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Summer Sailings
Appendix A.—Fisheries of Orkney


In the beginning of July 1886 I commenced my inspection of the Fisheries in Orkney by driving from Stromness to the Bridge of Waithe, under which the waters of Loch Stenness flow into the sea in a deep strong current, through three arches, and the flood tide from the sea mingles with the waters of the loch.

Loch Stenness is a great sheet of water about 15 miles in circumference, including its upper and lower divisions. The name is sometimes applied to designate both the divisions of the loch, and sometimes it is applied only to the lower loch which communicates with the sea; while the upper loch, which is entirely fresh, is termed the Loch of Harray. The banks of these lakes, like those of all the Orcadian lakes, are bare and treeless ; and the upper loch is divided from the lower by two long narrow promontories that jut out from opposite sides, and so nearly meet in the middle as to be connected by a low bridge, called the Bridge of Brogar, over which the roadway passes.

The area of the Loch of Stenness is 1792 acres, and that of the Loch of Harray 2432 acres ; or, together, 4224 acres. A better idea of their great extent will be got when I state that the famous Loch Leven, in Fifeshire, which receives nearly the whole drainage of the county of Kinross, which yields an average of at least 11,000 trout per annum, the mean weight of each trout being nearly a pound, and brings a rental of £1000 a year to its fortunate possessor, has an area of only 3406 acres, or 818 acres less than Stenness and Harray. 1 am quite convinced that, if these lochs were as well protected as Loch Leven they would soon become as productive. And it should be kept in mind that their season commences just about the time when that on Loch Leven ends.

A deep margin of sea-weed extends for some distance above the Bridge of Waithe into the Loch of Stenness, and on the seaward side of the bridge there is also a thick growth of sea-weeds. Beyond the margin of sea-weeds only inside the Bridge of Waithe, we find a little farther on sea-weeds mixed with fresh-water plants, and in the Loch of Harray fresh-water plants alone. Stenness is decidedly brackish, while the water in Harray is fresh; the former is nearly 4 miles long, with a maximum breadth of H miles; while the latter is 4f miles long, and varying in breadth from 3 furlongs to If miles. There is no transmutation of the marine vegetation anywhere to be seen into fresh-water forms. They are as distinct now as they were thousands of years ago, as is eloquently pointed out in the following passage from Hugh Miller’s Footsteps of the Creator:—

Along the green edge of the Lake of Stenness, selvaged by the line of detached weeds with which a recent gale had strewed its shores, I marked that for the first few miles the accumulation consisted of marine algae, here and there mixed with tufts of stunted reeds or rushes, and that as I receded from the sea, it was the algae that became stunted and dwarfish, and that the reeds, aquatic grasses, and rushes, grown greatly more bulky in the mass, were also more fully develojDed individually, till at length the marine vegetation altogether disappeared, and the vegetable debris of the shore became purely lacustrine,—I asked myself whether here, if anywhere, a transition flora between loch and sea ought not to be found? For many thousand years ere the tall gray obelisks of Stenness, whose forms I saw this morning reflected in the water, had been torn from the quarry or laid down in mystic circle on their flat promontories, had this lake admitted the waters of the sea, and been salt in its lower reaches and fresh in its higher. And during this protracted period had its quiet, well-sheltered bottom been exposed to no disturbing influences through which the delicate process of transmutation could have been marred or arrested. Here then, if in any circumstances, ought we to have had, in the broad permanently brackish reaches, at least indications of a vegetation intermediate in its nature between tlie monocotyledons of tlie lake and the algre of the sea; and yet not a vestige of such an intermediate vegetation could I find among the up-piled debris of the mixed floras, marine and lacustrine. The lake possesses no such intermediate vegetation. As the water freshens in its middle reaches the algre become dwarfish and ill-developed ; one species after another ceases to appear, as the habitat becomes wholly unfavourable to it ; until at length we find, instead of the brown, rootless, flowerless fucoids and con ferae of the ocean, the green, rooted, flower-bearing flags, rushes, and aquatic grasses of the fresh water. Many thousands of years have failed to originate a single intermediate plant.

