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April 10th 1828

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Perthshire Poachers

No doubt the idea of fishing for pleasure goes back a long way, perhaps to Roman times though there is no written evidence that the Romans indulge in the sport. Fishing for salmon in Scotland has been a commercial operation for some hundreds of years.

Writing in 1772, Thomas Pennant writes of fishing at the Falls of Tummel. “Salmons annually force their passage even up this cataract; and are taken here in a most artless manner. A hamper fastened to a wicker rope pinned into the cleft of the rock by a stick, is flung into the stream. Now and then a fish in the fall from its efforts to get up drops into this little ware. It is not to be supposed that the owner can enrich himself by the capture; in fact the chance of his good fortune is hired out at the annual rent of one pound fourteen shillings. At other times the fisher flings into the stream below a crowfoot or caltrap fastened to a long rope. On this instrument the salmons often transfix themselves and are drawn up to land.” 

In the Ericht, a little north of Rattray, the practice was to use a bag net attached to a long handle made of hazel. When the river was low, the fishermen waited till after sunset and then threw a thin clay into the water to darken it before they let down the bag net. At certain points in the river where the channel was sufficiently narrow, a bag net almost the width of the river was set down as near to the bottom as possible. When the net was in position a long pole with red cloth at the end of it was pushed into the water and the fish confused by the noise and splashing and the sight of the red cloth rushed blindly down into the net placed to intercept them. In those days salmon were more plentiful in all the Scottish rivers and in 1804 it is recorded that at the Coble Pool above Blairgowrie 336 salmon and grilse were caught in a single haul by this method.

Yet another method of catching salmon was known as blazing. It is well described in Scott’s Guy Mannering. “This chase, in which the fish are pursued and struck with barbed spears or a sort of long shafted trident, called a waster, is much practised at the mouth of the Esk and in other salmon rivers in Scotland. The fish are discovered by torches or fire grates, filled with blazing fragments of tar-barrels, which shed a strong though partial light upon the water…others run along the banks brandishing their torches and spears, and pursuing the salmon which endeavour to escape up the stream, while others shrouding themselves under the roots of trees, fragments of stones and large rocks attempted to conceal themselves from the fishermen. These the party in the boat detected by the slightest indications; the twinkling of a fin, the rising of an air bell was sufficient to point out to these adroit sportsmen in what direction to use their weapon.” 

Blazing became so widespread that in 1828 an Act of Parliament was passed, prohibiting under penalty, any person using “any light or fire of any kind, in order for the taking or with intent to take any salmon, grilse, sea-trout or other fish of the salmon kind.” 

The Act was highly unpopular and many blazers continued to defy the law. On the Isla and Ericht in particular, bands of poachers assembled, disguised with blackened faces and there were many battles fought with the forces of the law. It was a number of years before the practice eventually died out.

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