The Old Scottish Fisheries

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The writers to whom we owe the earliest descriptions of Scotland, are all in agreement as to the abundance of fish to be found both in the inland waters and in those by which the coasts were washed. “This region”, wrote John of Fordun, in the second half of the 14th century, “is manifold in its wealth of fish in sea, river, and lake.” And fifty years later, the statement was briefly, but emphatically confirmed by Andrew Wyntoun: “Off fysche there is habowndance”. From John Major s History of Greater Britain, published in 1521, we get both further corroboration and fuller details, together with an explanation of the phenomenon. It is based on the crude scientific theories of the day concerning the greater depth of the northern seas, as proved by the ocean’s flowing “from the north south-wards ”, and as accounted for by “ the air that has been turned into water”.

After enumerating the chief rivers of Scotland the Forth, the Tay, the Spey, the Don, and the Dee – Major adds that they all abound in salmon, trout, and pike. He also supplies some interesting information as to the price of salmon and herring: “In most parts of Scotland ”, he says, “ you may buy a large fresh salmon for two duodenae, in other parts, however, for a sou; and for a laird you may carry away a hundred fresh herring.” Major also states that “near the sea is great plenty of oysters, as well as crabs and lobsters”. And he describes the shell-fish as being “of marvellous size”.

Hector Boece fully bears out all that his contemporary has written as to the great abundance of fish in Scottish waters. According to him, the harvest of the sea was so great that it would have sufficed to sustain the whole population, if the land had refused them its fruits. And as evidence that his statement is not exaggerated, he adduces the fact that fishing fleets from France, Flanders, Zeeland, Holland, and many parts of Germany annually visited the Northern Seas, about the time of Lent, that is, in the spring, and returned with such quantities of fish as not only sustained themselves, but also enabled them to provide for the wants of “all other countries ”, even as far as the Mediterranean.

To mention the many localities especially referred to bv Boece as being “ richt plentuus and full of fische ”, practically amounts to an enumeration of the chief salt and freshwater lochs, and of the more important rivers in Scotland. In Galloway, Loch Ryan and Loch Luce are “both full of oysters, herring, conger eels, mussels, and cockles, with many other fish In Lochtyne there is a “greater plenty of herring than in any seas of Albion”. In Lochaber there are lochs and rivers “ full of salmon and other fish, swimming; so plenteously that the same are taken without any skill ” whilst in the Don and the Dee there is “ mair fouth of salmond ” than in any of the other rivers of Britain. Cockles, oysters, mussels, seals and porpoises, dolphins and whales, with great plenty of whitefish, entitle the Forth to a foremost place amongst the most productive of Scottish waters.

Two circumstances in particular impress the old chronicler as no less providential than they are marvellous. One of them is, that of all kind of fish there is “sa gret plente throw all partis of our seis, that, howbeit infinit noumer of thaim were tane away on the ta day, na thing thairof sal be mist on the morow”.

The other is, that “ay the mair derth and penurie of vittallis is in Scotland, the fische swoumis with the mair abundance and plente”. Though lack of details can hardly be laid to his charge, Boece wishes it to be understood that his account of the country’s wealth is not exhaustive, and he is ready with a good reason for not attempting to make it so. “To schaw every kind of fische ”, he says, “ it wer bot ane faschious and vane lauboure; for the samin ar knawin to al cuntreis.” And that this is no mere boast may be gathered from Pedro de Ayala, the ambassador of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain at the Court of James IV. In the account which he gives of Scotland, he states that it was commonly known as “piscinata Scotia”.


Scattered through the old writers’ notices of the Scottish fisheries, there are a number of marvellous stories which would do credit to Mandeville himself, and which are not without interest, as samples of some of the popular delusions of the day. To account for the disappearance from the mouth of the Tay of the herring that had formerly abounded there, Boece records the generally accepted “ truth”, that when any avaricious and unhappy men fight for the fish that God sends, of His infinite goodness for the sustentatioun of the people, and pollute the sea with their blood, for many years after, no fish swim in that place. Nor is this the only instance of credulity with regard to a phenomenon that hardly ranks as a prodigy with the more sceptical generation of the present day. Bishop Leslie accounts in the same manner for the disappearance of herring from Lochbroom.