Besides sea-trout and yellow trout, the lower loch is said to contain flounders, cod, herrings, skate, whitings, eels, lytlie, saithe, and gray mullet. There are no salmon now to be found in the Loch of Stenness. But in a book entitled Present State of the Orkney Islands, published in 1775, and reprinted in 1884, we are told that—

In this loch are abundance of trout, and in all probability there would be a good salmon fishing here, were it not that the mouth of the loch is so much choked up with sea-weed that the fish cannot get into it. What confirms this opinion is, that in some charters belonging to the gentlemen in the neighbourhood the salmon fishing in the loch is expressly reserved to the king as his exclusive right.

The yellow trout in Stenness and Harray are equal in quality to any in Scotland. But they are not nearly so plentiful as they ought to be; nor, as a rule, do they rise freely. They have been taken as heavy as 6 lbs. But such a size is very rare, though individuals of 2 and 3 lbs. are not uncommon. I have known one gentleman catch twelve trout in Harray in a few hours, weighing 13 lbs. ; and Mr. A. Irvine Fortescue of Swanbister, in answer to my printed queries about the trout fishing in the Loch of Harray, writes:—

Myself and friend once caught twelve and a half dozen, weighing 40 lbs., with fly, in four hours.

Mr, Fortescue states that, at times, the trout assemble in dense shoals in some of the small bays of the Loch of Harray, and are, on such occasions, swept out iti vast quantities by the net, and he is therefore of opinion that the use of the sweep-net should be prohibited in the Loch of Harray, as he considers it even deadlier than set-lines and set-nets. Mr. Fortescue mentions that, on the occasion when he and his friend caught the twelve and a half dozen, as above stated, they had come upon one of these shoals of trout, and he says that, with a net.

The entire shoal might have been taken at one sweep, the result possibly a cart-load.

Sea-trout ascend to the Loch of Stenness and the other Orcadian lochs communicating with the sea, beginning in July and continuing throughout the autumn. The best place for sea-trout fishing in connection with the Loch of Stenness is called “The Bush,” the term applied to the lower part of the stream on the seaward side of the Bridge of Waithe. I have known upwards of fifty sea-trout hooked there in a day by one rod, though, for want of a landing-net, only twenty of them were basketed. “The Bush” is a favourite resting-place for sea-trout before running up into the loch, and the most favourable time for fishing it is from half-ebb round to halfflood. A westerly wind is said to suit it best.

Before 1881 and 1882, when the Orkneys were constituted a Fishery District, and the usual bye-laws passed fixing estuaries, a close season, the meshes of nets to be used for the capture of fish of the salmon kind, and prohibiting certain methods of fishing, all kinds of destructive and improvident modes of fishing were commonly practised on the Loch of Stenness, and more particularly on the upper part of it, the Loch of Harray. Set-lines, set-nets, sweep-nets, and the otter, were in constant operation; and, although the use of the otter and the fixed nets is now illegal, the “Harray lairds,” as the small proprietors on the banks of the Loch of Harray are called, cannot be prevented, as the law at present stands, from using the sweep-net or set-lines, as they are udallers, and many of tlieir properties have a frontage to the loch. No District Board has been formed for the Orkneys, nor is there any Angling Association for the protection and improvement of the fishings; and from what I saw and heard when in Orkney, I am by no means convinced that the statutory restrictions intended to prevent wasteful and improvident modes of fishing are much attended to on the Lochs of Stenness and Harray. Were they fairly fished and properly protected they ought to be equal to any lochs in the United Kingdom; and this is not merely my own opinion, after a pretty extensive acquaintance with these lochs, but that of every angler who has had much experience of them. In his admirable book on The Orkneys and Shetland, published in 1883, Mr. Tudor writes as follows of these two great lakes :—

For years, nets, set-lines, and the infernal poaching machine, the otter, have been used to such an extent that it is a wonder any trout have been left, but now the Orkneys have been formed into a Salmon Fishery district, set-lines and otters became illegal, and netting can no longer be carried out with the lierring-net mesh, and in the reckless manner hitherto in vogue. In fact, if only the fish can be protected during the spawning season, these two lochs should, for angling, be second to none in Scotland.

