Netting on The River Tweed - A Memory
Trevor Swan Remembers
Our family have really been in the fishing industry since about 1809 when there was a Francis Swan fishing on the Tweed at Great Haugh. This was in the Blake papers and the Blakes were the riparian owners and we rented the fishery from them in these days.
In those days all the fish had to be carried up the bank by hand a distance of about a mile and a half to two miles. When the railways came in, it was slightly easier because the railways used to stop and pick the fish up and take them to Berwick to be sold to the Berwick Salmon Fishing Company. They were the main buyers of fish for the whole of the Tweed really. That was before Ralph Holmes. He started in competition, and he bought over an awful lot of the salmon fisheries down the Tweed.
We did eventually sell to Ralph Holmes, but before that we sold to the Berwick Salmon Fishing Company for probably well on a hundred to a hundred and twenty years.
TWEED SALMON FISHING
I think my first recollections of fishing, go back to about 1952, when we used to go down, after a big flood, to the Great Haugh, which is below St Cuthberts, above Twizel, taking down some bait, as it was called, for my father and my grandfather who had been fishing, probably non-stop for thirty six hours. They were catching so many fish they couldnít come away to get some food.
So we, my mother and my sister and I, used to take it down and watch them fish for two or three hours. It was always very exciting to watch them fishing, especially when it was in flood, as it was at this time, and they were catching a lot of fish, say, five, six, ten, sometimes even twenty fish in one shot.
Both salmon and sea trout . . hopefully salmon, because they were always worth much more than sea trout but, as long as they were catching fish, they were always very happy. But it was exceptionally hard work. There was no mechanisation at this time and it was all done by manual labour - there were four of them working.
MAKING HEMP NETS
My grandfather probably retired in the late Ď50s and then it was my father and three other fishermen who fished. They used to make all their own nets in the winter. They would buy all their ropes in and make the nets up. They were all hemp in those days, and hemp didnít last long. If it lasted a season, that was about it, and then they had to set to and make more nets again the following year.
The fishing nets varied in length from about fifty yards - they used a fifty yard net if the river was very big, to about a hundred and twenty yards which they used when the river was low and you were actually rowing round pools. If you were at a pool, it was much easier to catch the salmon than if the fish were in open water, when you couldnít see the fish and you just had to row round them.
FISHING AT THE FORD
The other method of fishing, of course, was on the ford, because youíd be up in a little hut about, oh twenty to thirty feet up and you would watch for the fish coming up over the ford, and then when you saw the fish come, you would row round about it, and hopefully you would catch it. This was usually done in the early morning, probably on a Monday morning was the best morning, because they started work at six oíclock on the Monday morning. They fished right through till the Saturday at twelve oíclock and then there was no fishing at all from twelve oíclock on the Saturday till six oíclock on the Monday morning.
Monday night was usually the best night for fishing, for the same reasons. The fish would be lying down between us and Norham and we would be catching the fish coming through.
The fishing started on the 14th of February and it finished on the 14th of September. In February of course, it was always very cold and very frosty and we used to put salt on the nets to stop them from freezing and, but there was nothing you could put on your hands. It was a very, very cold job.
But, as the weather improved we had some very pleasant evenings.
I think the best salmon that anybody would ever describe for being caught and for eating, would always be the spring salmon, which you catch in February, right through till probably the end of March, April. And then of course the grilse came on in June, right through July and September, but usually tailed off a wee bit at September.
But the grilse was a nice fish and they used to come through into the Tweed in their thousands. All the fisheries down above Ord and Horncliffe would be catching hundreds of grilse in a tide. They would fish tides, whereas, we were in the upper reaches of the river. We would only be fishing at night the fish couldnít see you. You didnít catch many fish in the daylight. Unless of course the river was in flood. If it was in flood, you just fished all the time.
CASUAL LABOUR IN CLOSED SEASON
So my great, great, great grandfather was fishing and my grandfather. They did nothing else all their lives. They fished in the season and in the closed season they would just take casual labour wherever they could get it.
My grandfather did tell the story that, after the closed season, he used to go draining, and they would walk eight to ten miles to do a day's draining. Just with a spade. And then they would walk home again. Which was a fair old labour, but in those days, it was the only way to get about, was to walk.
Fishing was hard work but it was enjoyable work. Especially in the mornings when you used to get up at daylight to start the fishing, to watch the fish swimming up over the ford. The wildlife you saw was always very exciting.
DECLINE DUE TO DISEASE
Probably the downfall of the salmon fishing, certainly to our family, was when the disease came in, in the sixties. This was known as Ulcerated Dermal Necrosis or U.D.N. which was the abbreviation for it, which really decimated the spring fishing. It is a very unusual disease, in that it thrives in cold water. Once the fish either hit sea water or the water warmed up the, the disease seemed to disappear. But, when it first came in, in the first two or three years, we would bury thousands of fish because they were just covered in disease. You couldnít sell them and . . that was the downfall. So, within five years, which is about the cycle that it would take for a fish to come up until it goes down again and it goes off to sea and comes back up the river, the spring fishing was just decimated, and the spring fishing has never yet to this day recovered.
