Fearn Balintore and Hilton Community Collage

Chapter 6 - Salmon Fishing

Although the main occupation of the Seaboard was herring and white fishing, by the mid-1900's salmon fishing came close behind.  Prior to that any salmon caught are likely to have been river fish or those caught in fairly sheltered waters although it is said that
Columba's early settlement fished at Port Lark for salmon in the 6th century.
Salmon fishing belonged to the Crown and the various large estates.  The Crown still holds its fishings but those belonging to estates have largely been sold, and as the plan shows the former fishers in Hilton.  The earliest known lessees of Crown fishings were Alex. P. Hogarth and Miss C. C. Ross of Old Shandwick as well as Major Rose, whose
leases all began in 1866. Hogarths were an Aberdeen firm who for fifty years were tenants of most of the fishings from Aberdeen to Caithness, collecting the fish from the stations in their own smacks.  [18]
Prior to 1900 there were salmon fishers, Simpsons, in Balintore, but it is uncertain which fishings they leased. In the early 1900's two brothers called Strachan operated as salmon fishers, and as already mentioned, were fish-merchants too. For a short while they had partners called West who after a time moved to Portmahomack, and later the Strachans left for Peterhead before emigrating, one to New Zealand and the other to North America. George and John Tough followed from Portmahomack. A. & J. Vass are a Balintore family who worked some fishing in the Firth till 1970.
The Moray Firth Fishing Company was formed after the First World War by General Sir Walter Ross of Cromarty and other landowners who pooled their fishings into one company with General Ross as Chairman. Castlecraig, being then on the Cromarty estate, was one of their fishings but they also rented Crown fishings. Their manager on the Seaboard for many years was Mr. George Henderson from Inverbervie who came to Hilton to live, and eventually retired and died there.

For many years Hogarths' resident manager in the Fortrose-Cromarty area was Mr, G, Paterson whose family later took salmon fishings at Cromarty,18 In 1908 they took the Morich fishing and came to live at the Haven, Hilton, but kept up their association with
Cromarty. The Paterson family now have almost all the salmon fishing on the Seaboard and employ a fair number of men.

The salmon season normally extends from early February to late August but poor beginnings added to rising costs in recent years have compelled the salmon fishers to start later, even late March. During the off-season a few of the men went to white-fishing but as crews were usually made up by then the majority went to work at corn and
potato harvests, ditching and other farm work.

Salmon cobles are difficult to build as they have to be shallow yet seaworthy and they do not appear to have been locally made. The Patersons used to buy theirs from Skinners, Aberdeen, and now get them from Gardenstown. Oars are made from white wood shaped at the sawmills and trimmed at home.

Anchors play an important part holding the poles for the nets.  Sometimes old schooner anchors were used while others were made from pieces of railway track, turned up at one end and split into two at the other.

Nets were hand-knitted from cotton twine, using special wooden needles. George Tough used to make beautiful apple-wood needles but the man best remembered for knitting nets was George Henderson, the Moray Firth Fishing Co. manager. He often passed winter evenings in this way, hands busy going in and out at a steady rate and listening to 'Radio Lyons,' pipe in mouth at the same time.  Sometimes a knotty political problem was thrashed out but the capable fingers never halted and he turned out excellent work.  

Patersons used to buy hand-knitted nets from Lossiemouth, paying the knitters so much per hank, but nowadays ready-made synthetic netting is used. The men make rope frames, but the netting to shape and sew it on to make bag nets. A disadvantage of synthetic netting is that more salmon are 'hung' (caught in the net by the gills) and
much more work is involved in inspecting the nets as hung fish must be found and removed as quickly as possible as they would be bad by next day. These nets are taken ashore and hung up to dry from time to time near the Commercial Hotel and at Patersons' yard, and a very attractive sight they are during the season.

During big tides in March and September the remains of poles can be seen in the sand to the west of Shandwick Bay. These are all that is left of stake nets which the Strachan brothers used to catch grilse (young salmon) from June to August. The poles supported net leaders to direct the salmon into a bag at the end. They also carried hand and foot ropes so that the men could go out along them as the tide fell to reach the bag before the water got so low that the fish scaled themselves. Small boys used to go out on the ropes occasionally, much to the rage of the salmon fishers!

Bought from Cadboll Estate by John Paterson & Sons, about 1923. Worked till recently. Bothies in good repair.

Bothy in ruins. Bought from Cadboll Estate as above.

Crown - leased by J. Paterson & Sons at present - worked previously by Strachans, Balintore, and Moray Firth Co., Inverness.

Cadboll- bought by J. Paterson & Sons, and worked at present by Patersons. Previously worked by Moray Firth Fishing Co., Inverness.

Crown - leased to J.Paterson & Sons. Previously worked by Tough Bros., Portmahomack, and Moray Firth Fishing Co. Bothy in ruins.

Cadboll - bought by J. Paterson & Sons. Previously worked by Tough Bros. and Moray Firth Fishing Co.

