Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

Salmon and Salmon-Poachers in the Border

What is it that causes a salmon to be so irresistible a temptation to the average Borderer? He knows that it is illegal to take "a fish" from the water at certain seasons, and at other times except under certain circumstances. Yet at any season and under any circumstances the sight of a fish in river or burn draws him like a magnet, and take it he must, if by any means it may be done outside the ken of the Tweed Commissioners and their minions. Even if he be a rigid observer of the law, a disciplinarian of Puritan fervour, in his heart he takes that salmon, and his pulse goes many beats faster as, standing on the bank, he watches the "bow wave" made by a moving fish in thin water, or sees it struggle up a cauld.

One can remember the case of a middle-aged gentleman, the most strict of Presbyterians, a church-goer almost fanatical in his attendance, one who would have suffered martyrdom rather than be compelled to forego long family prayers morning and evening; a man ordinarily rigid in his observance of the law to its last letter, unforgiving of those who even in the mildest manner stepped an inch beyond the line. Yet that old man, returning after long years to the scenes of his boyhood from a far land, where like Jacob of old he had "increased exceedingly, and had much cattle," when in remote Border waters one day he was tempted by the Evil One with a salmon, fell almost without a struggle. To secure that salmon the old gentleman must needs get exceeding wet; moreover, it was close time. There was no shadow of excuse. But he was a boy again; fifty years had slipped off his shoulders. And I know not what came of the salmon, but it left the water; nor do I know what the watcher said who came over the hill inopportunely. Maybe the trouser-pocket where the old gentleman kept his silver was a good deal lighter, and that of the watcher a good deal heavier, when the twain parted. And therein the old gentleman sinned doubly; for himself he broke the law, and he put temptation in the way of the watcher, and caused him also to sin and to be guilty of grave dereliction of duty. Yet there it was! The most rigid of his kind in pursuit of virtue and in observance of the law, saw "a fish"—and straightway, irresistibly the old Adam moved within him. Nay! Under certain circumstances hardly would one trust even a black-coated Border minister if a salmon provoked him too sorely.

In former days, many were the ways whereby a fish might be induced to quit his native element. Now, it is different; though even now possibly his end might not in every case endure too close scrutiny. But in the days when our grandsires and great-grandsires were young, salmon were regarded as of small value; they sold possibly at 2d.  the pound, and servants in Tweedside homes were wont to bargain that they should not be forced to eat salmon every day of the week. Then, practically no method of capture was illegal; you might take him almost when, where, and how you pleased. Indeed, one reads that at St. Boswells in 1794 the neighbourhood was "seldom at a loss for a small salmon, which proves a great conveniency to families." It was not as if such a thing as a close season had never been known. Five hundred years before the date above mentioned there were laws in existence regulating the capture of salmon, and in the reign of James I of Scotland the law was most stringent. In 1424 it was enacted that "Quha sa ever be convict of Slauchter of Salmonde in tyme forbidden be the Law, he shall pay fourtie shillings for the unlaw, and at the third tyme gif he be convict of sik Trespasse he shall tyne his life." But the law had fallen into disuse—was, in fact, a dead letter; practically there was no "tyme forbidden," or at least the close season was as much honoured in the breach as in the observance, and, especially in the upper waters of Tweed and her tributaries, countless numbers of spawning fish were annually destroyed.

But as the salmon fisheries of Great Britain grew in value, so were various destructive methods of capturing the fish declared to be illegal, and many a practice that in earlier days was regarded as "sport" may now be indulged in not at all. Some of those practices were picturesque enough in themselves, and brimmed over with excitement and incident; indeed, as portrayed in the pages of Guy Mannering, they were, to use Sir Walter's own words, "inexpressibly animating." Such, for instance, were "burning the water" and "sunning." Others, such as rake-hooking, cross-lining, and decking salmon out of shallow water, were mere poaching devices with little redeeming virtue, commending themselves to nobody, except as a means of filling the pot.

Then there was the taking of salmon from the "redds" as they spawned, of all methods of capture the least allied to "sport," for the fish then were soft and flabby, and almost useless as food. Nevertheless, there was in that, too, a strong element of excitement, for the weapon used, the clodding or throwing leister, required no mean skill in the using. This throwing leister was a heavy spear, or rather a heavy "graip," having five single-barbed prongs of unequal length but regularly graduated. To the bar above the shortest prong was lashed a goats'-hair rope, which was also made fast to the thrower's arm, carefully coiled, as in a whaling-boat the line is coiled, so that it may run free when the fish is struck. This leister (or waster) was cast by hand at fish lying in not too deep water—generally, in fact, when they were on the spawning beds. It was with this weapon, as one may read in Scrope's Days and Nights of Salmon Fishing, that Tam Purdie—Sir Walter's Purdie—when a young man captured that "muckle kipper" that seemed to him to be the "verra de'il himsel'," so big was he. One Sunday forenoon, as he daundered by the waterside (instead of being, as he should have been, at church) Tam saw him slide slowly off the redd across the stream.

