Salmon Fishing along the Rosemarkie Shore

Salmon for the local market had been fished from the firths for many centuries. In the beginning fish were trapped in the yair as the tide went out. Then fishermen used a net and coble to catch fish in the estuary and up river. The introduction of fixed engine stake nets in the mud of the estuaries so reduced the catch on the river fisheries that protests and legal action led to the estuary stake nets being declared illegal by 1825. The salmon fishers were forced to develop the potential opportunities of fishing along the coastal shore.

The Salmon Fisheries Act, 1862, led to the creation of many further new salmon fishing stations along the east coast of Scotland. This Act finally settled the dispute between river and coast. There were no further attempts to ban the coastal fisheries although the closed season and the number of fixed net sites continued to be open for discussion.

In feudal Scotland everything including the salmon, belonged to the crown but over the centuries much had been given away, sold or stolen. Most of the salmon fisheries along the coast from Rosemarkie to Cromarty belonged to large estates although a few remained the property of the Crown like the fishing station at Flowerburn. The salmon fishing stations to be found at Learnie, Eathie, The Shore, Rosemarkie and the Shore of Larne, Rosemarkie and at Chanonry Point belonged to the Rosehaugh Estate.

The salmon fishing would be leased for the season, spring to early autumn. Legislation had protected the spawning salmon up river from the fifteenth century onwards. No fishing could take place over the ‘closed’ winter breeding season when the female salmon travels up river followed closely by the male. This closed season was much debated as rivers differed in location and climate. Poachers used the different timings of closed and open rivers to their advantage.

The life cycle of the salmon, in particular the role of the young salmon, the grilse, was not fully understood in the 1800s. It is known that the salmon returns to its home river to breed and unlike Pacific salmon Atlantic salmon may make several trips up river over its lifetime. The salmon eggs are laid on a gravel nest and when hatched, the young salmon begin their slow journey downstream. The young salmon mature in fresh water for two to three years before leaving their home river. 

The grilse, salmon aged two to four years swim off shore for several months before heading out into the North Atlantic. These young salmon weigh between ten and fifteen pounds. They were worth catching from June to August but always fetched lower prices than the returning mature adult salmon which could weigh over thirty pounds.

Driven by the instinct to breed on their ‘home gravel’ salmon can jump more than four metres to climb waterfalls and obstacles in the water as they travel up river to their birthing place. The coastal salmon fishers rely on the behavioural characteristics of salmon at other times when the salmon would rather swim along a netting barrier than attempt to swim through it. 

The salmon fishers along the Rosemarkie shore used stake nets and bag nets to trap the salmon. The stake net which can include fly and jumper nets, is staked out on sandy beaches or mud flats so that the stake supports the netting. In a fly net several stakes support the trap and over thirty stakes are needed to support the leader or curtain of netting known as tiering. Fly nets may be set singly or with several sets of tiering on beaches with a gentle gradient. The stake nets also had hand and foot ropes as the men needed to climb along the net as the tide fell so that they could reach the bag before the water got too low and the fish scaled themselves. Salmon with damaged fish scales are less attractive to the potential purchaser and would bring a lower price.

The jumper net is less robust as the bag is supported by only three stakes on one side and the leader floats freely with the tide. Jumper nets are better suited to beaches with a steep gradient. As the tide goes out, the depth of water decreases more quickly on the steep sloping beach so the fisher can wade into the trap to remove the fish. The salmon fisher does not have to climb and walk the tight rope of the fly nets. These fixed devices or engines gave this form of fishing its name. 

Bag nets would be used to fish along more rocky shores where there was little beach. The bag net is a two- part device, the trap and the leader. The bag was hand knitted from cotton twine, using special wooden needles.  The fish swim into a leader bag made with a rope frame which takes them through to a chambered arrow shaped trap. The bag was secured at the landward end  with three sets of moorings. The mooring stakes would be firmly anchored with old ship anchors, pieces of railway track or anything heavy to hand.  

Fishing regulations permitted a net stretch of 120 yards at right angles to the shore to a depth of 5 yards. The bag nets may be set singly or connected in a line of nets but may not exceed 1,400 yards from the mean low water mark. The catch is usually removed from the bag at high or low water when the tide is slack. This type of fishing needs a coble and at least 3 fishers unlike the stake method which can be carried out by one or two men. 