Cadboll- bought by J. Paterson & Sons. Previously worked by Moray Firth Co.

Crown. Leased to A. & J. Vass, Balintore, until 1970. Previously worked by Moray Firth Co., J. Paterson & Sons, Strachans, A.P. Hogarth, 1866 for 2 years;  Major Rose, 1866 for 7 years; Capt. Rose, 1873 for 7 years; Maj. Rose, 1880-1890;  A. Hogarth, 1891-1900.

Leased to A. & J. Vass until 1970. Previously worked by J. Paterson & Sons. Bothy in ruins.

Crown. Leased to A. & J. Vass, until 1970. Previously worked by J. Paterson & Sons; Moray Firth Co.

Cromarty Estate formerly. Proprietors - Moray Firth Fishing Co. and worked by them at present.  Previously worked by J. Patersoil & Sons, and  A. & J.Vass.

Landing salmon in Balintore Harbour. The salmon bothy shows at the right of the Commercial Hotel.

Seals make great havoc among the salmon and damage nets by following the fish in to eat them and then escaping. The black-backed gull, though detested by fishermen and shepherds alike, tells the salmon fisher when seals are at work as they hang around the spot waiting for their pickings. Porpoises have been seen to toss a salmon in the air before devouring it. They are thought to breed near Port an Righ and it is said that this makes it an unpopular fishing station.  Necessity led the Paterson brothers to design and make a seal net or trap whereby they caught the enemy from time to time and put an
end to his depredations.

When Hogarth and Tough had salmon fishings on the seaboard they mainly employed fishermen from the west coast of Scotland as the local men were unfamiliar with the work. A bothy in Shore Street, Balintore, was provided for these men, with a living room and kitchen, but later on local men were employed. When the cobles still depended on sail and oars it saved time to have the men based at various bothies along the coast. Thus they were able to visit the nets several times a day and the salmon were carried in to Hilton and Balintore in creels by both men and women, specially engaged for 
this work. People in Shandwick remember seeing them pausing to rest their heavy creels on a bank before continuing on their way. 

A week's supply of fuel and food was taken by boat to the bothies, and the men lived there. They went home for the weekends, however, sometimes walking over the hill from Castlecraig, sometimes sailing.  They walked daily to the bothy at Port an Righ. It no longer exists but several others may be seen along the coast and are now mostly
used as stores. They fell into disuse when the introduction of motor boats enabled the crews to operate from Balintore, towing the cobles to the nets, and later on the cobles themselves were fitted with engines.

Salmon fishers used to be engaged with a shilling, this 'arles' binding both master and man for the season. This custom has only recently been discontinued, though not before the shilling had been increased to half a crown. The foreman was engaged and given four shillings and it was up to him to choose the other three members of the crew, handing out the 'arles' to each one. Salmon fishers are paid weekly with a bonus for every hundred fish caught. When a crew score the hundred mark and when they bring in the first grilse of the season there is a celebration in the form of a free dram from the boss.

Before the coming of the railway salmon had to be sent away by sea. They were par-boiled and preserved with vinegar and packed in barrels. This method was used for fish for the London market19 and an old man remembers his grandfather speaking of seeing the fish being cooked like this in the bothies. In Wick salmon fishers still describe the amount of their catch in 'barrels,' a relic of the days when they were sold in this way.

With the introduction of ice and the coming of the railway methods of distribution changed. Ice-houses were built at various places - one just east of Shore Street, Shandwick; one at the bothy in Balintore; and another above the village of Hilton below the main road to Portmahomack. The brae nearby is still known as the Ice-house Brae.
This ice-house which belonged to the Patersons has long since disappeared, as have the others, but there is now a modern one at the Patersons' yard.

The old ice-houses were underground cellars, cold enough to keep ice well into the summer. Strangely enough, before there were machines to make ice winters were always sufficiently severe to ensure a plentiful supply of it at the farm mill dams and in various ponds. It was broken with axes and carted to the ice-houses. Sometimes snow was turned into ice by pressing it into a hard block. With it, the fish could be safely packed and carted to Fearn Station en route for the London market.

Like everything else, prices of salmon have rocketed during the years. An old entry of 1784 in Lady Pitcalnie's account reads, 'Duncan Rain, for a salmon 6d.' As recently as 1935 it was possible to get a cut of salmon at Patersons' yard on a Saturday night for 9d. - 1/- per lb., with much arguing as to who would have the middle cut and who would have the head. Nowadays it is more likely to fetch up to £2.00 per lb. early in the season.

In 1965, lump fish, known as paddles, which are caught in the  salmon nets and were considered of no particular value, suddenly took on a new importance. A Scottish firm, Johnstones, Montrose, and a Danish firm, began buying lump fish roes at 1/- per lb. to make an imitation caviare. This exotic experiment apparently was a failure and the unlovely paddles' brief hour of glory ended after a year or two.

Continue in Chapter 7
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