"Odd! my verra heart lap to my mouth whan I gat the glisk o' something mair like a red stirk than ought else muve off the redd. I fand my hair creep on my heid. I minded it was the Sabbath, and I sudna hae been there. It micht be a delusion o' the Enemy, if it wasna the de'il himsel'."

All that peaceful Sabbath day Tam's meditations were disturbed by visions of great salmon. And as at family worship that night his master read aloud from "the Word," Tam quaked to realise that no syllable had penetrated his dulled ears, but that, with the concluding solemn "Amen," had come to his mind the resolution to clip the wings of the Sabbath, and at all costs to capture that fish before anyone could forestall him. According, as soon as his too ardent mind judged that the hands of the clock must be drawing near to midnight, Tam arose, and, rousing a farm boy to bear the light for him as he struck, with "clodding waster" in hand set off for the river. Now this clodding waster (or leister) was a possession of which Tam was inordinately proud; amongst his friends its temper and penetrating power were proverbial. It had been made for him by the Runcimans of Yarrowford, smiths celebrated far and wide for the marvellous qualities they imparted to all weapons made by them. As Purdie said: "I could hae thrawn mine off the head o' a scaur, and if she had strucken a whinstane rock she wad hae been nae mair blunted than if I had thrawn her on a haystalk." Yet when anon he came to cast this leister at the muckle kipper, "the 14 lb. waster stottit off his back as if he had been a bag o' wool." That was proof enough, if any were needed, that a fish so awesome big must be something uncanny and beyond nature. In a cold sweat, Tam and the boy fled from the waterside and cast themselves shivering into their beds over the byre at home. But as he lay awake, unable to close an eye, Purdie's courage crept back to him, and again he resolved that have that fish he would, muckle black de'il or no. So again he roused his now reluctant torch-bearer, and having with difficulty convinced him that the fish was actually a fish, and not the devil let loose on them for their sin in having broken the Sabbath—"Irr ye sure, Tam, it wasna the de'il?" the boy quavered—before daylight they again found the spot where the great kipper lay. And whether it was that this time, knowing that it really was Monday morning, Purdie threw with easier conscience and consequently with surer aim, or to what other cause who may say, but certain it is that the man and the boy, soaked to the skin and chilled to the marrow, triumphantly bore home that morning to the mill, where Purdie's father then lived, a most monstrous heavy fish.

The leister used in "sunning" or in "burning the water" differed somewhat in shape from the weapon with which Tam Purdie secured his big kipper. It, too, had five single-barbed prongs, but these were all of equal length, and the wooden handle of this implement was straight, and very much longer than that of the throwing leister; sixteen feet was no unusual length for the handle of the former weapon.

Burning the water, as its name implies, was a sport indulged in at night by torchlight. Sunning, on the other hand, was the daylight form of "burning," but it could be practised only when the river was dead low, and then not unless the weather were very calm and bright. The salmon, as they lay in the clear, sun-lit water, were speared from a boat, and vast numbers were so killed; indeed, the frightened fish had small chance of escape, for spearing began at the pool's foot, and men with leisters blocked the way of escape up stream. No doubt into this, as into its kindred sport "burning," excitement in plenty, and boisterous fun, entered largely; many a man, miscalculating the depth of water in which a fish lay, to the unfeigned delight of his comrades, took a rapid and involuntary header into the icy stream. But both sports partook too much of the nature of butchery—carts used to be needed to carry home the spoil—and they are "weel awa' if they bide." "Bide" they must, though in times not remote one has heard faint whisperings of the burning of the waters in some far-off district of the Border. Nor are there wanting those who yet openly defend the practice, deeming it indeed no sin, but rather a benefit to the water, to take from it some of the superfluous fish, which, say they, would otherwise almost certainly die of disease and contaminate the stream.

