A beautiful new book records the history and sport of salmon fishing on the River Tweed in the Scottish Borders
Arguably the greatest salmon system in Europe, the River Tweed (always just ‘Tweed’ to aficionados) is practically 98 miles long and flows through fabled borderlands steeped in lore and rilled with blood—small wonder it has attracted authors, from Scott to Buchan, and piscatorial zealots, such as that effervescent Victorian William Scrope.
But it has been many years since an entire volume was devoted to its liquid history and, now, William Quarry’s compendious book has admirably risen to the challenge. Tipping the scales at over 5lb avoirdupois—the same as a decent summer grilse—this impressively researched study provides a detailed context for the centuries of sport this river has furnished, with chapters on natural history as well as the human dimension to the area. We are introduced to St Boswell chanting psalms in mid-stream, auld Michael Scott the wizard, the border reivers and the textile industry (tweed, the cloth, has no connection with the river; it was a mistranscription of ‘tweel’).
I have fished these waters since 1969 and yet learned much from the book, not least from its informative records concerning fluctuating runs of fish. It’s currently a back-end river and some 2,000 salmon are reckoned to enter it every day of the autumn. The total value of fishing to the local economy is an estimated £20 million annually.
With hydraulic vigour, Mr Quarry evokes the experiences of different seasons on Tweedside, tracing the evolution of techniques that include poaching methods and ‘burning the water’ (spearing at night by flaming torchlight); the second half of his book provides a handy gazetteer of the 121 different beats on the main river and its tributaries and the entire work is handsomely illustrated with photographs.
Fishing books that stand the test of time aren’t just about waterproofed chaps standing in the stream waving expensive sticks— local colour is crucial for snagging the reader’s attention and there’s plenty here in the chapter on ‘Tweed Boatmen’ (never gillies, even if they are boatless).
These clannish characters range from the legendary Rob o’ The Trowes, a pioneering professional on Makerstoun water, to more recent mavericks such as the late Bert McElrath of Sprouston, with whom I enjoyed many an aprèspêche dram; once, a Portugese angler severed his thumb on a rowlock, but Bert forbade him medical assistance: ‘Ye’ve got nine guid fingers left and ye’ll fush doon the rest of the pool.’ And they did.
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