There’s been fishers on the Tweed.”
So runs the ancient rhyme, referring to the Scottish chief Calgacus, defeated by the Romans in about AD85. Around 500 generations of salmon have returned since Roman times to the Tweed, where fisheries were recorded as early as the 11th century, when those on the north bank belonged to the Scottish king, while the Bishop of Durham held the rights to those on the south side, known as “the Bishop’s fishings”.
The net fishing stations were closed in 1987, except for one at Gardo, a fishing stell far older than Berwick’s neighbouring 17th century Old Bridge, and the second at Paxton House, thanks to its owner John Hume Robertson MP, who re-asserted his ancient rights and re-opened Paxton fishery, which had not been fished in living memory.
These two are all that remain of an industry which once employed 300 men working 70 to 80 boats, or “cobles”.
While the names of the fisheries, such as Norham Bridge, Hallow Stell, Toddles, Calot, Bailiffs, Canny and Scotch New Water, are dropping from local memory, there are still more familiar Border place-names we use today which attest to the deep history of salmon fishing here.
Archeological evidence suggests Fishwick, now seemingly an overgrown church in a field by the Tweed opposite Horncliffe, was a medieval village built up around selling salmon – its name means “fish-trading place”. In the view of Scottish Borders Council’s archeology officer, Dr Chris Bowles, Fishwick is “potentially one of the earliest salmon fisheries on the Tweed, dating to at least the 12th century and perhaps earlier to the seventh or eighth century AD”.
Upriver, many will have driven along the quiet stretch of the Tweed over the fine bridge by the grand Georgian mansion on the Yair estate near Selkirk, unaware that Yair in Scots means “fish trap”: an enclosure or barrier of stone, wood, wicker or net across a river.
The Tweed produced salmon so plentifully that as early as the 13th century it was pickled and exported to London as food for the poor. Two centuries ago, before ice became easily available, most of the salmon was pickled, salted and packed in barrels by the Berwick coopers ready to be taken by sea to London market. A cookbook written in 1600, Sir Hugh Plat’s ‘Delightes for Ladies’, gives one of these pickling recipes titled “How to keep salmon fresh a whole month in his perfect taste and delicacie”:
“First seeth [boil] your salmon, then sinke it in apt and close vessels in wine vinegar with a branch of Rosemarie therein. By this means Vintners and Cookes may make profit thereof when it is scarce in the markets, and Salmon thus prepared may bee profitably brought out of Ireland and sold in London or elsewhere.”
At one time catches were so abundant, it is said that servants complained when given it too often for meals. In 1816, an estimated 300,000 salmon and grilse were caught in the Tweed.
The art of poaching is as old as the laws governing net fishing and angling on the Tweed; for, as Jim Walker notes in his history of salmon fishing on the Tweed, ‘By Net and Coble’, “James I of Scotland (1406-1437) imposed severe penalties for the illegal ‘slauchter of Salmonde’ and if convicted a third time, the wrong doer ‘sall tyne (forfeit) his life or then bye it’.”
A friend of Sir Walter Scott, William Scrope, writing in his ‘Days and Nights of Salmon Fishing in the Tweed’ (1843), describes the two chief instruments of the Tweed salmon poacher. Their tools were a pout-net – a semi-circular net with which to sweep the water – and a leister or waster: a spear with a fork or trident of barbed prongs of very stout iron at the end of a pole.
A second type, the throwing leister, had five prongs and a rope attached, called the lyams, fastened also to the thrower’s arm so he could haul his speared catch to the bank.
Night poaching from boats, using leisters, was called “burning the water”. Each boat, usually carrying a crew of three, had a central upright pole with a metal frame fixed to the top filled with fragments of tar barrel and rags steeped in pitch. When the boats had silently taken up their positions, at a given signal lights were applied to the contents of the metal baskets which by their bright blaze attracted the fish to the surface.
Scrope’s description of the scene could not have been bettered by Scott himself: “As the rude forms of the men rose up in their dark attire, wielding their long leisters, with the streaks of light that glared partially on them, and surrounded as they were by the shades of night, you might have fancied yourself in the realms below, with Pluto and his grim associates, embarked upon the Stygian lake…
“He now stood upon a rock which hung over the river, and from that eminence, and with the assistance of the firebrand, examined the bottom of it carefully. His body was bent over the water, and his ready leister held almost vertically; as the light glared on his face you might see the keen glistening of his eye.
“In an instant he raised up his leister, and down he sprang from the rock right into the river, and with that wild bound nailed the salmon to the channel. There was a struggle with his arms for a few seconds; he then passed his hands down the pole of the weapon a little way, brought himself vertically over the fish, and lifted him aloft cheered by shouts of applause from his friends on the shore.”
George Purvis, skipper of the coble at Paxton fishery and a netsman of nearly 60 years and at least four generations, has been around long enough to witness the methods of the modern-day poachers.
“There’ll always be a problem with poachers,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many legal things they put on, there’ll always be someone who’s prepared to give half price for a salmon. You go down to any local pub and say you’ve got a salmon for sale, there’ll always be somebody who’ll say ‘I’ll take it’.
“In Berwick, they used to just poach down the docks, poach down on Spittal beach, they’d poach anywhere, and they could just sell their salmon to get beer.
“It was quite a novelty for the holidaymakers who used to watch them throw in what they would call a ‘chuckie’. They used to chuck this net into the water with a bottle on the end of it, possibly a tin can, and it would float so the bailiffs didn’t twig on it was a net. And then they would watch the bottle or the tin go bobbin’, bobbin’, and then they would run forward, pull the net out quick and away up the beach. It was hilarious.”
On the legal side, the traditional methods of the Tweed’s netsmen have not changed in centuries either. They row their short, flat-bottomed boat, a coble, in an arc, laying a net. The high pointed bow is the distinctive feature of the Tweed coble.
As Jim Walker in ‘By Net and Coble’ describes: “One man on shore holds the rope on the rear end (the hint end) of the net. The coble comes back to the shore where the rope on the front end (the fore-end) is winched initially. The net is the hauled in by the crew, hand-over-hand.
“Once ashore, the salmon are speedily dispatched by a blow to the back of the head with a ‘felling stick’. One of these cycles is called a ‘shot’, and if all goes well, at the end of each shot there should be salmon struggling in the ‘bosom’ of the net. Fortune smiled on Hallowstell Fishery Spittal in April 1984 when the fishermen netted 604 salmon on the ebb tide. One shot contained 81 salmon.”
Few things can compare with a wild salmon, and you can buy George Purvis’s Tweed catches, fresh or smoked by Ian Bruce, skipper of the coble at Gardo, at Paxton House near Berwick, and at DR Collin in Eyemouth. If you fancy smoking your own catch of salmon or trout, perhaps infused with 10-year-old Macallan, Mick Bell has started a smokery in Ettrickbridge in the Ettrick valley.