HISTORY OF THE TAY FISHERIES
Salmon fishing has undoubtedly been important in Tayside for a very long time. For example the salmon was important enough to be carved by a Pictish craftsman at Meigle by the River Isla more than 1,000 years ago.
By 500 years ago salmon had become an important item of interational trade from ports in eastern Scotland and the Tay would have been no exception. By that time the main way of fishing was by net and coble (sweep net), where a long net was released from the stern of a small rowing boat (a coble) to surround the fish and then drawn ashore onto a beach. The salmon were then preserved in wooden barrels with salt and were exported to countries like the Netherlands and France.
By the 1760s a local merchant, John Richardson of Pitfour (near Glencarse) had become the major local exporter and also shipped salmon from Banff, the Kyle of Sutherland, Stornoway, Inverlochy and Bonawe. By that time many of the fish were being sent to Iberia or to the Mediterranean, even to ports as far as Leghorn or Venice. However, by that time this trade was in decline because of competition, especially from Newfoundland.
The London Trade
In the 1740s a new form of preservation arrived in Perth. In the spring, salmon were boiled and then sealed in small barrels with vinegar called kits. The kitted salmon were then transported to London in fast small sailing vessels called smacks. Initially this innovation met with local resistance and the company which started it apparently employed coopers from Berwick upon Tweed as the local Perth coopers were said to have been not up to the job!
By the 1760s Richardson was kitting salmon in spring and salting in the summer. In the spring regular sailings were being made from the Tay to London and if the weather was cold and the wind fair some salmon were even transported raw.
However, in 1786, Richardson sent salmon to London packed in ice from the Spey and this proved an instant hit. The value of salmon further increased and soon Tay salmon were going the same way. Ice houses were built to store ice which was collected during the winter.
In the 1790s the main focus of fishing was in the upper part of the estuary or in the lower river proper perhaps from around Scone to the mouth of the Earn. Further downstream the fishing was of very little value since it was just too wide to fish with the net and coble.
In 1797 one John Little from Annan introduced a new type of fishing to the wider part of the firth called stake nets. These were barricades of netting supported by wooden stakes which erected across the sandflats at low tide. This revolutionised fishing in the lower estuary but incensed net and coble proprietors around Perth pursued lengthy legal challenges and in 1812 it was finally decided these nets were not legal in estuaries, though they later proved to be legal on the open sea coast. For much of the nineteenth century there seems to have been disquiet between the lower firth proprietors for being deprived of their only chance of fishing and those around Perth who basically had a stranglehold over the resource. Then, the proprietors upstream of Perth, in turn increasingly expressed their dissatisfaction at the net and coble proprietors.
However, from the 1820s stake nets began to be used on the open sea coast on either side of the mouth of the Tay and indeed persisted until relatively recent times.
Historically the upriver fishings were not that valuable on account of the fact that many salmon did not get past the lower nets, but salmon were still fished for to some extent. Some netting was at one time conducted as far upstream even perhaps as Aberfeldy, but probably most likely for local use. At the falls of Tummel near Pitlochry there even existed “basket“ fishery, where wicker baskets were strategically placed to catch jumping salmon. In common with other rivers it is also likely that a considerable amount of fishing with spears and other implements was conducted in the depths of the glens, especially as spawning time drew near. Spearing was actually a legal form of fishing in the first half of the nineteenth century.
The Tay Salmon Fisheries Company
The latter decades of the nineteenth century were characterised by growing anti-netting sentiment from upper proprietors, although they were not in a strong position to do much about it. The Tay Salmon Fisheries Company was established in 1899 apparently with an aim of rationalising netting. It seems to have been the brainchild of P D Malloch of Perth but the money came from the major shareholders who were mainly owners of some of the more important angling beats on the lower Tay, some of who's beats were transferred to company ownership.
With its relatively great resources the TSF Co bought up fishing rights up and down the estuary and on the sea coast until the myriad different proprietors was replaced by one dominant force which came to own almost all the worthwhile netting stretches. However, instead of reducing netting, as may have been an original intention, history suggests a different outcome.
Netting continued in the upper estuary for nearly another 100 years. Through the twentieth century the Tay Salmon Fisheries Company was probably the biggest salmon netting company in Scotland and the river was netted at numerous points from Newburgh upstream as far as Campsie Linn above Stanley. Even by the late 1980s this was still a very major effort taking in some years up to 40,000 salmon or grilse and possibly exploiting more than half of the incoming fish during the summer months.
The end of netting
For reasons described elsewhere salmon numbers began to fall in the 1980s and 1990s. This occurred at the same times as the rise of salmon farming which caused the price to wild salmon to fall. Therefore the profitability of salmon netting was reduced and the amount of fishing effort contracted. At the same time anglers increasingly voiced concerns on the effects of netting on their declining catches and also for the sustainability of the stocks.
A buyout scheme was eventually agreed, and finally in 1996 the last of the TSF Co nets ceased operating when the Tay Foundation obtained a 99 year lease of the net fishings. Since that time there has been no net fishing in the Tay district apart from a couple of small basically hobby fisheries. Stake nets which also used to operate on either side of the mouth of the Tay had also ceased operating some years before. From the late 1990s the TSF Co increasingly disposed of its assets, which included some of the best angling beats on the river, before going into voluntary liquidation. The force which had for so long dominated the Tay had gone.
To some extent angling for salmon had also been practiced for centuries but in the nineteenth century it became an increasingly popular sport. Gentlemen from the south came north for long sporting holidays, often combining fishing with grouse shooting and stalking. By the end of the century the letting value of angling had increased markedly and the more artisanal modes of fishing were outlawed and faded into history.
Angling is now practically the only way by which salmon are caught in the Tay district. The angling fishery developed quite a lot in the latter half of the twentieth century. Probably especially in the 1960s and 1970s, its popularity increased and its value increased accordingly. Its popularity continues and salmon angling is now a major contributor to the local economy.