King of Fish
21 February, 2013
Visit Scotland’s website, Wildlife Scotland aims to promote the wildlife of Scotland to tourists. They list six ‘must see’ species: dolphins, osprey, puffin, red deer, red squirrel and salmon. Throughout the year as opportunities arose I though I would take each species and talk about how they are connected with Historic Scotland sites, starting with salmon.
Salmon these days are associated with fish farms and expensive sport fishing, but in the past they were an important part of the economy of some communities. The fact that salmon are depicted on many Pictish stones illustrates the historic importance of this iconic fish. Fish were farmed in the past, but rarely. The pond at Craigmillar Castle had fish for consumption in the castle and similarly there was probably a pond at Deer Abbey. But these are the exception, wild salmon were by far the major source of fish.
Such was the value of salmon, that the rights to fish were held by the crown and issued to the chosen few. Some was for domestic consumption but the vast majority appears to have been destined for export to European markets, In addition salmon are protected by law with some of the earliest protection dating back to 1318 and the parliament of Robert 1. This related to preventing mill laids being barriers to migrating fish.
The rights to fishing would have resided with monasteries. In fact, there was a well documented dispute that ran for over 300 years between the burgh of Stirling and the Augustinian monks at Cambuskenneth Abbey about the ownership of the salmon fisheries in the River Forth. A number of medieval fishing stations and salmon cruives (wood and stone barriers across a river with fish traps above them) have been identified along the banks and shore.
Salmon are not subject to such commercial fishing any more. However the numbers of rod caught salmon continues to fall. The life of a modern salmon is fraught with danger. Its eggs are highly sought after by trout, the fry are the prey of pike and large trout and bill toothed ducks like goosander. Otter and mink take their fair share too. Once at sea they travel to feeding grounds of the Greenland coast where they are hunted by fishing fleets. And to make matters worse prey fish and sandeels are reducing in numbers due to overfishing and climate change.
So which properties can you visit? Doune Castle is the best, a walk through the grounds takes you along the banks of the Teith and salmon can often be seen leaping at the confluence with the Ardoch Burn. Dryburgh Abbey next to the Tweed and Beauly Abbey next to the River Beauly, where the river was called Avin-na-mannich, or the monks’ water, have long association with salmon. And the Meigle Museum has a number of Pictish stones on display which includes a beautiful carving of a salmon.