The fishers would stay in a bothy to save time travelling to the more remote fishing stations like Eathie and Learnie as they needed to visit the nets several times a day. Stake nets and bag nets required much more active management than the traditional river fishing with net and coble. Salmon fishing is a seasonal occupation so in winter the men would be involved in preparation for the spring, repairing the nets or would have to seek work elsewhere on the land.

An important winter occupation was cutting ice for the ice house as ice was essential to keep the fish fresh. In winter the retting ponds or pows, used in the past to soak the flax in preparation for weaving, froze over. When the ice was a good depth the salmon fishers would cut the ice into manageable chunks and cart it to the ice houses at Kincurdie Drive and underneath Jubilee Cottage on Marine Terrace, ready for the salmon fishing season. Ice houses can still be seen at Chanonry Point and Cromarty. 

It was cold work cutting the ice but it seems the workers were warmed by the provision of several bottles of whisky. The carts and horses were borrowed from local farmers. Small boys with barrows were employed to assist the salmon fishers fill the ice houses. Read this story in Freda Bassindales’ book, “Rosemarkie, People and Places”.

The early trade in salmon had been in salted fish supplied to the continental market. Sailing smacks supplied fresh fish on ice only to the local market  as salmon deteriorates rapidly. In 1786 Gorge Dempster of Skibo, MP and great ‘Improver’, promoted the export of fresh fish packed in straw and ice to the London market. The fish were picked up by schooner from Fortrose on the regular Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, London route. Then faster rail transport replaced the schooner route from the 1860s onwards. The spread of a rail network across the country opened up new markets beyond London Billingsgate. These new practises led to a much greater demand for fresh salmon over an extended period. The increased profitability of the fixed engine fishing encouraged design improvements as well as the setting up of more stake nets.

No fishing was allowed on a Sunday. The ‘Saturday Slap’ or ban on fishing lasting about 33 hours over Saturday night and Sunday, was frequently ignored as the salmon fishers responded more to the weather conditions than man made rules. The salmon fisheries were subject to much government oversight in the form of select committees. Rosemarkie salmon merchant, John Carpenter Steavenson  gave evidence in both 1825 and 1836 to the select committees as he was very much against the ‘Saturday slap’. Steavenson was superintendent for two areas of bag net on the Moray Firth.

At the 1825 Select Committee investigation into salmon fishing,  Alexander Fraser a tacksman on the Ness, complained  about the decline in salmon numbers since the introduction of stake nets along the Inverness Firth. In 1836 the Select Committee investigated the effectiveness of the ‘close’ season and to what extent it was encouraging poaching. Much was debated but there was very little achieved as there were few water bailiffs to monitor fishing activity along the shore.

The salmon fishers would live in a bothy during the week. The bothy had a kitchen and the men would bring provisions to last the week. The coble would be used to bring in the men and provisions then transport the fish out to the ice house. Fishing bothies were to be found at Chanonry Point, the Fishing Hut Rosemarkie, Eathie, Learnie and Cromarty Back of the Hill. 

The salmon fishing provided work for more than just fishers. Additional workmen were required to erect the nets and to help with repairs. Both men and women wove or knit new nets. There was carting work all year, fish in summer and ice in winter. In the early days of salted salmon, salmon curers like Thomas Hope at the ferry, Chanonry Point and coopers were needed to make barrels and later to manufacture boxes to take the salmon to market. The need for beach friendly cobles led to a local boat building industry. 

The Census returns and the Valuation Rolls identify several salmon fishers living  in Rosemarkie, along the High Street, Bridge Street and the Shore. The 1901 census describes Jessie Sinclair as a ‘fisherman’s wife’ living with her children at Back Road “domcope’ cottage, Rosemarkie. There was no mention of a husband but Jessie was described as ‘married’ not widowed. Using ‘Find My Past’ I found Jessie married to a William Sinclair. Further investigation revealed William Sinclair, salmon fisher, living at the Back of the Hill Fishing Bothy, Cromarty in 1901 and 1891, working with George Paterson, Donald Ross and John Gow . The census is always taken in the spring when the salmon were running, so the men would have been on station.

The Sinclairs were a salmon fishing family. Many sons followed their father into the salmon fishing business like William and Ephraim Sinclair followed their father David, Although born in Rosemarkie in about 1813, David Sinclair began his salmon fishing career in Easter Ross on the north bank of the Cromarty Firth. David moved back to Rosemarkie when salmon fishing in the Cromarty Firth became illegal in the 1850s.

