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.

“So get lost and find your way home.”

My dad liked an adventure. But he wasn’t one for roughing it in the woods or climbing mountains; he liked his comforts too much for that. However he did like discovering things and bringing history to life, especially for his children. My siblings and I had a great childhood, eccentric but great. I was very close to my dad and I always knew we were quite similar in personality. This is only becoming more apparent as I get older and I realised when I became a mum, just how much of an impact he had on me.

There are two stories about my dad which will help lead me to my point. One relates to his reading habits. He was a big reader and always had a book on the go and several on order at the library. He could be quite thoughtful on the completion of a book and would sometimes discuss it with us over dinner. He retained a lot of information and had a great memory for books and their content. It would influence what he read next, what he listened to or watched and of course, where we would visit.

He liked fiction and non-fiction, though his real passion was for history books. He was particularly fond of the Scottish author Nigel Tranter. He loved his books. One of them contained a description of a castle somewhere on the east coast of Scotland and on completion of the book, he became determined that we would find and visit that castle. This was over 30 years ago. There was no internet, Satnav, Historic Scotland signs or even any information to hand. He used only the description in the book to drive us to the borders and walk over fields, climb fences and through gates until after a few hours we found the ruins of the castle from the novel. He was delighted, not to mention knackered (he wasn’t a keen walker!) but I remember him being quite thoughtful about how it matched what was in his head and how it fitted with the story.

My other tale also involves the car. Late one afternoon my dad told me to get in the car and we both went out for a drive together. He was the only driver in our family at the time; I was learning to drive with an instructor. My dad wasn’t the most patient person in the world so it was never an option that he’d teach me. We drove out to the Trossachs; it was just starting to get dark and beginning to rain. He parked up and told me to swap seats. His car was his pride and joy and I was shocked that he was offering it up, but delighted to get a shot! I was a little nervous as it was bigger and faster that what I was learning in and the conditions outside were quite challenging. Once we had swapped seats he said ‘If you’re going to drive, then you need to know how to navigate windy roads in the dark and in wet conditions. I don’t want you to be one of those drivers who can only drive in certain conditions.’ I agreed and asked him to direct me home. ‘Oh, and the biggest skill in driving is in direction. So get lost and find your way home. Use the road signs, landmarks and the map in the glovebox.’ Yep, it took us hours to get home!

Which leads me to my point. This lesson stayed with me. I am still intrigued by maps and am very determined and independent in getting places. I love a road trip and have driven across America and Australia, Sicily and Scotland. I love driving and although I now use Satnav at times, I still tend to go with gut instinct, road signs and sometimes, an actual old school map. You should try it some time. I’ve found some of the best roads ever just by following a different coloured squiggly line on the map. It’s especially good if you’re going to an unfamiliar place or a long trip. Obviously factor in time, fuel stops and plenty of snacks. Oh and make sure the map you’ve got is up to date! Happy driving.

K. K. Hughes

Currently listening to Talking Sopranos Podcast

Doin’ the Crusades

We drove past our destination. On seeing the amount of cars, I doubt we would’ve got parked anyway. The car park was overly full, vehicles were up on the verges and abandoned at the side of fields for around half a square mile. So we just kept going and ended up at a place I’d always meant to visit but never got round to, Torphichen Perceptory.

The big question for me was, what the hell is a perceptory? The answer is found in the buildings history and original intention. Today, it looks like the local church of a small Scottish village, which of course it is. However, it was built as the first house in Scotland of the Hospitallers, the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. They were the first military monastic order in Christendom, charged to both nurse pilgrims and fight Muslims in equal measure. The leaders were known as perceptors, answering my initial question, and one of their headquarters was in this quiet village in West Lothian; population 570.

It’s a fascinating place, although very little remains of what the Knights would’ve seen. The initial building work was began sometime around 1150 when King David I* granted land at Torphichen to the knightly order. Most of what we see now dates from the first half of the 15th century. Of the original building only fragments survive; the crossing tower and the two transepts from the cruciform church are complete and roofed. Traces in the churchyard and surrounding area of the village itself give some hint as to what a large seat of power and wealth this once was.

Post-Reformation, the perceptory became the parish kirk in 1563/64. Throughout all its reconstruction work over the centuries, the building retains a militaristic look to it; it looks harsh, ideal for black and white photos, but it does look fortress-like echoing its former status as a military headquarters.

Historically for me, the Hospitallers lose points for being on the wrong side at the Battle of Bannockburn, Longshanks himself apparently spent some time there after his horse stood on him. The reason for this pro-English stance during the Wars of Independence though was that the perceptory still answered to the Priory of Clerkenwell in London. However the building, if not the owners, gain some Scots points and credibility in the annals of Scottish history by that fact that William Wallace occupied it and used it as a parliament, forcing the knights out of Torphichen for at least a short period of time in 1298, as they were following Bannockburn in 1314.

