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Steve Savage Publishers Ltd

A History of the Island

Donald Macdonald
sample extract...

An old Hebridean proverb says 'Dh'iarr am muir a thadhal', 'The sea wants to be visited', and over the centuries, the Lewis people have obliged, supplementing the meagre produce of the land with the riches of the sea and often paying with their lives for the privilege.

Fishing has always been attractive to the Lewis people for profit and for simple pleasure, and one method of catching fish which was once common was by building yares or stone dykes across a river estuary. The fish that swam in at high tide when the yare was submerged were left stranded when the tide ebbed, and could be collected without much trouble. This method was popular in Lochs and Uig where the word cairidh, yare, is still to be found in place names.

Rock fishing for cuddies, saithe, mackerel and lythe, with rod and line, was very popular during Autumn and early Winter, and even flatfish, haddocks and herring were once caught this way.

In 1549, Dean Munro recorded 'ane cove in this country quherin the sea fallis and is twa faddome deepe at the ebb-sea, and four faddome and maire at the full sea. Within this cove ther uses whytteins to be slain with huikes, verey many haddocks, and men with their wands sitting upon the craiges of that cove, and lades and women also.'

For a long time, the common implements of fishing were the rod and the tàbh. The rod was Dean Munro's 'wand', while the tàbh was a large pock-net, like an oversized landing-net, minus its handle, bound round a large hoop about six feet in diameter, attached to a long pole. Two men were required to work this implement when fishing for cuddies, one to lower it into the sea, and raise it when necessary, and the other to throw the scrùm, bait, consisting of anything from mashed potatoes to parboiled whelks and limpets or pulped crabs.

Once a sufficient number of these small but nutritious fish had gathered above the net for the feast, it was gently raised to the surface and swung ashore, where the scrùm thrower was waiting to scoop out the wriggling mass into a sack before repeating the process until a sufficient catch had been made, or the shoal had vanished.

In the estuaries of the Laxdale and Blackwater Rivers on the Tong Sands, a string of blankets, tied end to end, was once used like a salmon net to drive the cuddies ashore. The oil from their livers was used in the crusie lamps, and their sweet flavoured flesh, boiled in water, imparted its taste, providing a delicious meal and a pleasant hot drink.

As well as the rod and line, a tàbh or pock with a rectangular mouth was also used to catch trout in streams at certain seasons of the year.

Salmon were also very plentiful at one time, and these could be slain in the shallows 'with treis and bastonnis', as the inhabitants had 'na uther craft nor ingyne to slay thame'. In the Barvas River alone in 1585, no fewer than 3,000 large salmon were taken. The best salmon rivers were Morsgail, Barvas, Laxay, Creed, Laxdale and Gress, and in 1765, forty-eight barrels of salmon were exported for 86.8.0.