"Give me mine angle, we'll to the river."
Fishing is one of the great attractions which the Cabrach holds out to visitors, and few places in Scotland can boast of being able to provide such excellent sport at so little cost to the angler. The Deveron is one of the best-known salmon rivers in the north, and its course from birth to adolescence being through our parish, it brings knowledge of it home to many who would otherwise never hear the magic name of Cabrach. There may not be, for many reasons, so many fish in the river as there were say fifty years ago, but, after all, what is the size of the basket compared with the joy of a summer day by the river, the glint of the sun on the streams, the splash of a big fellow in the pools, the glorious brown water flashing over the stones, gurgling and whispering its secrets to the understanding ear, the midday lunch and the afternoon siesta among the honey scented clover ; and then the evening, when the westering sun streams golden through the trees above our favourite pool, and the trout are on the feed, and the midges busy, the midges that drive us home to supper and fishing tales ; or a rainy day, when there is a big spate and the yellow flood foams down, and we return soaking wet and happy, with full baskets, to a peat fire and a "tousy" tea.
Sixty years ago poaching for salmon and trout was common among the country people. Very little is done now, and if we give a description of the methods used, it must be on the distinct understanding that no reader will take advantage of the information. The chief implements were the bag-net for salmon, the silk-net for trout, the spear and cruisie, the gaff and the creeper. The bag-net was used in the following way : first a pool was stoned, to drive the salmon upstream out of it, then the net was stretched at the neck of the pool, between two uprights, each held by a man, with a long tail floating down-stream, and the fishers, with sticks and stones, drove the fish back again into the net. The trout-net was three-fold ; it measured about 30 ft. in length by 18 ins. in depth, the two outer layers were of cord mesh, and the middle one, which was about twice the size of the outer ones and of smaller mesh, was made of silk. This net was held between two men who walked down-stream with it. When a trout came in contact with it, he passed through the outer layer, became entangled in the silk and passed through out again through the third layer taking with him a portion of the silk, and there he hung as in a pocket. Sweeping-nets were also used for the big pools, and the ordinary bag-net could be manipulated in this way.
Spearing salmon was quite another thing, and required considerable skill. Towards the end of the season, when the salmon were on the "reds", was the best time for spearing. It was done at night, like most poaching, and light was given by a "cruisie", an iron basket in which "knabs", resinous fir roots dug out of the moss, were burned. The light not only showed where the salmon lay, but it also attracted them towards itself, so that they came within reach of the spearman. The spear was five or six pronged, about six inches in width, with prongs of six to eight inches long. A skilful spearman could soon secure most of the fish in the pool, but the novice not infrequently fell in head first, if his spear handle was too short or his aim bad.
The creeper was in use as a means of poaching much later than the spear, and is still used without a rod by the water bailiffs for removing dead fish from the river. There was more than one kind of creeper, but the most common was an arrangement of three hooks with the barbs outwards ; a short length of gut or cord hung below, on which was a lead sinker, and the whole was attached to an ordinary fishing line and rod. The way to use this is to stalk your fish, the cast out well beyond him and pull in the creeper towards you ; when it is quite near him give it a sharp pull, and if you have been careful one or other of the hooks will hold him fast. A salmon hooked in this way will give far more play than one hooked by the mouth. Another different form of creeper is a large Stewart worm tackle, with a piece of lead wrapped round and a worm entwined. It is used in the same way as the other, but has this advantage from the poacher's point of view : on inspection by a keeper, it looks much more like the real thing. This form of fishing has not altogether disappeared, and is known as "sniggling".
There is also fishing with the minnow. Now, the minnow itself is not an illegal lure, but the essential point is that it must spin in the water ; by this means the hooks are concealed from the fish, the lure is taken and the fish caught by the mouth. By flattening the lugs, it is prevented from spinning, and with the addition of a little lead in the shell, the lure is at once rendered impossible as a means of catching by the mouth, and transformed into a first-class instrument for "sniggling" ; that is, catching by the body. The mere fact, however, of catching a fish by the body is not a proof of illegal fishing, and it is estimated that three-fourths of the number of fish caught with the spinner are foul-hooked ; but the form of the minnow is the point to be considered.
The right to net salmon at the mouth of the Deveron was purchased from the Duke of Fife in 1907, by the riparian proprietors, and since then there has been some increase in the number of fish in the river, but the last two seasons have been so dry that fewer that usual have made their way to the Cabrach.