From 1861 David Sinclair fished with a variety of partners from the Back of the Hill, Cromarty, John Bonney and Alexander Simpson in 1861 but by 1871 he was fishing with his son Ephraim, Jonathan Munro and Alexander McCulloch. By 1881 he was back working with John Bonney and son Ephraim, still from the Back of the Hill, Cromarty.

Back of the Hill, Cromarty Fishing Station included many fishers from Rosemarkie as well as from nearby Cromarty. This was an important fishing station as 100 salmon were said to be caught each day in August 1881. Born and living in Rosemarkie but working at Back of the Hill were Henry Owens, born 1867, Alexander McCulloch, born 1851, David Sinclair, 1813, Alexander Simpson 1816. Ephraim Sinclair, born 1850, son of David, lived on Kemp’s Lane off the High Street, Rosemarkie. 

Learnie Fishing Station

Jonathan Munro (1822-1911) teamed up with William Junor and William Hossack to fish from the Learnie station in 1881 and from the Shore, Rosemarkie in 1891 alongside William Junor. He also fished with his grandson Hugh Munro from the Learnie station. The Munros’ stayed at “Willowbank”, The Shore, Rosemarkie.

William Hossack born about 1815, and worked with a variety of partners at several different stations. Including Learnie.  In 1861 he was at the Rosemarkie Hut with John Gow. By 1871 he had teamed up with Donald Thomson and Donald Ross, moving onto Learnie with William Junor and Jonathon Munro in 1881. He described himself as a retired salmon fisher living in Homes Close off the High Street, Rosemarkie by 1891. 

Chanonry Point Fishing Station

William Junor was living and fishing from the Chanonry Point Fishing Station by 1901. William Junor was also the tenant of James Fletcher of Rosehaugh at the small Kincurdy fishing station according to the 1901 Valuation Roll. His father Robert Junor, had also been a salmon fisher. The salmon fishers argued that their sea caught salmon were in superior condition to the river caught fish which had stopped feeding. These claims increased the number and value of the coastal fisheries. William Hogarth who ran the largest number of stake net coastal fisheries said that the lease for Chanonry Point was worth £680 per annum in 1830 but had only had a rateable value of £90 in 1809 when fished by bag and coble.

The lessee of the Chanonry Point Station and house with the rights to the ferry towards the end of the century was John Hossack (1866-1938) but he lived in Rosemarkie at “Marine Cottage”, The Shore and fished from The Shore, Rosemarkie. John Hossack did not come from a family of fishers as his father, John, was a farmer but John was to do very well as a salmon fisher having acquired the lease of several fixed net coastal fisheries from the Rosehaugh estate. 

Rosemarkie Shore Fishing Stations

Fishing from the Rosemarkie Fishing Hut along with John Hossack was Robert Miller. Robert Miller lived in Homes Lane off the High Street. Earlier census returns have Donald Thomson of Craigbank Cottage, Bridge Street, salmon fisher 1891 while Alexander Fraser and Donald Denoon describe themselves as retired salmon fishers. Donald Ross and John Gow fished from the Shore in 1871.

Eathie Fishing Station

Eathie Salmon Fishing Station was home and workplace to James Macdonald from Moray, James Barbour, also from Moray, James Cameron and James Mackinnon, both from Banffshire, in 1891 but by 1901 James Cameron was based at Learnie. James Macdonald had earlier fished at Balhepburn Lodge, Perthshire. The salmon fishers were prepared to move to where the fishing was best. The Eathie Fishing Stations at Eathie Mains where the tenant was the Moray Firth Fishing Syndicate and Eathie West, tenant John Hossack in 1910, were both high value, over £200 per annum and very profitable for the proprietor of the Rosehaugh Estate, James Fletcher.

The late Victorian era saw a peak in the number salmon fishing at Rosemarkie. The 1891 census records seventeen salmon fishers but this number had dropped to nine by 1901. Several fishers were ready for retirement by 1901. Jonathan Munro was 69 in 1891 but still working from the Shore while Alexander Fraser at 67 and Donald Thomson, 57 were no longer fishing in 1901. The average age of the salmon fishers in 1901 was about 40 as several young men like Hugh Munro, aged 20 and Henry Owens who was only 34 had joined the older men. Henry Owens had given up fishing by 1911 to become a road mender.