Far more wonderful than what may be looked upon as the superstitious explanation of an actual fact, is the account that Boece gives of a “ great fish” to be found about the Orkneys. It is described as larger than any house. The “marvellous and incredible ” thing about it, however, was not so much its size as its power of sleep. “ This fish ”, records the chronicler, “ when she begins to sleep, fastens her teeth fast on a crag above the water. As soon as the mariners find her asleep they come with a strong cable in a boat; and after they have bored a great hole through her tail, they fasten her by the same. As soon as this fish is awakened she tries to leap with great force into the sea, and when she finds herself fast, she writhes herself out of her own skin and dies. Of the fat that she has, oil is in great quantity; and of her skin, because it endures long, strong cables are made.” Any prototype that this marvellous monster may be said to have had, was probably the whale. It is less easy to identify the “uncouth and wonderful fish ” that were said to haunt the Forth. They are described as having cowls hanging over their heads like monks; and it is added that their appearance always betokened mortality of men and beasts.

In his account of the horse-mussel, with which the Dee and the Don abounded, Boece embodies the popular belief as to the origin of the pearl. Early in the morning, he says, when the air is clear and temperate, these mussels open their mouths a little above the water, and most greedily swallow the dew of heaven. In proportion to the measure and quantity of the dew that they swallow, they conceive and breed the pearl. These mussels are so “ doyn gleg ”, that is, so excessively quick, of touch and hearing that, though the sound be never so slight that is made on the bank beside them, or the stone never so small that is cast into the water, they “douk haistelie ”, and at once go to the bottom, knowing well in what estimation and price the fruit of their womb is held by all people.

Though considerable allowance must be made for Boece’s credulity when he thus ventures into the realm of natural history, his accuracy is less questionable when, with the actual experience that his residence in Aberdeen may be assumed to have given him, he describes the way in which these precious horse – mussels were gathered. “ First, four or five persons pass into the river together and stand in manner of a round circle in the water, to their shoulders. Each one of them has a staff in his hand that he may not slide; and then they look and search through the clear and mpid water until they see the mussels; and because they may not take them up with their hands, they ‘cleek ’ them up with their toes, and sling them to the nearest bank”.

In the earliest ages, the inhabitants of Scotland do not appear to have availed themselves of the abundance of fish that both sea and river offered them. During the Celtic period, when adoration was paid to the waters, fish was considered a forbidden food. Even after the introduction of Christianity, there were, for a time, ascetics who practised and enjoined abstinence from fish, which they considered dangerous to purity of soul. Before long, however, this prejudice ceased to be entertained, and fish became the chief article of diet on the many fast-days imposed by the Church on the faithful. But, apart from the demand created by the ecclesiastical ordinances, there was the necessity that resulted from the scantiness of fodder during the winter months, when it was found practically impossible to keep cattle in condition that suited them to be slaughtered for food.

The household book of James V supplies interesting information as to the extent to which fish was used in the early decades of the 16th century- In the list of the sea-fish, the herring- fresh, salt, and red—figures conspicuously. As white fish there are both fresh and dried “ mulones ”, a term that has been translated as “cod”, though it is impossible to overlook its suggestive resemblance to “ mullet In addition to these, there are codlings, pollacks, whiting, ling, and “speldings”, which last may possibly be sprats. Frequent mention is also made of sand eels, blennies or “greenbanes,” gurnards, lump fish or “cock-paddles”, anglers or “sea-devils”, sea-cat, smelt, conger-eels, and lampreys. There appears to have been a liberal supply of flatfish, including turbot, halibut, and flounders. The sole is only occasionally referred to, as is also the “rigadia”, which may possibly be the skate or ray-fish.

Numerous entries indicate the extensive use of salmon—salted and kippered as well as fresh and also of trout, eels, perch, and pike. The occurrence of the last of these amongst the fresh water fish purchased for the royal household, in 1525, is noteworthy ’as disposing of ‘ the generally received opinion that this fish was introduced in the reign of Henry VI11, in 1537 ”, and as supporting its claim to be considered a native fish.

If the term “ polupi ” has been correctly interpreted as meaning “cuttle-fish ”, its repeated appearance would indicate a partiality for what must now seem a strange, if not repulsive article of food. It seems to us, however, far more probable that the name is but another form of Boece’s polypod ”, and, like it, is applied to the lobster. To judge from the frequency of the entries recording the purchase of oysters, these appear to have been considered as great a delicacy four hundred years ago as they are at the present day. According to the same evidence, there must have been a considerable consumption of mussels, cockles, whelks, razor-fish, scallops, periwinkles, and limpets,and also of crabs and shrimps. And, finally, that dishes wholly unknown, at the present-day, on the tables of either rich or poor, frequently figured on that of royalty itself, may be inferred from the purchase of porpoises and seals for the larder.

