‘The one that got away’: understanding the salmon in northern Scotland, c.1600 to c.1800

By Dr David Worthington, Head of the University of the Highlands and Islands Centre for History  

As salmon anglers prepare for a new season by and on the rivers and lochs of the University of the Highlands and Islands region, this blog shows that this much-discussed fish has had a controversial reputation in history. ‘Omega 3 fatty acids’ do not feature in Gaelic mythology. Nevertheless, the legend of Finn MacCool (Fionn Mac Cumhaill) depicts the ‘Salmon of Knowledge’, the flesh of which, when consumed, would transmit wisdom and other powers. Further afield, indigenous peoples from as far apart as the Pacific North West, northern Japan and Siberia, have enacted complex rituals to mark the importance of the salmon in their respective cultures. All of this suggests just how common it has been to seek to benefit from the apparent spiritual, commercial and nutritional value of what is often referred to in Scotland as the ‘king of fish’.

Here in the Highlands and Islands, in 1629, the Scottish Privy Council reported that one of the “speciall temporall blessings [of] … the north pairts of this kingdome consists in the salmound [salmon] fishing”.[1] Several decades later, Daniel Defoe, renowned English trader, writer and spy, claimed that “the rivers and lakes also in all this country are prodigiously full of salmon; it is hardly credible what the people relate of the quantity of salmon taken in these rivers, especially in the Spey, the Nairn, the Ness, and other rivers thereabout”. He added that salmon was “in such plenty as is scarce credible, and so cheap, that to those who have any substance to buy with, it is not worth their while to catch it themselves”. Other 18th century writers came to similar conclusions.

A few warned against the fish, all the same. When visiting the north of Scotland in the 1650s, the English traveller, Richard Franck, was – in contrast to those concerned today about Infectious Salmon Anaemia and other diseases that can spread among and from captive stocks – worried simply that: “…should the inhabitants [of northern Scotland] daily feed upon them,  they would inevitably endanger their health, if not their lives, by surfeiting; for the abundance of salmon hereabouts in these parts, is hardly to be credited… …the danger, in my opinion, lies most in the diet: for as salmon is a fish very apt to surfeit, more especially fresh salmon, when only boiled; which if too frequently fed on, relaxes the belly, and makes the passages so slippery, that the retentive faculties become debilitated; so suffers the body to be hurried into a flux, and sometimes into a fever, as pernicious as death.”[2]

The concept of Highlanders surfeiting on salmon – a fish that has become a more exclusive preserve in the region – seems hard to imagine, although Franck was not alone in claiming its limited role in ensuring a healthy diet.

Was salmon fishing in the north ever carried out as a sport in this period? A quote from Aberdeenshire poet, Arthur Johnston (c.1579-1641), is intriguing here:

“A salmon disports in my pools today: tomorrow he fixes his haunt in the upper stream. Why should I let another devour the creatures I have fed? ‘Tis not a work, but a pastime. The huntsman and fowler make a toil of their work; mine is a refreshment.”

Jonston’s ‘A Fisher’s Apology’, from which this is taken, comprises a lengthy complaint to a local minister about not being allowed to fish for salmon on the Sabbath. It outlines the activity, on one hand, as a highly regulated and commercial pursuit permitting local burgesses to “purchase wine to strengthen the young and enliven the old” and, on the other, as a simple “refreshment”.

So, the part of the salmon in the history of northern Scotland and the Highlands might be considered a ‘big issue that got away’. It is one made controversial by the question of the fish’s extraordinary migrations across sea and up-river, the frequent consideration of its flesh as a source of sustenance, intelligence and more material benefits, its symbolic position as a reflection of the region’s social inequality, or else, for a small number of writers at the other end of the scale, its association with ill-health. Clearly, despite salmon’s high visibility and popularity on restaurant menus and in recipes today and its occasional capture by anglers poised by riverbanks from Ness Walk to the Naver and the Nell, this ‘highly paradoxical fish’[3] occupies a slippery position in the history of northern Scotland. For every dramatic leap upstream there have been moments where it has had to linger in darker pools.

[1] Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, Second Series (Edinburgh, 1901), III, p.18.

[2] Richard Franck, Northern memoirs, calculated for the meridian of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1821), pp.133-4

[3] Peter Coates, Salmon (London, 2006), p. 10.

2 thoughts on “‘The one that got away’: understanding the salmon in northern Scotland, c.1600 to c.1800”

  1. Thanks for your comments, Brian, for the story of your family and for linking to the site, which looks excellent. I agree absolutley that many communities relied on salmon at times. This is an area that could benefit from a great deal of research.

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