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Issue 12 - It's all uphill for the salmon

Scotland Magazine Issue 12
January 2004


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It's all uphill for the salmon

Steve Newman looks at he salmon as it returns to the river Tweed, and the animals and hazards it encounters on its way.

The salmon has one of the longest journeys of any animal on the planet. The Tweed has long been recognised as Britain’s premier salmon river twisting its way from the western Border hills to the sea at Berwick.

Even before it reaches the estuary of the Tweed the salmon must run the gauntlet of the local offshore fisherman in the their small wooden boats.

These boats are known as cobles and can be found along the north east coast from Scarborough in the south to Eyemouth in the north.

Once inside the estuary the salmon have to avoid the seals waiting for them as well as the net fisherman who have carried out their trade here since being granted a licence by King John.

It’s a common enough site to watch a seal throw a salmon into the air when you’re standing on the medieval walls that tower over the water.

The estuary has huge scientific value as well as being the wintering grounds for the goldeneye that have flown here from Scandinavia and Iceland to escape the severe winter weather.

The estuary also is home to Berwick’s famous herd of more than 200 wild swans – often to be seen feeding by the docks where the grain ships have accidentally spilled some of their cargo.

The salmon swim on up the river, under Berwick’s famous three bridges, past the large heronry where often the birds stand motionless in fields waiting for the tide to recede and offer them a feast of worms and stranded fish.

The river now adopts the wide sluggish look of all rivers as they approach their mouth. Dotted along the side are stone towers known as shiels where men once looked out for salmon swimming up the river and quickly rowed out with their nets to try and catch as many as they could.

A few miles upstream at the village of Paxton the river takes on the mantle as the border between Scotland and England.

Here in the grounds of Paxton House can be found the red squirrels busily carrying on with their lives. Paxton is one of the finest 18th Century Palladian country houses in Scotland, built to the design of John Adam in 1758. It houses part of the National Collection of Scottish paintings.

The squirrels are most likely to be seen soon after dawn with the trees providing a high thoroughfare among the branches where they forage for pollen, buds, cone seeds as well as nuts and acorns.

The river soon starts to narrow slightly and enters the more pronounced valley and at one point a small gorge is crossed at Loan End near Horncliffe.

Here the salmon swim under the Union chain bridge, which is the earliest surviving suspension bridge in England, built in 1820. The bars on the bridge are no more than an inch thick, which from a distance makes them almost invisible.

Onwards the salmon swim past villages such as Norham, dominated by its huge castle, where otters can some times be seen.

Still as wide as a rugby pitch the river carries on through Cornhill under the Bridge where Robbie Burns prayed to God to watch over him when he entered England and on to Coldstream the birth place of the guards regiment which carries its name.

Originally known as Coalstream the town sits above the river and it’s rare not to find a pub adorned with fishing artefacts.

It was from here that General Monck crossed into England culminating in the restoration of Charles II.

For some miles now the salmon have had to avoid anglers both on the bank side and on boats and now the river has small wooden angling huts dotted along the banks not dissimilar to the old fishing shiels of yesteryear.

Soon the salmon come to one of their resting places where the Teviot joins the Tweed at Kelso. Here lies a deep pool of still water where the fish can rest on their journey.

Unfortunately for them it is well known that this ‘Junction Pool’ is a mecca to salmon fishermen from all over the world.

It is reputed to be one of the finest spots in the world of anglers to try their skill against the salmon. It’s also one of the most expensive.

Some salmon will swim up the Teviot and one can often see two other fishermen at work although their clothing is feathers not wax jackets!

On their journey to the sea after they have hatched the salmon fry become food to the Gooseander. These colourful long bodied and rakish ducks make their nests in hollow trees, holes in banks but usually amongst the trees near the water.

They belong to the sawbill family as the serrated edge of their bills helps them grip fish when diving after their prey and like the goldeneye can be seen in Berwick harbour in the winter.

The Goosander is a colourful bird but cannot hold a candle to another feathered fisherman that you will see on the banks of the Teviot and the higher reaches of the Tweed.

Like some gooseanders the kingfisher nests in holes dug on the stream banks, its flight is low and direct but occasionally you may see it hovering rather than perching.

Those salmon that continue up the Tweed swim beside Floors castle, home to the Duke of Roxburghe and one of the oldest inhabited castle in Scotland. Onwards they travel until they come to Melrose where the heart of Robert the Bruce lies buried in the Abbey. Further still past the woollen mills in Galashiels the fish strive against the current.

As the river narrows on its journey westwards more and more salmon head off into tributaries to leap up rapids and waterfalls eventually to spawn and the whole magnificent cycle starts again.

Like all things in nature the journey of the salmon is not a single event but linked to a whole system of life in this wonderful thin ribbon of water.