performed music on the stage, and of course ran the aforementioned stalls. The seafront remained busy the entire afternoon, so the appeal clearly reaches more than just a keen handful of organisers. The fact that the practice of crowning a Sea Queen has remained while fishing’s presence has fizzled is testament to the locals’ respect for and pride in the heritage of their village. I was struck by a strong sense of community, something that obviously hasn’t been lost with time.
In keeping with the historical precedent of the day itself, the ceremony was steeped in tradition. Caitlan and her party sailed from Anstruther on board the Reaper, a Fifie lovingly restored with support from the Scottish Fisheries Museum and crewed by experienced volunteers. They paraded to the stage, led by a piper, and the party were introduced one by one: a fisher lass, page boy, two attendants, then, of course, Sea Queen Caitlan herself. She and her attendants wore ceremonial cloaks, handmade in the 1980s by Maureen Lishman. A slightly newer tradition, then, but the design seemed informed by how previous cloaks might have looked. The fisher lass wore a traditional striped dress and carried a basket, a more contemporary nod to fisher fashion.
Once on stage, the party seated themselves on antique chairs reserved especially for the occasion. Caitlan traded her short cloak for a full length one, and was crowned by her predecessor. The use of a crown in the ceremony, made by local Yvonne Sutherland, is a new tradition going forward.
I will need to do some more research, but among the roles available to women in fishing communities, this is one of the more unique ones I’ve come across. Admittedly, though, when I first saw the ceremony and heard of its history, I couldn’t help but compare it to the very similar contest held at home in Peterhead. Each summer, during the annual Scottish Week, we crown a Buchan Queen and two Princesses. While the principle is generally the same, and the practices arose at roughly the same time, the Buchan Queen is more of a gala queen, where the Sea Queen is more specifically tied to the traditions – and perhaps superstitions – of fisher people.
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As well as taking in the festivities, I took the opportunity to wander along the coastal path to the 18th century windmill that sits atop a hill overlooking St Monans. It’s been restored and turned into a viewing platform, offering panoramic views that take in Pittenweem, the Firth of Forth and the Fife countryside.
Why a windmill in a village known for fishing? It’s thought that it was used to draw up water to be used in salt processing. St Monans was just one of many places salt processing was conducted along the Forth estuary. Only after I found the door firmly bolted and padlocked and returned to the harbour did I discover that the key can be borrowed from the local Spar (in exchange for a small deposit, of course). All that means, though, is that it’s definitely something to revisit in future.
And as for the Sea Queen, I’ve seen what the tradition is today, but its origins remain as mystical as the fantastical connotations of the title itself. More digging will need to be done…