Seine Net Queens: Where Next?


Between August and October this year, Timespan’s gallery was home to the exhibition Seine Net Queens, an exhibition presenting photographs from Timespan’s Archive alongside new works by textile designer Laura Spring, artist Bernie Reid and fashion researcher Mairi MacKenzie, curated by independant design curators Panel.

Inspired by the significant social, economic and cultural legacy of Helmdale’s herring trade, Seine Net Queens explored the trade’s 20th-century heritage through newly commissioned work by textile designer Laura Spring, made in response to a selection of photographs from Timespan’s archive. Focusing on amateur and family photographs of women who actively participated in the development of an identity for Helmsdale, these images of seine net queens and their attendants make visible the influence of the area’s sea-fishing heritage on community events and activities. When considered alongside earlier photographs of Helmsdale’s herring gutting girls, the photographs reveal the transformation of women’s lives during a period in Helmsdale when the structures of work and industry were radically redefined.

Here, Jo Clements, our Archive Development Manager, reflects on what we have learnt from the process and what we are still hoping we might find:

In May this year, Timespan invited the curatorial duo Panel (Catriona Duffy and Lucy McEachan) into our archive to see what might interest them as the basis for an exhibition of newly commissioned work in Timespan’s Gallery.   As they sifted through the thousands of images in the Archive, they homed in on 26 images mid to late twentieth-century photos of young women dressed up in sequin-trimmed dresses, cloaked and crowned, seated with their attendants on brightly decorated boats and floats:  Seine Net Queens, Herring Queens and Gala Queens photographed in their finery.

We knew some of the queens’ names, we knew the names of some of the boats, and we could estimate the dates of some of the photos.  The list of the questions Panel asked that we did not know the answers to was, however, considerably longer:

  • When were Seine Net Queens first crowned, and when did the tradition end?
  • How were the queen and her attendants chosen?
  • Why did the tradition stop?
  • What activities did the day include?
  • What were the costumes like?

Although we asked around in the lead up to the exhibition, no one seemed quite sure of the answers to these questions.  But once they knew we were interested people started searching their attics, bringing us more photos, and sharing their memories.  A chance find of a 1953 Northern Times article in a box in Timespan’s Archive also added to the growing body of material.  We still don’t know the answers to all of the questions that Panel asked us, but we know a lot more than we did at the start of the process.  There’s still a lot to be discovered about the queens for anyone who fancies taking up the challenge!

When were Seine Net Queens first crowned?

According to a 1953 article in the Northern Times, the Seine Net Queen that year was Betty Mackintosh, crowned on 2nd August 1953.  There had been at least one Seine Net Queen previously, because the article refers to “last year’s queen”, Betty MacLeod.  The use of the term “Seine Net Queen” in 1952 is confirmed by a group of correspondents to the Northern Times the following week who took issue with the original headline “Helmsdale Fishermen Hail First Seine Net Queen”, noting that the 1952 queen had also been a Seine Net Queen.   This letter to the Northern Times is also interesting because it tells us that although fishermen organised the 1953 Seine Net Queen, the 1952 queen was organised by the ladies of the British Legion.

These reports suggest two possible ways to trace the appearance of queens further back than 1952:  either the archives of the Northern Times, or any surviving minute books of the ladies branch of the British Legion might hold the answer.

When did the tradition end?

The answer to this question also remains somewhat vague:  one of the members of our Heritage Group moved to Helmsdale in 1967, and never saw a Seine Net Queen day, so the “Seine Net” must have been removed from the title of the queen before this date.  The same member of the group does, however, remember Lifeboat Queens, but isn’t sure whether these were a morphing of the Seine Net Queen or an entirely different celebration.

How were the queen and her attendants chosen?

Some of the people who came to talk to us after they had seen the exhibition remembered queens being chosen at a dance.  One lady remembers this being held in the drill hall, although she can’t remember what year (or years) that was.  The girls were apparently chosen for their looks, and a good-looking girl could be chosen whatever her family background:  Seine Net Queens were not always from families who worked in fishing.  I would love to know what it felt like being chosen to be the queen or an attendant and how important it was to the girls.

Why did the tradition stop?

We still don’t have a satisfactory answer to this question.  Some people suggested that the Seine Net Queen became the Gala Queen as the importance of fishing to the local economy diminished, but we don’t know this for certain.

What activities did the day include?

The 1953 article in the Northern Times reports on the activities of the day in some detail:  the new Seine Net Queen, her attendants, and the previous year’s queen were led down to Brora harbour by the Brora Pipe Band, where they were presented with flowers and chocolates, and embarked on a fleet of nine fishing boats.  The boats arrived in Helmsdale harbour where the queen was crowned on a lorry decorated with a seine net.  The queen then led a procession to Couper Park where there were children’s sports.  Mysteriously, the Northern Times also reports thanks to “the choir who sang so sweetly in the river”:  presumably the choir were on a boat, rather than swimming as they sang – there must still be pictures out there somewhere!

In addition, passing comments and photographs give fleeting glimpses into other activities:  the writers of the letter to the Northern Times describe the 1952 Seine Net Queen being presented with a gold watch inscribed “Seine Net Queen” at a ball in the Bridge Hotel.  A lady who got in touch with Timespan because she remembered her cousins being Seine Net Queens in the early 1950s remembered fishermen taking people out for boat trips in the bay.  We also hold some lovely photographs of a Seine Net Queen or Gala Queen day believed also be in the early 1950s that show a fancy dress parade of small children led by two young pipers.  It isn’t clear whether all of these activities took place each year or whether there was a varied programme of events.

What were the costumes like?

As far as we can judge from the photographs we hold and have been given after the exhibition, the costumes of the Gala and Seine Net Queens had similarities year after year, but changed as fashions changed.  We still don’t know who made the costumes and who decided what they were to look like.  Like many of the questions regarding Seine Net and Gala Queens, this is another area in which there is exciting research to be done!