Eventually I suppose it will, but it hasnít as yet. That was the start of major problems on the fishing, well certainly for us at Great Haugh where we fished.
We eventually did take on the other fishery down at Twizel boathouse which was very deep water, which was good fishing when the river was in flood or when it was very, very small.
A GOOD CATCH
When it was low, we used to go down and fish it on the Monday mornings. My brother-in-law and I, we used to fish there every Monday morning. My father would be up at Great Haugh and there was one Monday morning that Raymond, my brother-in-law and I, caught eighty grilse at one shot, which took a lot of pulling in, as there were only two of us and it was hard work. But we did eventually get them pulled in and we more or less filled the boat with fish, there were so many.
Iím afraid these days have gone. Now if you catch eighty grilse in a season, itís a big season.
In í56, there was also a very big flood on the Tweed. The Shiel at Great Haugh was washed away, it was so big. All the nets and all the ropes and two boats were lost. We went down to Goswick Beach, about two or three days later and we recovered some of the property. We had to build a new fishing shiel which is still standing to this day.
In front of the shiel we put in a railway line, standing up on its end to try and protect the shiel from floods. This actually saved the shiel on many an occasion as itís been flooded quite a few times since.
There was one time, there was a big ice flow came down the Tweed. I canít remember the exact date . . . but the Tweed had been frozen up for, probably six to eight weeks and then there was a big thaw and a lot of rain and the ice came down, probably to a height of seven to ten feet. It was at night, so we didnít actually see it but in the morning you could see the damage it had done. It had torn lumps out the banks. It had bent this railing to quite a degree, but it saved the shiel from any major damage.
This was obviously a great boon, because it was a very good shiel. But there was no electricity in it. No running water. You all had to take whatever you wanted to eat and drink with you.
The fishing boats were known as cobles. They were very, very similar to the angling boats you see on the river to this day. They were slightly longer. Probably by about a foot, foot and a half, and they had a big bod on the back that you put the net on. All these boats were made down at Norham by a local boat builder and they were perfect for the job because he was a fisherman himself.
They used to put the ropes, the tow rope and what they called the sole rope which was the bottom rope on the net, at one side, and then you had the float rope at the top. As you rowed the boat off, dropping the net, one man would be pulling the net down on the bank and then the man in the boat would pull it down the river, depending on the size of the river, of course. And then the man in the boat would row ashore and thatís where the guys would meet him and they would just pull the net in. Hopefully with some fish in it.
It was always exceedingly hard work but it was very fruitful if you caught fish. Sometimes you did. Sometimes you didnít. Thatís the one thing about fishing. You just never know if the fish are there or if the fish are not there. Itís not like when theyíre fishing at sea when they have all these sonar machines. You just cannot use these machines at all on the Tweed.
Of course they used to catch other fish. There would be roach caught. Thereíd be pike caught. But of course these fish were always put back, apart from the pike. Originally, when I was a boy, if you caught a pike and you killed it, cut the tail off and took it to the Berwick Salmon Fishing Company, you actually got half a crown for the tail. For a pikeís tail. Which to a boy of ten or eleven was a fortune in those days. So we used to fight to try and get the pikeís tail, which was quite useful. Especially on a Saturday if you took it down to the Berwick Salmon Fishing Company. You got your half crown to go and spend up the street.
CHRISTENED WITH TWEED WATER
Salmon fishing was an interesting sport, an interesting pastime. To me it was really a pastime, because Iíd always had another job and only treated it as a part time job, unlike my forefathers before me who did nothing else really. My father was just born and bred on the Tweed. Like myself. I was christened with Tweed water, as was my son, christened with Tweed water and Tweed water was just running through my veins.
Nowadays of course, things have changed drastically and you just wouldnít get people to do that. But it was an enjoyable part of my life. Every Sunday night, we used to go down to the river to see if there were any fish jumping, because that was always a good indication that thereíd be fish there in the morning when we started.
EFFECTS OF SALMON FARMING
If you didnít see any fish jumping, you knew it was going to be a lean week. But of course, you always knew by what the men were catching further down the river because there were, probably, at least thirty to forty fisheries below us, all trying to catch the salmon. I think thereís only two or three left on the Tweed now and they really do not make much money at all. I think mainly because the salmon are not the prize fish that they used to be because thereís no price. I can remember getting five to ten shillings a pound when you could buy a pound of mince for two shillings. Salmon is now cheaper than a pound of mince. It just doesnít make sense, but itís all the farmed fish have brought the price down and made it cheaper than white fish. But salmon is still a lovely fish to eat. Itís interesting to know, that even the Crabwater Fishery which is right at the pier in Berwick, and was one of the earlier fisheries and probably the very best fishery on the Tweed has closed.
