With Net and Coble: A salmon fisher on the Cromarty Firth
Review by Jim Miller
A Review by Jim Miller
Pen & Sword (2021) £20.00
The salmon occupies a unique place in our culture. Whether as the beautiful sleek shape on Pictish symbol stones, as a character in folk tales, or as the silver leaper on the end of a fishing line, it has been present. Its name was taboo among generations of fishermen because, I suspect, it was a relic from ancient beliefs in witchcraft. The salmon has also of course been of tremendous economic importance. Possibly no other fish has attracted around itself such a corpus of legislation through the centuries.
One of my grandfathers and an uncle or two were salmon fishers in Caithness. They worked with stake nets at fishing stations that no longer exist, their presence removed by laws attempting to cope with a decline in fish numbers that has so far escaped full explanation, although it has not been for want of theorizing.
George Chamier writes about another method of catching salmon – sweep netting with a net and a coble in the Cromarty Firth. It is an ostensibly simple technique, involving rowing the coble in a loop out from the shore and dragging a curtain of net astern in an attempt to corral the fish, but it demands a deeply detailed local knowledge and skill at reading the water to spot the presence of salmon. Some trusted to luck and dragged in hope but Chamier is scornful of such practitioners and preferred to fall back on knowledge, the best way, I suppose, to maximise return for minimum of effort.
The book is very much the author’s personal memoir. He began fishing as a ‘loon’ in the 1960s at Balconie, just on the shore below Evanton, during holidays from school or university. After a few years working furth of the north, he returned to the Balconie fishing ground and worked it until the fishing rights were bought out by the District Fishery Board in 1987. The lure of the Firth was strong enough, however, to bring him back as a part-time ‘hobby fisherman.’
The narrative, splendidly illustrated with many photographs (one advantage of a shore fishery is that camera-handling is greatly facilitated), is about far more than just the catching of salmon. Anyone who has fallen asleep over pages describing endless casting with flies on the great salmon rivers of Scotland can rest assured that this is one of the most engaging books on fishing that I have come across in a long time.
With its recipes, anecdotes, a poem or two, and long cast of characters, it is as good a picture of daily life in the late-20th-century eastern Highlands as you can find anywhere. George Chamier’s narrative is imbued with the atmosphere and camaraderie of the place. In short, the crack is terrific.↑