Yet, if in our day the water has been burned, it cannot have been oftener than once in a way, and probably no great harm has resulted. Nor can the game be worth the candle, one could imagine, for watchers now are many and alert, in the execution of their duties much more conscientious than was common in days gone by. There are none now, we may hope, like the bailiff of Selkirk in the early part of last century, who constantly find salmon in close time mysteriously appearing on their dinner-table. Yet this early nineteenth-century bailiff could truly swear that such a thing as salmon on his table he never had seen. For it appears that his wife, canny woman, having first brought in a platter of potatoes, was wont to tie round his eyes a towel before she brought in the boiled fish; and before she again took away the towel, every vestige or trace of salmon had been carefully removed from the room. Obviously that bailiff, honest man, could not report a breach of the law which had never come under his observation! Of various forms of netting which in olden days were legal, but now, happily, are forbidden, there was that by means of the Cairn net, a most destructive form, and that by the Stell net, which was worse; but to describe these obsolete instruments is unnecessary, and might be tedious. There was also the Pout net, an implement somewhat like a very large landing-net, wherewith a man might readily whip many a fish out of flooded water. That, however, need not be considered as in these days a serious form of poaching.

Of all poachers of salmon, perhaps that one with whom one is least out of sympathy was the man—is he now extinct, one wonders?—who, fishing with trout-rod and fly, and bearing on his back the most modest of trout creels, instantly, when he came to a likely cast for a fish, was wont to change his trout fly for a salmon one. If he hooked a salmon and a watcher appeared on the scene, invariably the fish "broke" him. If no watcher put in an appearance, generally the angler found that he had sudden and pressing business at home, and that fish left the riverside snugly smuggled inside the lining of a coat, or in a great circular pocket made for the purpose. It was such an one that, nigh on a hundred years ago, Mr. Scrope caught red-handed one day on his rented salmon water near Melrose. The man was a guileless creature from Selkirk, too innocent, it appeared, to be able to account for the salmon flies in the inside of his dilapidated hat, or for the 10 lb. salmon reposing in his pocket.

"Dodd! I jalouse it's mebbes luppen in whan I was wadin' the watter," he said with artless smile. "They're gey queer beasts, fish."

Still to this day there may perhaps be found instances where they have "luppen in" to a too capacious pocket; for the nature of the salmon has not changed, and they are still "gey queer," and are found occasionally in "gey queer" places. There was, one remembers, not so long ago, a certain boy from Eton, or from some other of the great public schools, who, with a sister, wandered one lowering autumn evening by the brown waters of a Border stream. And how it happened there is none to say, save those who dimly saw it, but there came a vision of a water-bailiff, scant of breath, pounding heavily across the fields, whilst a maiden, fleet of foot, sped away through the gloom, sore handicapped by the antics of a half-dead and wholly slippery fish that nothing would induce to stay inside her jacket. And whether she won free, I know not. But it is said there was salmon steak for breakfast next morning in that maiden's home.

Surely the devil played but an amateur part when he essayed to break down the stern virtue of St. Anthony with temptations no stronger than those over which the good Saint so easily triumphed. Had he clapped the holy man down by the banks of a Border stream when fish were running in the autumn, there might have been another tale to tell—that is, if a close season had existed in mediŠval times. I trow we should have seen St. Anthony nipping hot-foot over the hill, with the bosom of his monk's gown protruding in a way at which no honest water-bailiff could possibly have winked. Things as strange have happened in our own day; but maybe they were due to that drop of reiver blood which courses more or less swiftly through the veins of most Border folk, and which, now that there are no cattle to "lift" from the English side, impels them for want of better to lift from the water a salmon whenever opportunity may offer.

There was lately, it is said, a lady of ancient Border lineage, who sat one day with a grown-up daughter in the library of her ancestral home. It was the hunting season, and at intervals the two glanced anxiously from the windows in full expectation of seeing the hounds sweep in full cry over the fields of which the library commanded a view.

"They must be coming," cried the daughter, starting up. "There's one of the stable-boys running over the lawn."

And, indeed, past the old trees a youth was to be seen skirting the lawn, flying down terraces, making towards a burn which ran through the grounds before joining a small tributary of Tweed. At best speed mother and daughter followed the boy, who had halted excitedly by the burn side. But what the cause of his agitation might be they could not for the moment conjecture; certainly the burn had no apparent connection with hunting, nor indeed was there sign of horse or hound. What they found was something very different. A mile or so up the rivulet there was a farm-steading, and in that steading was the usual water-driven threshing-mill. It happened that this particular day had been selected by the farmer as one on which he might advantageously thrash part of his crop. Consequently, the water from his mill pond was now making a temporary spate in the little stream, which, in the course of nature, had caused many salmon to run their noses into the burn's unexplored meanderings. When the two ladies reached the stream's bank, they found the stable-lad up to his knees in the water, and a fish, not over silvery, already floundering high and dry, far from its native element; in shallow, broken water, two or three others vainly struggled to gain higher latitudes.

"Oh-h! mother!"  cried the daughter excitedly.

