Mary Mochrie was a 'maid of all work': she was the only servant for a family in Edinburgh's Old Town when the New Town was still young.
Mary worked from dawn to dusk doing everything – the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry … all the work looking after the Master and the Mistress of the house and their only child, their daughter Isabella.
Isabella and Mary were the same age, but could not have been more different. Isabella was a very spoiled young lady.
On a hot Thursday morning in June, just as Mary was clearing the breakfast table, she overheard the family discussing the day ahead. Isabella wanted to go swimming/ However her mother was to visit a friend to take tea and her father was to be busy at work. Isabella always got what Isabella wanted, but who could accompany Isabella to the seaside?
When Mary heard her name she listened more carefully:
'Mary will have to take Isabella to swim in the sea,' the Mistress said.
Well, Mary was delighted. She loved to swim and she was ready for a day off – well part of the day at least – so she quickly packed their swimming things into a basket the two young women set out.
They walked down Leith Loan before heading North. They passed the Mills of Bonnington and started down the hill to Newhaven.
Coming up Whale Brae were the Fishwives carrying their willow creels full of the finest fish fresh from the Firth of Forth. They knitted as they walked and sang:
'Wha’ll buy my caller herrin'
They’re bonnie fish and hailsome fairing'
Buy ma caller herrin'
New drawn frae the forth.
'Oh when the creel o' herring passes
Ladies clad in silks and laces
Gaither in their braw palaices
Cast their heids and screw their faces.'
The fishwives and fisher lasses sang to sell their fish. Mary waved at Jenny Mucklebaket. She was a cheery lass from Newhaven from whom Mary bought a fish every Friday.
'See you in the morning, Mary!' cried Jenny Mucklebaket
'Aye!' replied Mary.
Isabella screwed her face up. She hated fish and she hated Fridays. She hated the taste of fish, the smell of fish and the texture of fish – alive or cooked!
They reached the strand and used a bathing cabin to change into their swimming clothes – thick woollen dresses with long skirts to the ankle, swimming hats and swimming shoes. By the time Mary had helped Isabella out of the silk dress with lace cuffs and into her swimming costume, and had got changed herself, the tide was in, and as Mary opened the door of the wooden cabin the water was right up to the steps. Isabella looked down and saw silver fishes swimming around and was nervous to step into the sea.
Mary went in first and held out her hand to help Isabella. Isabella wouldn't let go of Mary's hand and they waded out into the sea together. Their bathing dresses were heavy with water, so it was slow going.
Just as they were waist deep, Isabella's foot slipped on some seaweed on a rock and she plunged backwards into the sea, letting go of Mary's hand. Mary grabbed hold of Isabella who was coughing and spluttering, and that was that. Isabella didn't want to go swimming any more.
Mary was so disappointed but there was nothing for it. Isabella got what Isabella wanted. So they waded back to the shore and Mary had to help Isabella back into her silks and laces before getting changed herself.
Just as Isabella was dusting the sand off her lace cuffs she shrieked when she saw her hand and realised that she had lost a little ruby ring. The little ruby ring her beloved had given her as a gift just two weeks before as a token of his love and had made her promise to wear always.
Isabella made Mary search the changing cabin from top to bottom – but no ring was found. Isabella decided that Mary must stay at the beach until the tide had turned and when the tide was out, Mary must look around that rock where Isabella had slipped and find the ring. Isabella decided to walk home.
Mary was delighted … now she could swim, and swim she did, as well as her heavy bathing dress allowed! She floated on her back and thought she saw a flash of light, sun glinting off the silver scales of a big fish … or was it a mermaid?
Mary's mother used to tell her stories of the mermaids who would drown young women and steal their engagement rings from their fingers before coming ashore and claiming their young men!
By the time Mary had dried herself in the sun and got changed into her working clothes the tide was way out and she strolled down to that rock and looked in the rock pool but found no ring lying there. So Mary slowly walked home, the fishwives were returning down the brae, their fish all sold and their willow creels full of messages – flour, meat and vegetables.
When Mary arrived back in the Old Town, she had to prepare the supper for the family, but the bell rang for her and she was summoned to the parlour, where the Master and Mistress were sitting with their arms folded with Isabella, who looked like she had been crying.
'Where is the ring?' asked the Master, holding out his hand.
'I didn't find it,' Mary explained, 'I looked for along time'.
Isabella glowered at Mary and snivelled but she said nothing. The next morning Mary was up early as usual to make the breakfast and prepare the lunch. It was Friday so it was fish on the menu and she could hear Jenny Mucklebaket singing on her round:
'Wha'll buy my caller herrin'?
They're nae brought here withoot brave daring
Wives and mithers maist despairing
Call them lives o' men.'
Mary bought a great big cod from Jenny, then she gutted it and put it in the pantry where it was cool whilst she served breakfast. The family ate in silence and after breakfast was over the Master and Mistress summoned Mary once again.
Isabella had taken a notion that Mary had pulled the ruby ring from her finger when she had slipped on the rock and fallen back into the sea, and so Mary needed to be searched. Mary's pockets needed to be searched and Mary's room needed to be searched, but no ring was found.
However Isabella would not rest until Mary was marched off to the Magistrate to explain herself. The Master accompanied the two young women and they each got a chance to tell their side of the story. Isabella said that Mary had stolen her ring from her hand. Mary said that she had seen a mermaid and perhaps the mermaid had stolen the little ruby ring …
Who do you think the Magistrate believed? Isabella of course, although a clerk was dispatched to Newhaven to see if anyone had spotted a mermaid.
Mary Mochrie was taken down to dark damp prison cell in the Tollbooth and Isabella and her father returned home for lunch. The Mistress was all of a fluster, she hated cooking, but with Mary in the Tollbooth what was she to do? She did her best and as they sat down at the table Isabella screwed her face at the sight of the large fat cod on a platter in the centre of the table. Isabella hated fish and she hated Fridays. She hated the taste of fish, the smell of fish, and the texture of fish – alive or cooked!
Isabella's father stood up to carve the fish and as he cut it into three portions, out of the cod's stomach popped Isabella's little ruby ring!
'It's a miracle!' cried the Mistress.
'It's a miracle fish! Quick we must get Mary out of the gaol!' cried the Master.
So off the family went, carrying the fish on a platter before them all the way down to the Tollbooth. All the folks of the Old Town came out of their houses to see such a spectacle and they cheered as a smiling Mary Mochrie was marched back up the High Street with the Miracle Fish carried before her!
The whole of Edinburgh was a twitter with the story, everyone likes a miracle! The fish must have swallowed the ring, Jenny Mucklebacket must have carried the fish in her creel all the way from Newhaven, and Mary must have bought that very same fish on Friday morning. They all agreed that God did indeed move in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.
Everybody was talking about Mary Mochrie's Miracle Cod!
Now the ring was firmly back on Isabella's finger, but was she happy?
No, every time she looked at the ring on her finger, she screwed up her face because as we know, Isabella hated fish, she hated the taste of fish, the texture of fish, and the smell of it and that little ruby ring always smelled of fish to Isabella.
Story created by Jan Bee Brown, 2020, loosely adapted from Alexander Leighton's 'Romances of the Old Town'.