Burning the River

Breac a linne, slat a coille, Is fiadh a fireach,

Meirle anns nach do ghabh Gaidheal riamh nàire

(A fish from the river, a wand from the wood, And a deer from the mountain,

Actions no Gael was at any time ashamed of.)

It can be challenging to find information on old Scottish poaching techniques. However, it’s something that interests me greatly because there are so many folktales in Scotland about poaching.

From the 1820’s onwards, folktales of poaching tell of a heroic man of the hills, stealing from the rich to feed the poor. It’s portrayed as romantic and a way of getting one over on wealthy landlords.

‘Poaching’, in the 18th & 19th centuries was seen by rural communities as a means of supplementing livelihood. Taking salmon from rivers like the Tweed, for example, was a common right for centuries.

However, by the late 1820’s landlords sought to change the laws, in order to ensure exclusive rights to the fish in the river.

Centuries of culture came head to head with new economic  legislation.

Perhaps little wonder then, that although poaching is part of our folk tradition, hardly anything has been written about it from the ordinary folk’s point of view in the 19th century.

So over the last few months I’ve been seeking out poachers for their stories and researching archived court cases.

Which is how I was recently given a very rusty leister, a homemade iron fork used for poaching fish out the river, using a technique called losgadh nan aibhnichean (burning the river), which was practised in Scotland right up into the 1960’s, though seldom done anymore.

Cruisie or brazier for burning the water

You would need 2-3 men: one to hold the leister, one to hold the bleis (the torch made of dried pine wood wrapped in cloots) and one to carry the dried bracken and moss to get the torch burning. You and your 2 pals would go out one Autumn night and walk the river, the fish would come to the surface, attracted by the torch light, held close enough to the surface and that’s when you’d strike the fish with your leister, skewering it.

The leister looks a lot like a pitchfork, except a leister has barbed ends and they are generally very homemade looking. Because for the most part, they were. They had to be! Leisters were illegal and it wasn’t fair or right to ask your local smith to make you one, unless he was the guy holding the torch.

A handmade leister

Now, I say “guy”, it could just as easily have been a lass.

In the 19th century there were a high number of women who were expert poachers, not just fish, but birds and rabbits too.

Court records of that time from all over Scotland mention women on trial for poaching. Some were single mothers, some professional poachers selling the meat, feathers and fur to make a living. All were very skilled at their art, such as Mary McGibbon in Renfrewshire, who’s skill at catching grouse was noted in a Renfrewshire court in 1839.

Just like that Gaelic proverb, not one poacher was ashamed to be hunting on the land they once knew to be public land, land which had since been cleared of its population by absent landlords and managed as leisurely hunting estates.

The crofters weren’t making the landlords enough money, you see, so they cleared them off to make way for sheep.

Once the sheep stopped making them money (after only 3 years), landlords cleared those too, making way for deer.

Anyone trying to take from the land was a criminal. Unless you were the landlord of course. Gamekeepers were sworn in as police constables, with powers to enter private property to investigate alleged offences. Anyone who heard of poaching taking place in the area, were expected by law to report it.

However, in a small community, where everyone knows each other, clyping on your neighbours was not in anyway respectful. So in reality local gamekeepers were known to turn a blind eye to people taking to feed their families. There are even stories of gamekeepers helping poachers or helping themselves as ex-poachers were often recruited as gamekeepers.

As far as the communities were concerned, the problem of poaching wasn’t taking one or two to feed yourself, but the poaching on industrial scale, from theives coming in from the cities.

Landlords deplored both.

In 1884 the Highland Land Law Reform Association (Land League) had this to say about poaching:

“The fish that was yesterday miles away from land was claimed by the landlord the moment it neared the shore, and so were the birds of the air as soon as they flew over his land. The law made it so, because the landlords themselves were the law makers, and it was a wonder that the poor man was allowed to breathe the air of heaven and drink from the mountain stream, without having the factors and the whole of the country police pursuing him as a thief.”

Last weekend I was taught how to catch a rabbit with a ferret and a homemade purse net.

It’s a wonderfully clever and simple device, you pop the ferret down the rabbit hole, you place the net over the rabbit hole and when the ferret chases the rabbit out the hole, the rabbit runs into the net, the running force from which closes the net, trapping the rabbit.

A purse net for ferreting rabbits. The net was acquired for the Travelling Folk Museum but not the essential ferret, so all surrounding rabbits are safe.

Ferreting is legal in Scotland, as long as you have the land owners permission, because, unlike deer or salmon or grouse or pheasant, the landlords see the rabbits as pests.

They can’t make much money from them.

If you’d like to hear a Scottish folktale about a poacher, you’re in luck, there are hundreds! And one can be found on our IG pages.

Eileen Budd

Eileen Budd is an author and storyteller. If you’d like to know more about the Travelling Folk Museum or book a visit see: https://www.scottishbooktrust.com/authors/eileen-budd

Or find out what she’s up to on Instagram: @eileenbudd

Eileen is currently driving around Scotland listening to a mix of Shostakovich, Yelle, Beastie Boys, April March, The Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, Ordinary Elephant, Johnny Cash and the Gypsy King’s Hotel California.

One thought on “Burning the River

  • I loved this post Eileen. I have been researching the fishery and fish weirs on the Tavy in Devon. As a consequence myself and an archaeologist friend have found poaching testimonies/witness statements from the 18th century. We have also been coming at this from how poaching gives a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people.

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