To the same effect Mr. Sutherland Gneme of Grsemeshall, who has a large estate on the Mainland of Orkney, writes, in answer to my printed queries: —

I believe that if the lochs of Stenness and Harray were properly looked after and preserved by an Angling Association, they would be the finest fishing lochs in Scotland, both for sea and loch trout.

But without a District Board or an Angling Association, what is the use of statutory prohibitions of destructive and unfair modes of fishing 1 What are laws good for if there is no one to enforce them 1 They are a mere dead letter, not likely to be respected or observed by those whose interest, or fancied interest, it is to break them.

Mr. Heddle, the proprietor of the island of Hoy, an experienced angler, agrees with the views above expressed, and he stated to me when I was in Orkney that no good has, as yet, resulted from bringing the Orkneys under the operation of the Salmon Fishery Acts of 1862 and 1868. No District Board, no Association of Proprietors has been formed, no prosecutions have been instituted—matters go on just as before. With regard to the Lochs of Stenness and Harray, he believes that nothing short of the killing of the spawning fish and extensive ottering could have so much reduced the fishing on such great expanses of water with such wonderful natural capabilities. Fair fishing would never do it. Twenty-one years ago his father and he killed so many fish in Stenness in one day that they did not like to take any more. There were between 100 and 200, all good-sized trout. Four years ago he fished the same loch and got only about half a dozen fish. One of these, however, was 2b lbs.

Mr. Gould, chamberlain to the Earl of Zetland, corroborates these views. He told me that the Acts had done no good as regarded the great lakes of Stenness and Harray, in which poaching was as rife as before the Acts were made to apply to the islands. A clause should be put into an Act of Parliament absolutely prohibiting ottering. Mr. Gould is of opinion that the right of salmon fishing, or rather sea-trout fishing, in the Lochs of Stenness and Harray belongs to the Earl of Zetland or to the Crown. He maintains that the Harray lairds are not udallers, and that their riparian rights give them a title to yellow trout fishing only.

In the autumn of 1880 a public inquiry was held by the Commissioners of Scotch Salmon Fisheries at Kirkwall, Stromness, and the Bridge of Waitlie, in connection with the proposal to erect the Orkney Islands into a Fishery District, and some interesting and important evidence was laid before them about the fisheries in Stenness and Harray, and the sea-trout fisheries in the Orkneys generally. With regard to the size attained by the Orcadian sea-trout, one witness stated that he had heard of one caught in a net, 21½ lbs. weight, and had seen one of 12b lbs. ; and another witness stated that he had seen one of 14 lbs. One of the witnesses examined at Kirkwall said, that about six years ago there was a curious epidemic among the trout in the Loch of Harray, when most of the fish died. He went down to the banks of the loch one day and found them lying dead all along the shore. There was no appearance of any fungoid growth on any of the fish. The season had been a very hot and dry one. Next year there were very few fish. The majority of the witnesses examined agreed as to the evil effects of the destructive modes of fishing practised in Lochs Stenness and Harray, such as set-lines, sweep-nets, and fixed nets, otters, and the non-observance of any annual close time. In consequence of this the sea-trout and loch-trout are less numerous, and the individual fish are smaller in size than they used to be. In short, the tendency of the evidence taken by the Commissioners clearly proved the evil effects of allowing fishing unrestricted as to season or implements, and the necessity of imposing some restrictions. One witness deponed that he had seen eight or nine otters being used on the Loch of Harray one day, and the next day two on the Loch of Stenness. Another said that during the last five years there had been a marked falling off in the fishings, which he imputed to the use of sweep-nets, lines (each with several hooks) set during the night and drawn in the morning, and nets stretched and fixed across the whole breadth of the water above and below the Bridges of Waithe and Brogar, so as to intercept the passing fish. These nets have a small mesh, like herring-nets, and are set, not only in the lochs, but also across the burns running into them, where they do a great deal of mischief, especially during the spawning season. Another witness, who had then (1880) known the Loch of Stenness for thirty years, said, that when he first knew it there was nothing but fair fishing with rod and line. He also said that he had, long ago, killed thirty sea-trout with rod and line in that loch in three hours. They weighed from 3 lbs. downwards. Such a take would be impossible now owing to the otters, set-lines, and nets; but if a close time were enacted and enforced, and the lochs protected, such are their natural advantages that the fishings would recover in a few years.


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