The fishing streams in the Cabrach are the Deveron, the Blackwater, and some of the burns. The Deveron rises in the hills between Glenbucket and Cabrach, at a height of 1688 feet above sea level ; it is sixty miles in length, and drains an area of 474 square miles. Within a short distance of its source it is joined by several burns, the West Lewie, the Burn of Alansheal, and the Kindy Burn. It next meets the Rouster, the red or rusty burn, so named from the red cliffs near the Milltown, a stream nearly equal in size to the Deveron at this point, and after this meeting assumes the dignity of a river. Salmon are not so plentiful in these upper reaches until the end of the season, but good baskets of trout may be obtained at all times. Several burns now join the river on both sides, till, on the right the Burn of Bank, and on the left the Burn of Alltdauch, mark the boundary line between Upper and Lower Cabrach. The youthful Deveron now flows through the beautiful pass of Deldorach, and skirting under a high wooded cliff rushes over a small fall to Pool Hurray, just below the Richmond Hotel, the first of a series of splendid pools. Lower down are the "Sauchen Pot", beloved of fishers, and Dalriach pool.
The course of the Blackwater is almost parallel to that of the Deveron, and it is about the same length as the latter at this point. It is formed by the junction of four burns rising between the Crespet Hill and Geall Charn, and thence flows in an easterly direction till it joins the Deveron. All except the last three miles of the stream is in the deer forest. About five miles from its source is the Blackwater shooting lodge, and between the lodge and the end of the forest are several excellent pools, where in the latter part of the season fair-sized salmon may be taken. It is as a trout stream that the Blackwater is chiefly notable, however, and trout weighing as much as 12 lbs. have been caught in it. Such big fellows are scarcely common, though, and the average basket usually contains trout of ¼lb. to 3 lbs., and occasionally a few five-pounders. A white-painted footbridge crosses the stream about a mile within the forest, and from here to its meeting with the Deveron, the Blackwater is, as a rule, open by permission to anglers. Two good "pitches" are the Muckle Rush and the Little Rush, between this bridge and the postman's bridge at Shenval. There are also several pools worth trying before the Shenval burn is reached, and two or three tributary burns may yield a trout or so. Below Shenval are the Tomnavowin and Tor pools, and the largest pool of all is Pool o' Viachan, cutting in under the cliff below Upper Ardwell. A good bit of trouting water lies between this pool and the Deveron, which we rejoin at Dalriach pool.
From here to the Glass boundary is a series of pools and rushes, all of which will yield salmon of fair size, and good trout, to the experienced or lucky angler. The heaviest salmon we know to have been taken from the Deveron in Cabrach weighed 35 lbs., but the usual weight is from 7 lbs. to 23 lbs., or thereabouts. The best-known pools in the portion of the river to which we have now come are, first, the Beach pool, named from a large patch of shingle, which the river, ever wearing into the opposite bank, has left dry. Here the Oyster Catchers lay their eggs, and the innocent fisherman is sometimes driven away from the pool by their violent shrieks of "Go back ! go back !" while they swoop towards him with formidable beaks. Next in order is Bannochie, after the Burn of Bushroot ; then come the rush below the new bridge, the intake for the mill, and Lesmurdie or Lodge pool, a favourite place under the Craig o' the Mains, a high cliff, tree-crowned. At the tail of the pool, "Lesmurdie's burn, quick emptying to the stream beneath, adds its low voice where Deveron's ripples sing", and the old house of Lesmurdie keeps ghostly watch and ward.
Below Lesmurdie is the Bridge or Parapet pool, named from the old bridge, built for the convenience of the church-goers, when the church at Auldtown was in use, and part of which remains on one bank. Here more salmon are caught than in almost any other pool in the Cabrach, with the exception of Pool Hurray. Broken Troder (the name always puzzles strangers, who variously call it Broken Tooter, and Broken Tooth-it probably means the stream broken by rocks, over and round which it "purls") ; the Boghead pool and the Craigies of Tomnaven follow. This last is an excellent pool under a rocky cliff, near the farm of the same name, The Crooked Pot is the last pool in the Cabrach.
The Deveron receives a number of tributaries on both banks, mostly, with the exception of the Charach (the burn of the stony bottom), quite small, which no one troubles to fish, though trout are got in them by "guddling". The Charrach, on the left bank, forms the boundary between Invercharrach and Lesmurdie. Two or three "stripes" follow, then two good burns on the right, the Auldtown and the Hillock burns, next the Soccoch and Countlip burns on the left, the Raigie burn on the right, and the Linnburn, the boundary between the parishes of Cabrach and Glass, and between the counties of Aberdeen and Banff, on the left.