Theyíd fish in an unusual manner, in that they actually rowed the boat upstream and pulled the net that way because of the tide. The fish used to go up on the tide and back out into the sea, and they would be catching the fish that were going back into the sea.
ACCLIMATISING TO FRESH WATER
It used to take the fish, probably, ten days to two weeks just to get acclimatised to the fresh water. Salmon do not eat when they get into fresh water. Their gullet will not allow them to eat. So when the fishermen catch the salmon, its because the salmon are annoyed - itís nothing to do with what theyíre going to eat, because they cannot digest it, unlike the brown trout of course, that lives all its, all its life in fresh water.
But the sea trout, the grilse and the salmon, cannot eat at all when theyíre in the fresh water. They do eventually go back down to the sea as kelts. Kelts are always a bit of a problem in the springtime because we used to catch quite a lot of kelts on the way down. These kelts, when they were caught in the nets, had to be put back. You couldnít sell them. There was no monetary value in them. So you had to put the fish back. They were mostly trout kelts that we caught but you did catch a few salmon kelts, usually in the end of March. There used to be a glut of them coming down the Tweed for maybe two or three days and there would be big fish which had spawned and were on their way down back down to the sea. You used to think you had a lot of fish in the net but when you pulled them in, all of a sudden there was nothing but kelts, and maybe one or two clean fish.
Sometimes it was quite difficult to tell the difference between a clean fish and say a spring salmon, because a spring salmon never tends to be very fat because the spawn in the spring salmon doesnít generate really until July, August when it is going to spawn. It comes in as a very, very clean fish. You can always tell if you catch a spring salmon. Just rub your hand along all the scales and if the scales come off in your hand itís a spring salmon. If they donít, itís not a spring salmon. Itís as simple as that. The spring salmon is probably the loveliest fish to eat.
If you go back a hundred and fifty years, there were salmon fisheries the whole length of the Tweed, right from Maxton right down. My grandfather once told the story of Floors Castle, where they caught forty salmon in one shot on a Monday morning, which was a lot of salmon to catch in any shot.
Another story that my grandfather used to say, that they used to fish below Twizel Bridge and above Coldstream Bridge, and, one morning, they were fishing there, and there was a lot of fish in the bridge, in the slap at the bridge and you could see them from the bridge. So the guys who were fishing above in a fishery called ĎThe Jinglerí took a wagonload of stones and they got to the bridge and they tipped these stones into the river to try and frighten these fish up the river. They threw all these stones in and then they ran up and they rowed a few shots and they never caught one fish. But the fishery below them, that was at Lennel Churchyard, they got twenty five salmon at a shot, at seven oíclock in the morning. So those fish went straight downstream. They didnít go upstream. So, it was an interesting tale that, which, itís always true that salmon will swim downstream. And it goes faster of course, downstream, to keep it, from drowning.
But it was an interesting tale and if those guys had just left the fish, left them in the pool at the bridge, they would probably have come away in the darkening, because fish always swim in the dark. They donít really swim during the daylight. Thatís why down at some of the fisheries below at Norham, they used to rig up lights at night to try and watch them when they were fishing. They would see the Ďví, of the fish swimming up and they would just row a shot round about it and hopefully catch it. Fish are always much easier to catch in the night rather than daylight because in the daylight theyíll just swim round about to try and find a hole in the net if there is one. Or try and get underneath the net if at all possible.
But fishing went on, right up and down the Tweed, there would probably be in the region of a hundred and fifty to a hundred and seventy salmon fisheries originally, which went right down, of course, right to the estuary and then along Spittal and right down to Cocklawburn Beach, and at Goswick Stake as well of course. They still fish at Goswick to this day with a different type of net. Itís called a stake net where the fish swim in. Itís like a maze and they canít get out. But they donít catch the fish like they used to. They used to catch hundreds of fish. Now if they catch three or four fish thatís about it.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
I was born and bred originally down at Donaldsonís Lodge and lived at Twizel for a wee while, but Donaldsonís Lodge was really where weíve lived all our lives, for the last two hundred years. My family have been within two or three miles of Donaldsonís Lodge. And it was just a family affair. There were always at least two to three families who worked on the Tweed, up and down, in that stretch. The Swan name, if you look in the history books for fishermen, there for two hundred years and itís a shame that Iíve not carried it on but Iím afraid itís just economics and . . such is life.
This account is based on an interview given by Trevor Swan to the Borders Talking Newspaper, in 1999, about his early life and his memories of the netting on the Tweed. The entire interview was transcribed and put into the Scottish Borders Memory Bank. There it can be read and heard in its entirety.
Thanks to Trevor for allowing us to make a version of his account available on this site.