Various authorities, from treatises on the art of war to returns of commissariat expenses, testify to the extraordinary quantity of fish that was used for victualling troops and provisioning castles. We know that amongst the supplies delivered to the garrisons that Edward I quartered in the south of Scotland during the years 1299 and 1300, there were large stores of herring, which were bought by the last of 10,000 of stockfish, and of ling. In order to meet his own requirements, during this expedition, the same monarch was accompanied by some of the fishers attached to his household; and in his “Wardrobe Account” there is an entry for “four nets which were purchased for fishing- in the rivers and lakes of Scotland for the King’s use ”.

The amount of fish required in the large establishments of the nobility may be estimated from the fact that, in one year, the Breadalbane family laid in 420 salmon, 15,000 herring, and 30 dozen of “hard fish”. In addition to this the numerous religious houses created a constant demand for the same commodity; and their chartuaries abound in records of the provision that was made to meet it. We learn from them that David I gave the monks of the Isle of May exclusive fishery rights around their own shores; that he conferred on the community of Holy rood the tithe of his own share of the larger fish caught along the southern shore of the Forth, from the Avon to Cockburnspath; and that he made over to the monastery of Dunfermline every seventh one of the seals caught at Kinghorn, after his own tithe had been set aside. To his successor, Malcolm IV, the same house owed the remarkable grant of “the heads of porpoises caught in the Forth, except the tongues”; and that of Kelso of “the half of the fat of the royal fishes which might come into the Forth on either shore”.


In some cases, the privileges conferred by the King did not involve the absolute surrender of his own rights. For instance, Alexander I expressly reserved them in the charter that entitled the monks of Scone to fish in the Tay, near which their house was situated. There were also restrictions as to space, for the measurement of which the stretch of water that could be fished by one net and one cobble was taken as the unit, and was itself called a “net”. That explains what the chartularies mean when they record that David I gave two “nets” in the Tweed to the monks of Holy rood; that Malcolm IV granted two “nets ” in the Tay and one ‘‘net in the Forth to those of Scone; and one in the Findhorn to those of Kinloss; and that King William allowed those of Arbroath a “net” in the North Esk and another “in the Tay which was called the Stocke”.

It may be presumed that where “nets” were granted, the fishing was by means of the seine. Another contrivance consisted of the “ yair which is described as “ an enclosure stretching into a tideway, for the purpose of detaining the fish when the tide ebbs The material of which it was constructed is indicated in the permit which the Earl of Lennox gave to the monks of Paisley, in 1273, authorizing them to take wood from his forests and stone from his grounds for the repair of their fishing yairs on the Leven. The grant of yairs, like that of nets, occurs frequently in mediaeval charters. Their extent was regulated by a statute of Alexander II which, by reason of its quaintness, has become famous. It was to the effect that the mid-stream should be left sufficiently wide for a well-fed swine of three years to be able to turn round in it without touching the yair with either snout or tail.

Fishing by means of stell-nets, along the shelving seashore and near the mouths of rivers, appears to have been practised at a very early date. What he calls “ane uncouth maner of fisching ” is described by Boece, and is stated by him to have been, in his day, peculiar to Moray. The people, he says, made a long basket, narrow-necked and wide-mouthed, with many stakes inside. Into this the fish threw themselves and could not get forth again; and as soon as the sea ebbed they were taken dry in the creels. If, as has been thought, this refers to “the contrivance of cruives and yairs ”, Boece could scarcely have been so unfamiliar with it as to call it uncouth, and to assign it to one special district. As regards rod-fishing, what, so far as we know, is the earliest mention of it, occurs in 1632, when the father of Duncan Campbell in Creitgarrow became caution for his son, that he should not “ put out a wand on the water of Tay”.

The primitive way in which shell-fish were caught, is described by John Major. “In Lent, and in Summer,” he says, “at the winter and the summer solstice, people go in early morning from my own Gleghornie and the neighbouring parts to the shore, drag out the polypods and crabs with hooks, and return at noon with well-filled sacks. At these seasons the tide is at its lowest, and the polypods and crabs take shelter under the rocks by the sea. A hook is fastened to the end of a stick, and when the fish becomes aware of the wood or iron, it catches the same with one of its joints, thus connecting itself with the stick, which the fisherman then at once draws up”.

In spite of Boece’s statement as to the number of continental fishing fleets that annually visited the North Sea, there is evidence to prove that foreigners, far from being welcome or even tolerated in Scottish waters, ran the risk of being treated like pirates. It may not be true that James V, having dispatched one of his ships of war to capture some Dutch fishermen who had ventured to fish within 28 miles of the mouth of the Forth, put the offenders to death, and sent a barrelful of their heads to Holland. But, the story was told by the Town-Clerk of Edinburgh to Secretary Coke, in 1630; and it illustrates the popular feeling of the time as regards fishery rights.

(LA Barbe, 1919)

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