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Mediaeval Scotland
Chapter V. Fisheries


Of old the Scottish Fisheries occupied an important position among the national industries. The fishing for salmon belonged to the Crown, and could not be enjoyed by any subject without a special grant by charter, though a right of salmon fishing followed a general grant of fishing after forty years prescription. David I. gave to the Abbey of Holyrood a right to have one draw of a net for salmon, and in 1164 the Abbey of Scone had two nets in the Tay, one at “Kyncarrekyn,” and the other at the insula regis and one net in the Forth at Stirling. By a law of the time of William I., the midstreams of all salmon rivers were to be free for the length of a three-year-old pig, rather a curious standard of measurement. In the time of Alexander III. salmon might be fished in all waters except those flowing into the sea. No one could fish for salmon anywhere from Saturday night till sunrise on Monday; nor in “forbidden time,” under the “old penalty.” Offenders against the salmon fishery laws were liable to forty days’ imprisonment, and anyone thrice convicted suffered death. It was also forbidden to catch salmon in nets at mill dams, salmon fry at lades or dams, and “red fish” at any time. Unseasonable fish (“salmones corrupti”), if offered for sale, were to be seized and sent to the lepers, or destroyed. The close time in all rivers was between the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin (15th August), and Martinmas. Young salmon (“salmun-culi”) could not be legally taken between the middle of April, and the Feast of St. John the Baptist (24th June).

Occasionally, however, special exceptions were made. Thus, Olifaunt of Gask had permission to fish the water of Erne three days a week during the close time. But in 1424 it was enacted that all persons infeft in the privilege of fishing in close time were to abstain for three years. Many enactments were made from this period down to the Union, dealing with taking fish in close time. In 1489 the clear space in midstream to be left for the salmon to get up, was ordered to be five feet. In 1632 fishing smacks (“bushes”) were forbidden to approach within fourteen miles of the coast between Redhead and Buchan Ness, so as not to interfere with the salmon fishing in the rivers. An extraordinary proposal was submitted to Parliament in 1645 by Hugo L’Amey, a Frenchman. It involved a Scots colony in the Indies; a great trade with the same country ; the annual building of three “great shippes” of four hundred tons a-piece, and three “pinnaces” of fifty tons a-piece, and of which, when thirty-six were built, twelve might be employed in the defence of the Scottish coasts, and merchant adventures on the high seas, and twenty-four in the Indian trade ; and all without any tax or imposition whatever, but to be paid for out of the increased value of the salmon fishings. M. L’Amey only asked that the salmon and other fishing in Scotland should be “accommodat and made up for the sale at his appointment.” Besides the public and national advantages, M. L’Amey promised the proprietors of the salmon fishings one third higher price than ever they had had before, and the merchant traders thirty per cent, more profits. To relieve the great burden of poverty in the country, the Frenchman further proposed to plant Indian wheat in Scotland, which would yield fourfold more meal, and not impoverish the ground. The proposal was remitted to a committee, but no further trace of it is found in the Parliamentary Records.

Towards the close of the 17th century, the close time for the Dee, Don, Spey, Findhorn, Ythan, Conon, Bewlie, Ness, and Deveron was from 8th September to 1st January, and in the Nith from 1st March to 1st November.

Trout are mentioned in the Act of 1469, prohibiting for three years the use of “coups,” narrow mesh nets, and “prins”  in rivers running into the sea; and another statute of 1633 forbids any fish to be killed in burns falling into the Loch of Leven, within five miles of it, in order to preserve the “pykes, perches, and trouts” of that famous fishing water.

Anyone taking pike out of ponds was liable to a fine of 10 Scots by an Act of 1503; and by another in 1535 the offender was ordered to be treated as a thief. The standard measure of salmon barrels in 1573 was twelve gallons of the Stirling pint. The staple markets for the salmon exportation trade were Aberdeen, Elgin, Perth, and Dundee. The standard measure for salmon barrels was kept at Aberdeen, and each burgh had a pattern of it.

The salmon fisheries were a valuable source of revenue to the Crown. In the beginning of the reign of James I. a duty of 2s. 6d. Scots per pound of value was imposed on salmon “bocht be strangers and had out of the realme.” In 1426 the custom was imposed on natives as well as foreigners, and, in place of the ad valorem duty, the tax was charged on the large or Hamburg barrel (valued at 2), and the small or herring barrel (valued at 1). At this period the average yield of duty from the ports of Aberdeen, Banff, and Montrose was 115, representing a value of 920 worth of salmon exported.

In 1466 the rate of duty was 3s. a barrel, which was raised in 1481 to 4s. Aberdeen claimed an immunity from the higher figure, at any rate till 1488. Even at the lower figure the revenue from the duty was 135 annually, the largest in Scotland. Berwick produced 44; Banff, 47; .Perth, 29; Elgin, 15; Dundee, 14. Montrose, and; Stirling, 6; and the whole of Scotland, 310.

The sea fisheries were an object of particular attention in Scotland in mediaeval times. The Abbey of Holyrood had a grant of the right of fishing for herring from David I. By an Act of Parliament in 1471 certain burghs and lords were bound to provide ships and nets for the sea fishing. Acts of Parliament regulating the fishing and taking of herrings on the west coast were passed in 1487, 1496, and 1579. The staple ports for the herring and white fish trade were, in 1584, Leith, Crail, Ayr, and Dumbarton.