(Reprinted from the Banffshire Journal.)
In November 1913 there was sold by auction the footbridge across the Deveron between Milltown of Lesmurdie and the Dauch of Corinacy, in Lower Cabrach. This was the last of the foot-bridges on the Upper Deveron to make way for one that could carry the road, and it may have be of some interest to recall a few of the old bridges, and the way in which improvements have been made.
The bridge referred to above was erected in 1888, in place of another which by reason of its nearness to the river level was often damaged, and even occasionally washed away by floods. The new suspension bridge was a great improvement upon this, for it was quite above the reach of the highest spate, though often the approaches to it might be under water. It was constructed by William Kellas, blacksmith, Bridgend, Cabrach, at a cost of œ25, exclusive of the carting of materials, which was all done by farmers in the neighbourhood. The money was raised by public subscription. Just below the bridge was a ford. Both foot-bridge and ford have now been replaced by an iron bridge erected in 1913, at a cost of between £400 and £500.
The two oldest bridges in the Cabrach are those at Bridgend, across the Charrach burn, and across the Blackwater, on the main road. Both were built around 1827. The next was the bridge across the Deveron at the King's Ford, built in 1851. The King who is thus remembered was Edward I. of England, who passed this way in 1296, but found no bridges to aid his progress. The bridge across the Deveron near the Church of Cabrach was probably the next to be built, and then, as the most difficult fords were thus rendered passable, there was a lull in the improving of the highway until the early 'eighties. A movement was then set on foot to build a number of bridges across various burns on the road from Dufftown to the Upper Cabrach. Mr Robertson, Schoolmaster, Lower Cabrach, was one of the principal workers in this cause, which conferred a very great benefit on the district. The bridges erected at that time were across the Fiddich at Bridgehaugh, across the Balloch burn at Ballochford, one near Bridgend across the Lewie burn, one at the Burn of Alltdauch, one across the Burn of Bank, and one across the Burn of Auchmair. With funds left over a drinking trough was erected at the burn of Alltdauch, just at the boundary between Upper and Lower Cabrach. Some of these bridges are the single arch stone erections of the usual type, others are of iron, floored with wood. The contrast between these substantial bridges, over which even traction engines safely pass, and the old rough fords, which made the use of vehicles with springs inadvisable (to say the least of it) is very great. At the fords there was usually a bridge for foot passengers, but this in the eighteenth century was of the most primitive description. It was merely a couple of logs thrown from one bank to the other, with a few boards nailed between, and quite innocent of a hand-rail. The logs were as a rule "moss-trees", dug out of the peat. The Kirk-Session saw to it that these bridges were kept in repair, and very often the penalty inflicted on a delinquent would be the providing of a bridge tree. The crimes which were thus expiated, besides that frequent one technically referred to as "discipline", might be "gathering grossets on the Sabbath", fighting, or bringing home a millstone, on the same day. Or it might be that a party of roisterers came home late, disturbing decent folk, and then the punishment seems entirely fitted to the offence, for those same merrymakers would be very dependent on the state of the bridges they had to cross, and a gap in the floor meant a fall into the water and a sudden sobering. Later on moss trees gave place to well-built wooden bridges, with hand-rails, and those in turn to those of which we have spoken. Several foot-bridges still remain, but all of them are bridges of accommodation only. The whole of the roads in the Cabrach are to be traversed easily by motor car, traction engine, or any vehicle the traveller's fancy dictates.
On 16th May 1722 the Commissioners of Supply of Banffshire appointed Lesmurdie, with Recletich and Tullich, to superintend the highways in Pittriffnie and Mortlach. This must have included Lower Cabrach, because at a meeting of Justices of Peace held at Banff on 26th October 1725 Lesmurdie reported an estimate for building a timber bridge on the Blackwater ; and an advance of one hundred pounds Scots for buying materials was authorised. At a meeting of Commissioners of Supply held on 15th November 1728, another hundred pounds Scots were voted to Lesmurdie to complete the bridge at Blackwater. He was ordered also to repair the causey from Balvenie to Glenlivet, which is the first recorded improvement of any road south of Keith and Boharm undertaken by the County Commissioners of Supply.