It was the Victorians who did much to shape our present-day fishing. The wealthy Victorian families saught escape from smoky city life in favour of their houses in the country, or the new hotels and lodges specifically built for shooting and fishing. The glens, lochs and rivers of Scotland were an exciting discovery and they fell in love with the place. This annual safari, which may have lasted throughout the entire summer, gave rise to the popularity of country sports and the sporting estates with which we are still familiar today.
Whole families hired ghillies to help them catch salmon and trout, or to take them into the hills to shoot grouse and deer. The modern ghillie is recognised as a highly skilled expert. In fact, many who now fish or shoot in Scotland rely entirely on the excellence of their ghillies for their success - they are highly competent, experienced, almost invariably good-humoured and great company. But we have the Victorians to thank for their development and for the estates on which they are now employed.
Traditionally, lairds passed the estates down to their offspring over many centuries and when inter-marriage took place some amalgamation of land occurred. On the other hand, some estates were divided when sons inherited part of the family land. It was relatively uncommon to break up estates through inheritance until more recently when tax became a consideration. The first-born usually inherited the whole estate and the other sons were unlucky! Daughters, of course, were considered wholly unworthy of ownership of land. How things have changed. Some of the estates were huge; for example it is recorded that the fishing on the whole of the River Spey was in the hands of just six estates. Bear in mind that this includes both banks of the river. This changed in more recent times when the great Speyside estates were broken into smaller land parcels, due primarily to taxation and inheritance policies. The effects of this system of ownership were far reaching, limiting access to Scottish waters for the majority of Scots.
The ostentatious nature of the Victorians age was reflected in their elaborate dress, architecture and etiquette, but it also influenced the development of fishing tactics and tackle throughout this period. The most appropriate demonstration of this was their artificial flies. Victorian salmon flies were large, multi-layered creations of brightly coloured feathers from exotic species of birds, tied with great artistry and skill. The fact that these flies were successful is bewildering because they do not look like anything natural. Today these flies, made from the feathers of birds that are now protected, are collected for their art. They are not to be used, but simply admired for their colourful design and workmanship.
Like many things, there will always be trends within fishing. This is particularly true of artificial fly-design. Following the colourful fly designs of the Victorian era, during the early years of the twentieth century, there was a vogue for patterns of dull colour and more life-like shapes. This was followed in the 1950s and 60s by the development of fluorescent lures of lurid colour, very similar to those of the Victorian era, as rainbow trout gained supremacy in stocked waters. Many of the great tackle manufacturers were founded in the mid-nineteenth century, which is indicative of the rise in demand for quality fishing tackle in this period. Local shops employed their own craftsmen to make rods and reels, to tie fishing flies, and to work alongside the gunsmiths who lovingly made side-by-side shotguns and hunting rifles. Patents were taken on reel assemblies, fishing lures, nets and all sorts of tackle. Much of this tackle is collectable today and attracts high prices at auction. The mid-nineteenth-century Scottish tackle shop was the blueprint for a huge retail industry throughout the world. The sale of rods from wooden racks, the displays of lures and flies in glass-fronted cases, and the hangers in tackle shops today originate from the Victorian establishments of the nineteenth century.
The Victorians had a great impact on Scotland’s physical landscape; in central Scotland, many Victorian reservoirs and fine fisheries still exist.
The Victorian influence on fishing today is also present in the structure and organisation of our sport. In the 19th century, clubs and national organisations burgeoned. Victorian anglers went to extraordinary lengths for their fishing. On the 1 July, 1880, the first trout fly-fishing competition took place at national level in Scotland. The venue was Loch Leven. What would later develop into the prestigious Scottish National Fly-fishing championship was the precursor of all modern international, commonwealth and world events.
Scotland has, over the years, played a huge part in the development of fly-fishing in so many ways, and continues to do so. At the seminal event, only seven angling clubs took part; the West of Scotland Angling Club, Kinross-shire Fishing Club, Perth Anglers Club, Stirling Fishing Club, Dundee Angling Club, Waverley Angling Club and Falkirk Fishing Club. The prizes were cash. The first prize was a hefty £15 - a remarkable sum for its day - which is in itself indicative of the sector of society that was taking part. This was not a competition for humble artisans, it was exclusively for those of substance.
It must have been a tremendous occasion with the anglers dressed in oiled-cloth coats, tall ‘tile’ hats and knee-high leather boots, their whiskers blowing about in the breeze as they stepped into the boats on Loch Leven. They wielded their heavy greenheart rods, with horse-hair lines and gut cast; the trusty boatmen strained on the oars to take the anglers to their favourite parts of the loch. At the end of the day the winner was Mr D.B. Macgregor of the West of Scotland Angling Club with 14 fish weighing 11lb and 14oz. in second place was Mr P.D. Malloch, a member of Perth Anglers Club. It is notable that Malloch went on to compete in no fewer than 29 nationals and won an amazing six times - a record not since beaten. He was also founder of the prominent tackle business, still in existence today, in the fair city of Perth.
Some of the older clubs in Scotland have records which show that they would hire a single carriage in a train - or even the whole train - to take their members near to a venue. This must have been an enjoyable way to travel to a day’s fishing. You can imagine the mounting excitement amongst the members as the train pulled into each small station; they would be chattering about which fly to use, where to take the boat and what the weather was going to be like. They would probably be conducting business, for the members of these clubs were, on the whole, industrialists.
From the train, members would transfer into horse-drawn coaches and be driven to the waterside. There they would hire their boatmen and were taken out onto the loch, the boat pulled all day by their trusty oarsmen. Their clothing, tackle, transport and tactics were a far cry from their modern equivalents, but this demonstrates how the foundations of club angling were laid down in Victorian Scotland. The development of the railway network in the middle of the nineteenth century opened up the possibility for city dwellers to gain ready access to the country. This, in turn, allowed sport fishing to burgeon.
How fishing took a foothold in Scotland, by Sandy Forgan.
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