You may be forgiven for assuming that the owner of the fishmongers in Portobello High Street is one John Williamson. That’s what it says above the door, but his name is in fact James Bonthron. His great grandfather, of the same name, married a Miss Williamson and in doing so joined the family business. The owner’s son, also James, has worked in the shop for the last 27 years and is the fifth generation of Bonthrons to do so.
The shop at 146 High Street opened in 1901 but Williamson’s also traded from no 330 (currently Kidd’s Pharmacy) and 310 (currently Dental Express) at various times. Not a great deal has changed in the shop since those days. The original wooden floor was replaced in 1987, the first time the shop had ever been closed. James recounts that one of the builders had been working down in the void below when he heard a voice. He looked up and saw an elderly lady, balanced precariously on a wobbly plank.
“Is the shop closed then son?” she enquired.
In the small back-shop there is a walk-in fridge, but no freezer. A further room behind has an ice flake machine and the original smoke-house, still in use. It’s most often used for smoking haddock, but look out for the delicious hot-smoked salmon when it’s available.
Mr Bonthron’s great grandfather was the sole survivor of a terrible fishing tragedy in which seven men died. Transcriptions from the Musselburgh News and the Scotsman of the day vividly recount the last trip of the ‘Star of the East’, reputed at the time to be the finest fishing boat on the Forth. The crew left Fisherrow Harbour on 29 September 1891 and the boat was wrecked in a hurricane force gale on 11 November, as it made for port at Lowestoft.
James himself spent several years at sea, hard work for little pay, before joining the family business when his father’s partner retired through ill health.
“It’s all experience, which is paying off now. You can tell what fish is fresh, just being at the sea and knowing how it’s looked after.”
James buys his fish daily from the market at Newhaven. He reckons he has the highest over-the-counter sales of fresh fish in Edinburgh. On Fridays, his busiest day, 600 or more customers will pass through the door. Each week he buys and sells around one and a half tons of fish, at least 90% of which is haddock. This equates to around 4,500 fillets every week. The arithmetic is staggering. In his lifetime he must have hand-filleted literally millions of haddock.
Filleting by hand is a highly skilled business. James explains how the texture of the haddock varies according to the season.
“Every fish you pick up, you can tell by feel how you are going to treat that fish. In the summertime the fish gorge themselves on the sand-eels, which have a high oil content, so the fish is very rich”
Although available all year round the haddock is at its best from the beginning of July until February. Occasionally, James will try to persuade his customers to try something else. For example, coley is a good buy, similar to cod but the grey flesh puts people off, even though it turns pure white when cooked.
“If you gave them it for nothing, they still wouldn’t take it,” James laments.
James and his son have fried haddock for lunch most days. As he explains, “It’s good, it’s wholesome and easy to prepare.”
Williamson’s currently supplies several local businesses, including Butternut Squash, The Beaten Docket and Ophelia Mar. They also supply the Fish and Chip shop on the Prom, near the foot of Bath Street. This shop was for many years owned by Bill Westwood. James recalls that on a good sunny Saturday Bill used to take about 6 stones of haddock. It was always a last-minute deal, Bill cannily holding off to see how the weather was going to turn out and James having to risk buying extra fish in the hope of a sale.
NOTE: This article was originally published in 2004. James Bonthron Snr is now enjoying semi-retirement, while his son continues to manage the family business. James Snr is rarely seen in the shop nowadays but is still up early in the morning several times a week to do the buying.