Salmon have been fished around Scotland's coasts for hundreds of years and Largo Bay was once a prime site for this activity. Salmon begin their lives in fresh water before moving out to sea, but later return to their original rivers to spawn. Their predictable migration pattern coupled with more advanced traps meant that by the early nineteenth century salmon fishing had become a well-organised operation involving stake nets such as the one shown in the photograph above.
The extract above from the Largo Parish section of the New Statistical Account of Scotland, recorded in 1837 by Reverend Robert Brown, states that a salmon stake-net fishery was started some years previously at "different stations". His report suggests that, while initially the enterprise was not financially viable, it had recently been resumed and was now more prosperous. The census of 1841 in Largo records five men who stated their occupation as 'salmon fisher'. Of those men, four resided at the Temple and the other at Viewforth, suggesting that the focus of the salmon fishing at the time was to the east of Lower Largo.
The shelving sandy beaches of Largo Bay suited the use of stake-nets. These systems are described in 'The Firth of Forth An Environmental History' by T.C. Smout and Mairi Stewart as follows:
"They consisted of rows of poles up to 800 yards long, erected between high- and low-water marks, fastened together with ropes from which curtains of nets were suspended; these were set at an angle to the shore so as to form leaders towards other enclosures of netting, or 'courts', with entrances designed to admit the salmon but so labyrinthine and protected by net bottoms and lids so that they could not find their way out again."
The fish court is emptied of fish at low tide. There were regulations about when the fishing could be carried out. A close season coincided with the salmon breeding season (mid-August to mid-February from 1824) and even during the fishing season there was a weekly close time, traditionally 24 hours from midnight on Saturday nights. At close times the nets had to be lifted. Many newspaper reports from the archives tell of incidences when salmon fishers failed to do this. Below is an example from the 19 October 1910 Leven Advertiser, where Alexander Simpson was unable to take in his nets due to stormy weather but was still fined.
Occasionally, species other than salmon, such as seals and porpoises, found their way into the nets and this is also a feature of the newspaper archives. In 1874, for example, Largo salmon fisher, James Clark, caught a large porpoise and brought it alive to the annual horticultural event in Keil's Den to be exhibited.
The right to fish for salmon in Scotland - whether in the sea or in inland waters - is a heritable right (i.e. like land ownership it can be inherited). In the heyday of salmon fishing in Largo there were three salmon fisheries, one owned by Strathairly estate, one owned by Largo estate and one by Lundin estate, each let to an occupier who managed the salmon station. The tenant had the exclusive right to fish for salmon in the area of his fishery. The 'tack' or lease of a fishing tended to be auctioned annually. The unpredictability of the catch made it difficult for local fishermen to place large bids and this often resulted in larger-scale interests from outside the local area winning auctions.
As the next few blog posts will detail, operators from places such as Edinburgh and Montrose were among those taking on the Largo stations at various points in history. Tenants also often rented buildings in which to store their gear and were entitled to dry their nets on frames erected on the nearby shore. The painting below is a great example of a scene of nets drying - in this case at Lundin Salmon Fishings at Drummochy, by the Net House at Cellar Braes. More on this particular salmon fishing station in the next post.