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September 14th 1992

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The Abernethy Pearl

Pearl fishing in Scotland has a long history and at some time or other most rivers in the country contained the freshwater mussel (margaritifera margaritifera) from which the pearls are obtained.

“In most of the rivers of Scotland, besides the marvellous plentie of salmond and other fishes gotten there, is a shell fish called the horse-mussell of a great quantity, wherein are engendered innumerable, fair, beautiful and delectable pearls, convenient for the pleasure of man, and profitable for the use of phisicke; some of them so fair and polished that they may be equal to any oriental pearls.” 

No pearl river was more famous than the Tay and the Muses Threnody in the 17th Century celebrated the fact.

Now let us go the pretious pearls a-fishing
The occasion serveth well, while here we stay
To catch these muscles you call toyts of Tay
Its possible if no ill-eye bewitch us
We jewels find, for all our days to enrich us.

Thomas Pennant, the great English traveller, mentions the pearl fishing in Perth, though he stated that at the time of his visit in 1769, it was “exhausted from the avarice of the undertakers.”  At the end of the century in the 1st Statistical Account, mention was made of pearl fishing at Cargill and at Callender, (“in the Teith are found innumerable mussels. The pearls they contain are esteemed for their lustre, their size and their shape.” )

The method of fishing has not changed much since the start of the century, and the equipment is easy to create. A long straight pole of ash, split at one end and bound to prevent the split travelling too far up the pole; this is the tang (or tongs) used to lift the mussels from the river bed. The jug is normally a raspberry picker’s luggie with the bottom removed, a circular piece of glass sealed into the top, with a metal handle bolted to the side of the bucket. This enables the fisher to hold the bucket partially under water and get a clear view of the river bed. Thirdly a hessian sack into which the mussels can be thrown. Lastly, and most importantly, warm waterproof clothing to enable the fisherman to stand up to his shoulders, if necessary, in cold running water.

There are still pearls to be obtained from many of the rivers of Scotland today but pollution, the effects of acid rain and over fishing threatens stocks in some areas. Fortunately the mussels are prolific breeders and overfished stocks will recover.

The effects of pollution can be more serious and completely wipe out stocks. Mussels live to over 100 years but pearls obtained from very old mussels are not generally of good quality. Sometimes such pearls may be pared to reveal a quality stone beneath the outer covering. Mussels between the ages of ten and fifty normally yield the best pearls. Only certain mussels are likely to be of use, the so called crooks, of a crescent shape, slightly deformed and covered with wrinkles.

Pearl fishing is a skilled operation and though at times various amateurs have tried it, there are today just a handful of semi-professionals and only one full time professional, Bill Abernethy of Coupar Angus. It was in 1967 that Mr Abernethy hit the headlines with the discovery of a pearl 34½ grains weight which he took to J.K. Cairncross, jewellers of Perth.

It was not just the size of the pearl but the quality that was so outstanding “No one seems to recall such a good one of this size,”  commented Mr Cairncross, “it is almost impossible to put a price on it, as it is unlikely they would see another so good of the same size.”  The pearl was called, very appropriately, the Abernethy, and remained on display at Cairncross for many years.

Later there was a court case concerning the actual ownership of the pearl.

Finally on September 14th 1992, the pearl was sold by Mr Abernethy for an undisclosed sum but thought to be around £60,000.

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