A duty of one penny was imposed in 1424 on every thousand fresh herring sold within the country; four shillings were charged for each last of twelve barrels barrelled by Scotsmen; six shillings if barrelled by strangers; and fourpence for every thousand red herring. The amount of money raised from the custom of Loch Fyne herrings was returned by the custumars of Irvine at 10 in 1479 ; 17 in 1480; and 34 in 1481. The custumars of Dumbarton returned 170 from the same source about the same period, and in 1487 the revenue derived from the custom on herrings from the “Lows” {i.e., the Clyde lochs, not the island of the Lews) at the high figure of 379. The herring barrels were each to contain nine gallons of the Stirling pint; and were ordered in 1540 when of the standard size to be marked with the cooper’s iron and that of the town.

A very curious document about the Scotch herring fishing is preserved in the Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland. In 1630 Charles I. made certain proposals to the Privy Council in Scotland anent a scheme for a general fishing. Besides employing existing fishing boats, it was proposed to build 200 new vessels of from 30 to 50 tons burden each. The cost of the hull and iron work was estimated at 2 per ton. The same rate was estimated for rigging, sails, cables, anchors, masts, boats, etc. One hundred and twenty nets were to be provided for each ship, with head lines and corks, at one pound for each fitted net. Two hundred and fifty fathoms of rope were allowed to each ship, at a cost of 13s. 4d., and other necessaries were estimated at 4 per ship. Thus the total cost of each fishing vessel, taking 40 tons burden as the average, would be 386 13s. 4d. Each boat was to make three fishing expeditions per annum. The first was to be for herrings, and the catch was estimated at 100 last, or 1,200 barrels of fish. To cure these would take 120 worth of salt, at the then prices. The crew of each average sized ship consisted of 16 men and boys, who cost for victuals 13s. 4d. a month each, with a money wage of 74 per crew for the four months of the herring fishing.

As against this expenditure the profit of the three fishings was estimated as follows. The first fishing of the 200 vessels was to produce 20,000 last of herrings, and each last sold at sea was to bring in 10; the second fishing (October to February) was to produce 12,000 last at 12 ; and the third fishing (ling and cod), from March till June, was estimated to produce 1,200,000 fish, at 30 the 1,000, besides the worth of the oil.

This fleet was to be worked principally from the Lews for the western coasts, and the King proposed to annex that island to the Crown, making proper satisfaction to the Earl of Seaforth, and to establish in it certain free burghs for fishing purposes.

In connection with this Fishery Company an interesting notice is found regarding the territorial waters of Scotland. Considerable jealousy was apparently felt by the Scotch Privy Council that the fishing rights of the natives might be interfered with by the proposed new Fishery Company. Accordingly they referred the matter to certain Commissioners to determine the exclusive fishery limits of the Scottish Coast. The Commissioners reported, on the 21st April, 1631, that no Englishmen, nor other foreigners, had ever been allowed to fish within the lochs, bays, and firths, nor within fourteen miles of the coast, and they fixed the exclusive limits, commencing with a straight line drawn from St. Abb’s Head to the Red Head, and 14 miles beyond it, then along at the same distance from the coast to Buchan Ness, thence the same distance beyond a straight line drawn to Duncansbay Head ; from that point at the same distance round the Orkneys and Shetland to Holburn Head in Caithness, and from the Stour of Assynt to the Butt of Lews, from thence, at the same distance round the western coast of the Long Island, and from thence by a straight line from Barra Head, by the Mull of Ooa in Islay, to the Mull of Kintyre, and from that point up the centre of the Solway to the Scottish March.

These limits were finally somewhat altered; but, on the dissolution of the Fishery Company in 1690, the full rights of the native fishermen were restored by Act of Parliament.

The charter of the General Fishery Company was granted in 1632, and is still preserved.

The society was to be governed by twelve councillors, of whom one-half were to be Scots and the other half English or Irish. The six Scots named were the Earls of Morton, Strathearn, and Roxburgh, Viscount Stirling, John Hay, and George Fletcher. A long list of names were enrolled as members of the society, and extensive powers of jurisdiction were conferred. They were to hold courts, and to have tolbooths in the various districts; and in each district four judges, two of whom were to be Scots, were to be chosen by the council to decide all pleas and cases relating to the fishing trade.

What the success of the company was does not appear from the records; but in 1690 an Act of Parliament was passed dissolving it, and restoring to the lieges their fishing rights, and to the royal burghs their right of export.

In 1661 other statutory facilities were given for the formation and encouragement of societies for herring and white fishing. Each partner was to provide 500 merks Scots of capital, and the companies were to have full power, to take fish in all seas, channels, firths, rivers, floods, lakes, and lochs, and to use for fishing purposes all shores, ports, and harbours. With the consent of the Council of Trade, they could appoint certain of their number to make bye-laws for regulating the fishing. They were also privileged to get all their salt, cordage, and other stores free of duty, and to be exempt from all arrestments or citations during the fishing season.

The last Act of any importance relating to the fisheries prior to the Union was passed in 1705. It authorized and empowered all subjects of the Queen within her ancient kingdom of Scotland to take, buy, and cure herring and white fish in all and sundry the seas, bays, etc., of the same. It discharged all Saturday’s fishing, top money, stallage, and the like. It enacted that all the barrels should be of the size and quality formerly prescribed; and that fish should be packed, pined, and cured from the bottom to the top with foreign salt only. Every cask was to be marked with the curer’s mark as well as the official mark ; and all private marks were to be registered in a public register in Edinburgh. The privilege of importing all materials for the fishing industry duty free were confirmed; and the usual penalties for law breakers were continued.


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