By 1911 the number of salmon fishers had gone down to five, Ephraim Sinclair, James Cameron, John Hossack John Miller  and Robert Miller. Ephraim Sinclair who was by then over 60, the son of salmon fisher David Sinclair had often worked with his father and brother William Sinclair. While Ephraim was still active. Ephraim’s son, John however, went on to be Clerk to the Inspector of the Poor. 

James Cameron aged 41 was from Banffshire but had fished at both Learnie and Eathie from 1891. His partner, Alexander Mackenzie was a salmon fisher working from Nairn until 1910. Another salmon fisher still very busy fishing was John Hossack, by 1911 he had worked to acquire several lucrative salmon fishing leases around Rosemarkie including Chanonry Point where he also had the rights to the ferry.

The other salmon fisher in 1911 was John Miller. He like several others came late to the salmon fishing following a career as a blacksmith. Several salmon fishers were part time or used it as an alternative source of income. In 1901 John Gordon was both salmon fisher and grocer after having trained as a ship’s carpenter. Donald Denoon had been the Innkeeper in Bridge Street, Rosemarkie for many decades but took up fishing after his wife and helpmeet in the Inn died. Robert Miller could not make a living salmon fishing and by 1891 had become a plumber.

Salmon fishing by fixed engine was common from the 1820s but beginning to die out by the 1900s. The last recorded fixed engine fishing was recorded at Portmahomack in 2003. Only seine fishing by net and coble have been seen off the Rosemarkie shore this century. During such netting operations the net must not be held stationary, nor allowed to drift with the tide but must be paid out and hauled in as quickly as possible. The fisherman on shore walks down the bank to where the coble will land and the hauling rope is passed ashore. Both ropes are hauled simultaneously to draw the net ashore and take out the fish. 

The reasons for the decline in salmon fishing by fixed engine are numerous and complex. The twentieth century had much more to offer young men who had had some schooling and were prepared to move south or even emigrate overseas. For those who preferred to fish locally the herring trade was still a great attraction in the early 1900s. The herring trade had made Scotland the foremost fishing country in Europe. 

The greatest challenge to stake net fishing came from the growing interest in the sport of rod fishing on the salmon rivers. The late Victorian period was very much a hunting, shooting and fishing era. The number of salmon was declining but the eagerness of the rod fishermen to pay for the privilege of catching a salmon meant the rateable value of the river fishing continued to rise.  In 1863 river nets were 47% of the assessed rateable value comparative with coastal fisheries 45%, while rod fishing was only worth 8%. By 1892 the coastal fisheries had declined to 33% of the total value, river nets were down to 29% because the rod fishing had increased to 38%.

Conservation of salmon stocks had always had a high priority. The 1882 Fisheries Board of Scotland had some responsibility and supervision of the coastal fisheries. A new post of Inspector of Salmon Fisheries Scotland was created but salmon poaching by yachtsmen in particular, continued to be a major problem as there was still no bailiff force to enforce the regulations. The problem of declining fish stocks was left to the tacksmen and market forces.

Conservation efforts by syndicates like the Moray Firth Co was limited to reducing the number of fixed nets as their rateable value declined in order to maintain high salmon prices. By 1900 the valuable Chanonry Point Fishing Station had fallen in value to £379 per annum and had reverted to fishing by net and coble. The salmon fishers could not compete with the low value of available salmon and sought employment elsewhere.  Wages had always been tied to the value of the catch. Fishers were paid a small fixed amount about 10 shillings per week plus a % of the catch value. When there was a good catch even though the fisher got only 1s per 100 fish, salmon fishing paid better than an agricultural labourer could earn.

Salmon still swim off the shore at Rosemarkie and draw large crowds to watch the dolphins hunt the salmon as they try to swim up the firth. Any human salmon fishing is limited to rod fishing along the river bank. Conservation concerns about salmon numbers continue to grow as the salmon returning to their home river to spawn decline. Concern today is expressed about salmon fish farming, escapees from the fish cages and infestations of sea lice rather than the number of salmon caught by fixed engine coastal fisheries. 



Find My Past Census and Parish Records

The Scottish Salmon Fishers Association

David Alston, Ross and Cromarty

David Alston, The Little Town of Cromarty

Ian R Mowat, Easter Ross 1750-1850

I F Grant, Highland Folk Ways

Iain A Robertson, The Salmon Fishers

Freda Bassindale, Rosemarkie People and Places






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