And said the elder lady with little hesitation:

"Get them out, Jim; get them out. We'll kipper them." Then, after a thoughtful pause: "I think I'd like to catch one myself."

So into the water she plunged, and the three—the lady and her daughter and the stable-boy—were so busily and excitedly plowtering in the burn, engaged in this most nefarious and illegal capture of fish, that they failed to hear or to see that hounds and a full field had swept over the hill in front, and had checked, in full view of them, at a small strip of wood in their immediate neighbourhood; in fact, there was little doubt these poachers must, a few minutes before, have headed the fox. Most embarrassing of all, however, was the fact that amongst the riders was one in immaculate pink, whose face flushed a deeper shade than his coat as he pulled up not a hundred yards distant. For what must be the feelings of a Justice of the Peace, of strictest principles, who, without warning, lights upon the wife of his bosom, his innocent daughter, and one of his servants, all engaged in the most barefaced poaching?

"Good Gedd!"  he was heard to say—if indeed the words were no stronger—as, mercifully, the hounds picked up the scent again at that moment, and the chase swept on.

There are none so blind as those who will not see, however, and nothing more was ever heard of this episode. But report has it that the lord of that manor has no great partiality for kippered salmon.

But salmon-poaching is perhaps not entirely confined to the human species. There have been instances known where dogs have been the most accomplished of poachers—generally, it must be said, in conjunction with a two-legged companion. The lurching, vagabond hound that one sees not infrequently in certain parts of the country, following suspicious-looking characters clad in coats with suspiciously roomy pockets, might, no doubt, be easily trained to take salmon from burns, or from the shallow water into which, in the autumn, the fish often run. And, to the present writer's mind, a black curly-coated retriever recalls himself as a poacher of extreme ability. A most lovable dog was "Nero," but—at least as regards salmon—he was a most immoral breaker of the law. It was well, perhaps, that he lived in days when water-bailiffs were neither so numerous, nor so strict in the execution of their duties, as they now are, for nothing could cure him of the habit, when he saw a fish struggling up a shallow stream, of dashing in, seizing that salmon in his teeth, and laying it at the feet of his embarrassed master, who, far from being connected with the poaching fraternity, was, indeed, a magistrate, to whom the gift of a salmon in such circumstances brought only confusion.

After all, is there not generally a something lovable in the man who poaches purely for sport's  sake? Who can fail to mourn the end of poor, harmless, gallant, drucken Jocky B——, who gave his life for his love of what he conceived to be sport? "Here's daith or glory for Jocky," he cried, when the watchers surrounded him, leaving but the one possibility of escape. And in that swollen, wintry torrent into which he plunged, the Bailiff Death laid hands on Jocky. Perhaps even now in the shades below, his "ghost may land the ghosts of fish"; mayhap, with a cleek such as that to which his cold fingers yet stiffly clung when they found him in the deep pool, he may still, now and again, be permitted with joyous heart to lift from the waters that ripple through Hades spectral fish of fabulous dimensions.

Salmon do not now appear to be so numerous in Tweed as apparently they were eighty or a hundred years ago; it is said that in 1824, when the nets had been off the lower reaches of the river for the Sunday, sometimes as many as five hundred salmon and grilse would be taken at Kelso of a Monday morning by the net and coble. It is a prodigious haul of fish. One's mouth, too, waters as one reads of the numbers that were in those days taken in most stretches of the river by rod and line—though probably a goodly number of them were kelts.

Yet, even now, if in the month of November, when waters are red and swollen, one stands by Selkirk cauld, the fish may be seen in numbers almost incredible. By scores at a time you may see them, great and small, hurl themselves into the air over the great wave which boils at the cauld-foot. And the bigger fish, landing—if one may use the term—far beyond the first upheaval of the wave, will rush stoutly up the swirling, foaming rapid, perhaps half-way to the smooth water above the cauld, ere they are swept back, still valiantly struggling, into the seething pool below. The smaller fish less frequently succeed in clearing the wave, but generally pitch nose foremost into the water where it begins to rise, and are hurled back head over tail in impotent confusion. Some of the heavier fish, too, after their jump may be seen to come down with portentous skelp on top of the retaining wall of the salmon-run in mid-stream, thence—apparently with "wind bagged"—to be ignominiously hurried back into the deep pool from which they have but the moment before hurled themselves. The general effect of the spectacle is as if one watched an endless kind of finny Grand National Steeplechase; one grows dizzy with the constant rise and fall of innumerable fish over the big jump, and it is almost a relief to turn and watch the bailiffs with their landing-nets lift from the shallow, rushing water at the cauld-side fish after fish, which they carry up and carefully put in the smooth water at top of the cauld. How many hundreds of salmon one may thus see in the course of a couple of hours, on a day when the river is in spate too heavy for the fish to succeed in ascending the cauld, it is impossible to estimate.

