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At the recent spring lecture held by the Friends of Berwick and District Museum and Archives, Martha Andrews gave an illustrated talk entitled Kelt Fishcakes and Gilse: Net Fishing on the River Tweed.
The aim of the lecture was to tell about what salmon fishing was like from the fisherman’s point of view, covering both day-to-day life and dialect.
For example, the local dialect word for young salmon was gilse – never grilse.
Boys were taught to respect the water – they learned not to go near the strong undercurrents as the “Skelpies” might get them.
As late as the 1970s, young boys worked on the night shifts and slept during the day.
Improvements have been made to their equipment. There are now better waterproofs and boots. In the old days they wore leather boots and no socks. Old blankets were wrapped around their feet, and nets, etc. were waterproofed using bark, which had been boiled in barking pots (nets are now nylon).
But what has not changed are the boats and the methods of navigation – fishermen use their knowledge of the river and time-tested methods.
As most fishing, especially above the tidal line, was done at night, boats were painted a pale blue as this was the most visible colour.
Net boats were designated with the letter N and were always referred to as “boats”, never cobles.
At each fishing place were shiels containing bunks for the crew, space for nets and other equipment and tea-making facilities – two kettles would always be going.
Each fishery had its own way of doing things, but generally there were two methods – wear shots, which was rowing a shot in the hope of catching fish, and ford shots, which consisted of a man watching for the salmon coming up river, sometimes sitting at the top of a fording tower, and he would shout “boat” when he saw them.
A crew usually consisted of a skipper, three to five men and a “laddie” who was learning the trade.
A boat would go out with the net falling out from behind and someone on shore would hold the tow rope. The person holding the tow would be able to feel the fish entering the net and then the net would be pulled in.
Sometimes the lead fish managed to escape through a hole and the other fish would follow, resulting in an empty net, and there were various ways of pulling and holding the net.
One of the laddie’s first tasks was to learn to kill the fish with three whacks to the head, being careful not to pop the eyes as they then would get less money from the fishmongers.
During the winter they would make and repair nets and other equipment.
In 1894 the author Beatrix Potter visited the area and described net fishing by moonlight. She was probably describing Lennel, near Coldstream Bridge, and actually did mention disliking Norham as being too full of pubs.
Throughout the talk, Martha took us downstream from Coldstream, describing fisheries and shiels from there to the mouth of the Tweed.
For example, the shiel at Little Haugh, near Milne Graden, has a round shape, possibly because Alexander Milne Home thought it would better withstand flooding as the water could go round it. In fact, the river could get so strong that shiels were washed away.
The majority of the net fishing ended abruptly in 1987 as owners sold out to the North Atlantic Trust, but the fishermen were not included in the deal.
In fact, there are several instances where fishermen did not know it was their last day fishing as owners sold out over the winter.
At Westford, near Upsettlington, there was a system with a string that would ring the Tweedler (a bell) in the shiel when fish had been spotted.
At Pedwell (always pronounced pedal), at Norham, the blessing of the nets took place on February 14.
Martha showed several pictures from the 1890s to the present day of fishing on the river.
Boat races were held at Norham and Horncliffe under very dignified and strict rules, unlike other places which could be rather rowdy like the one described by Beatrix Potter at Coldstream. The last ones were held in the 1990s.
We continued downstream to Scotch New Water, near the Union Bridge, Paxton, which has a licence to fish for scientific purposes and runs demonstrations of salmon netting during the season. It was on to Heugh Shiel and Toddles, near the A1 bypass bridge, then to White Sands on the New Road, recently converted to a holiday let.
and finally Gardie (misprinted on maps as Gardo) and Sandstell, near the mouth of the river. The fishermen’s “enemies” were Goosanders and seals, who also desired the salmon. There used to be occasions where seals were shot. Martha briefly touched on the subject of poaching – a lot of it went on – and the number of ice houses in Berwick to pack the salmon. But all this is now gone as netting salmon on the Tweed came to an end. Perhaps the rods will take over.