However, Torphichen and the Hospitallers have suffered in recent years from the modern obsession with the Knights Templar and the two are often confused. The Hospitaller’s work such as sheltering the sick and poor, looking after pilgrims and military protection for its estates has little to do with Da Vinci code style mysteries and this fantastical look at history, as entertaining as it admittedly is, can obscure the facts and lessen the sheer magnitude of actual events.

Here is a supposed poor and forgotten about realm, on the very edge of Christendom, where even the might of the Roman Empire struggled to maintain any significant foot hold.** Insignificant in world affairs, what effect could this tiny land have on a global scale? A defeatist attitude that annoyingly persists to this day, even within its own people.

Well it turns out quite a lot. In evidence here is the home of an international order of knights, whose formation dates back to the end of the first crusade (1096-99) at St John the Baptist’s Hospital is next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. This is huge; a major world event, the crusades were the WW2 of the day, the topic everyone wanted to do. Can’t wait to get to Primary 7 to do the Crusades! The Hospitallers along with the Templars were the most powerful military order in the world. After the Templars were abolished in 1312, the Hospitallers were granted the forfeited land becoming even more powerful, whilst many of the knights were assimilated into the rival order.

This highlights the importance of Scotland’s place in the world from an early age. This is all pre-1320 and the Declaration of Arbroath, before Mary Queen of Scots nearly became a French monarch as well as an English one, before a Scotsman took over the entire British Isles and hundreds of years before a Catholic prince nearly became ruler of the United Kingdom. Here is something more than European that we were involved heavily in, global in fact for its day. As we are left today, dragged out of the E.U. against our collective will, it is significant to reflect on our achievements as a medieval nation nearly 900 years ago. Why did Scotland and teeny tiny Torphichan have a home for these renowned crusader knights? Because it could, it was important. It had a voice, it had a say. And all these things are still true, almost a millennia later.

How does the land about you make you feel? Proud, awed, excited…depressed, angry, annoyed. There’s so many places out there with a wonderful story, go explore some of them. Pass on the full car parks and seek out something else.

Bruce Bryce is a Fife based amateur historian and writer of horror fiction, amongst other things.

Currently listening to: Idiot Prayer by Nick Cave.

* That’s the grandson of King Duncan I, the real life inspiration for King Duncan in Macbeth Shakespeare fans.

** Incidentally, the Antonine Wall, the final Roman outpost in northern Europe, lies a mere six or seven miles north of Torphichan. Here at the end of all things…

This excellent map shows how close, Torphichan sitting just above Bathgate.


Anail a Ghaidheil, air a mhullach.

The Gael’s breathing Space is on the summit

Our land offers the chance to connect with our ancient past. 

Not just imagine it, actually find it.

My obsession with ancient Scottish history has been with me for as long as I can remember.  As a child travelling up to Inverness visiting family, my brother and I would spend hours, staring out from the back seat windows at the glens, lochs and forests as they slowly moved into view.  The magnitude of the Highlands sparked our imaginations.  We talked about clan warriors and chieftains of the hills as if they were still alive and re-enacted battles they might have fought at nearly every rest stop.

As I got older I read as much as I could about the Caledonians and the Picts but it became frustrating because most of the information available perpetuated the pro-imperialistic, pro-Roman myth that these ancient people, our ancestors, were nothing but barbarians. 

It’s a myth that’s being challenged, as more and more archaeological evidence is discovered and traces of their ancient civilised culture is unearthed. 

For example, we now know the Picts had waterwheels and kilns for drying grains to make beer and recently, evidence of book production has been found, during excavation of a Pictish monastery at Portmahomack. 

We are closest to our ancestors when we’re in green spaces.  Climbing mountains, exploring the forests, swimming in the sea, battling through rain or fending off midges.  The land was a huge part of their lives and they have left their mark upon it and within it for us to find.

Prior to the battle of Mons Graupius Tacitus quoted one Caledonian, Calgacus (meaning swordsman) as saying to his army, “on then into battle and as you go, think of your ancestors and your descendants.”

Each member of the Highland army before going into battle would say “Is mise mac Oengus, mac Ronan, mac Iain…” meaning, “I am son of Angus, son of Ronan, son of Iain…” and some could recite up to 20 generations.

So enjoy the wild spaces and treasure them. 

For your ancestors and your descendants.

Eileen Budd is an illustrator and writer, currently writing and illustrating an ancient Scottish saga.  You can find her on Instagram: @eileenbudd.

Pictures show the Tap o Noth Hillfort, Aberdeenshire, view from above.

A pony cap found in Torrs Loch in the 19th century, dates to around 250 BC. Illustration by the author Eileen Budd.

Excavations at the Hillfort, led by the University of Aberdeen. As recently as last week it was found to be inhabited by around 4,000 people, which is akin to being a big city, something unheard of in Scotland until the 12th century.