Big fish do not seem to have been so common in olden days as they are now. Mr. Scrope mentions that in all his twenty years' experience he never caught one above 30 lbs. weight, and very few above 20 lbs. Fish of that size are common now almost as sparrows in a London street, more especially in the lower stretches of Tweed. Thirty pounds hardly excites remark, and salmon up to 40 lbs. or over are caught with fly nearly every autumn. Much larger fish, too, have been taken of recent years; one of 57 lbs. was landed in 1873, one of 57-1/2 lbs. in 1886, and various fish of over 50 lbs. weight at later dates, whilst in December 1907 a dead fish of 60 lbs. was found in Mertoun Water.

Then there was that giant fish lost near Dryburgh by Colonel Haig of Bemersyde, "perhaps the greatest salmon ever hooked in Tweed," as Sir Herbert Maxwell remarks in his Story of the Tweed. Lost fish are proverbially the largest fish, but in this instance it was not the fisher who boasted of the weight. Late one evening, fishing in the Haly Weil, the Colonel got fast in something heavy which, resistless as fate, bored steadily down the river a full half mile to the Tod Holes in Dryburgh Water. Here, heavy and sullen, and never showing himself, he ploughed slowly about, and Colonel Haig, already overdue at home, became impatient, believing that he must have foul-hooked a moderate-sized fish. Darkness was fast coming on, and at last the Colonel told his attendant to wade in and try to net the fish.

"He's that muckle I cannot get him in, sir," cried the lad after a time.

But the Colonel could not wait.

"Nonsense," he said. "Get his head in. I can't stop here all night."

Then came the not uncommon result of trying to net a big fish in an uncertain light; the rim of the net fouled the gut cast, and away went the fish. It would spoil the story not to tell the rest of it in Sir Herbert Maxwell's own words.

"The Colonel did not realise the magnitude of his disaster until two or three weeks later, when he happened to be waiting for a train at St. Boswells Station. The porter came to him and said:

"'Hae ye ony mind, Colonel, o' yon big fush ye slippit in the Tod Holes yon nicht?'

"'Oh, I mind him well,' replied the Colonel; 'a good lump of a fish he was, I believe, but I never saw him rightly.'

"'Ay,' said the other dryly; 'yon wad be the biggest sawmon that ever cam oot o' the water o' Tweed, I'm thinking.'

"'Why, what do you know about him?' asked the Colonel.

"'Oh, I ken fine aboot the ae half o' him, ony way,' replied the porter. 'Ye see, there was twa lads clappit amang the trees below the Wallace statue forenenst ye, waiting till it was dark to set a cairn net, ye ken. Weel, didna they see you coming doun the water taigled wi' a fish? And when ye cam to the Tod Holes, they saw ye loss him, and they got a visee o' the water he made coming into the east bank, ye ken. There's a wee bit cairn there, ye ken, wi' a piece lound water ahint it, where they jaloused the fish wad rest himsel a wee. Weel, they waited till it was mirk night, and then they jist whuppit the net round him, and they sune had him oot. He was that big he wadna gang into the bag they had wi' them; so they cuttit him in twa halves; and the tae half they brocht to the station here to gang by rail to Embro'. Weel, if the tither half was as big, yon fish bud to be seeventy pund weight; for the half o' him I weighed mysel, and it was better nor thirty-five pund. Ay, a gran' kipper!'"

Yet occasionally, in olden days, a salmon big as Tam Purdie's muckle kipper was got by rod and line. In 1815 Rob Kerss, the famous "Rob o' the Trows," hooked a leviathan in Makerstoun Water—the biggest fish, he said, that ever he saw; so big that it took even so great a master as Rob hours to land, and left him "clean dune oot." At last the fish lay, a magnificent monster, stretched on the shingle. With aching arms but thankful heart, Rob moved away a trifle to lift a stone wherewith to smite his captive over the head. And with that, Rob's back being partly turned, from the tail of his eye he saw the salmon give a wammle. In novels, it is usually "but the work of a moment" for the hero to turn and perform some noted feat. Here, alas! it was different. It was but the work of a moment, certainly, for Rob to turn, and to jump on the huge salmon. But there all resemblance to the typical hero ceased, for the line fouled his foot, and broke as it tripped him up; and before the fisherman knew where he was, he and the salmon were struggling together in deep water. It was only Rob that came out. Sic transit. Trust not a fish till the bag closes on him.