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Country Life Every Week - - Contents - David Pro­fumo caught his first fish at the age of five, and, off the wa­ter, he’s a nov­el­ist and bi­og­ra­pher. He lives up a glen in Perthshire

David Pro­fumo has many ways to spear a fish

‘Sal­mon were pur­sued from pool to pool in the man­ner of ot­ter-hunt­ing

IN the be­gin­ning was the stick and that be­gat the sim­ple lance—an ex­ten­sion of the prim­i­tive hunter’s arm, just as the club was a mag­ni­fi­ca­tion of his fist. Dat­ing back to at least 4,000BC, the ubiq­ui­tous spear is surely one of man’s more sim­ple and el­e­gant in­ven­tions—an in­stru­ment of tele­o­logic beauty, with many spe­cialised ver­sions for the catch­ing of fish.

The spec­trum of im­pal­ing de­vices is huge, en­com­pass­ing tongs, rakes, combs, clamps, jigs, grains, cross-hooks and gaffs. An­cient Egyp­tian bas re­liefs show no­bles spearfish­ing in the Nile; Esquimaux ice-fished us­ing barbs of ivory or ob­sid­ian; Amerindian tribes lured stur­geon to their spears with carved de­coys; in Tahiti, the wa­ter javelins were pronged with st­ingray bones; and, in China, they utilised a cock’s spur on a bam­boo shaft.

In Europe (where th­ese ob­jects are much stud­ied by eth­nol­o­gists), we have the Bul­gar­ian

arpuni, the Lat­vian ze­berk­laj and the Mag­yar szigony. Cross­bows, blow­pipes and sling­ing­sticks have all been pressed into ser­vice to skewer aquatic quarry and Dutch whalers be­gan shoot­ing har­poons out of blun­der­busses as early as 1601.

As a means of sur­vival, the spear be­came totemic. The barbed heraldic ‘pheon’ de­noted fish­tak­ing rights on sev­eral coats of arms, and the tri­dent—as de­picted in many clas­si­cal mo­saics— was orig­i­nally a Mediter­ranean tuna spear and may have been the model for that wide­spread badge of sovereignty, the scep­tre. On our coinage, Bri­tan­nia her­self pro­claimed our mar­itime supremacy with her tri­dent from 1797 un­til she dis­ap­peared in 2008.

In fact, al­though it’s not an­gling, fish-spear­ing can be di­vert­ing. I’ve spiked Mex­i­can lob­sters and He­bridean ‘flat­ties’ and there’s plenty of skill re­quired, es­pe­cially when deal­ing with re­frac­tion. Un­der­wa­ter spear- gun fish­ing is an­other branch of the pas­time al­to­gether, nor will I sully this col­umn with my ex­pe­ri­ences of such fish-snatch­ing tech­niques as the stroke­haul, Walker­burn An­gel or Black­smith’s Flee—‘poach­ing of the most flagi­tious (i.e. wicked) de­scrip­tion’, in the opin­ion of that sub­lime Vic­to­rian au­thor Wil­liam Scrope.

My own col­lec­tion of fish ‘irons’ (as they are gen­er­ally known) com­prises some 32 ex­am­ples, in­clud­ing a won­der­fully slen­der long-han­dled ver­sion for use in wa­ter­falls, a brace of fear­some spring-loaded poach­ing de­vices, sev­eral eel ‘glaives’ with their dis­tinc­tive, leaf-bladed tines, a num­ber of 18th-cen­tury mul­ti­dent heads that have lost their shafts, as­sorted har­poons with hinged points and the war­head from a mod­ern, ex­plo­sive-tipped whal­ing weapon.

Most of th­ese have been ac­quired from auc­tion­eer Neil Free­man, who once dropped off a prize item at the ho­tel where I was fish­ing in Kelso—tot­ing a 10ft big-game tuna fly­ing gaff down the street drew know­ing glances from cer­tain lo­cals.

The lo­cus clas­si­cus of salmonspear­ing in its hey­day was surely the Scot­tish Bor­ders, where the five-pronged ‘leis­ter‘ (orig­i­nally the ‘waster’) was once much favoured by poach­ers and sports­men alike, par­tic­u­larly on the Tweed and its trib­u­taries. There were two branches of this ac­tiv­ity—‘burn­ing’ and ‘sun­ning’ the wa­ter. The for­mer was prac­tised by night, of­ten sur­rep­ti­tiously, us­ing a lantern or tarred torch to daz­zle the fish—fre­quently ‘un­clean’ sal­mon that were kelts or on the redds.

In Vic­to­rian times, turf wars raged be­tween ri­val gangs and penal­ties in­cluded trans­porta­tion down un­der. Scrope records how one mis­cre­ant, caught with a sal­mon in his in­ner pocket, ex­plained: ‘It must hae jumped in there when I waded across the river.’

‘Sun­ning’ took place in low wa­ter and bright day­light and was also once a le­git­i­mate method—a noted ex­pert was Rob O’ the Trows, the leg­endary Mak­er­stoun boat­man, who drank whisky ‘like wa­ter’ and wielded a 20ft ash pole. Un­for­tu­nate sal­mon were pur­sued from pool to pool in the man­ner of ot­ter-hunt­ing (which used a sim­i­lar ba­ton fourchie) and it was con­sid­ered a spec­ta­tor sport.

The Em­press her­self wit­nessed a Dee­side sun­ning ses­sion at Bal­moral in Septem­ber 1850. ‘About one hun­dred men wad­ing through the river, some in kilts with poles and spears, all very much ex­cited,’ she records, per­haps a lit­tle breath­lessly. Al­bert joined in, but ‘he caught noth­ing’.

The lau­re­ate of the leis­ter was Sir Wal­ter Scott, who en­thu­si­as­ti­cally de­scribes burn­ing the wa­ter in both prose and verse. He en­joyed noc­tur­nal ses­sions up at the Pavil­ion beat with his chum Lord Somerville, al­though there was much may­hem ‘be­ing pen­e­trated with cold and wet, hav­ing your shins bro­ken against the stones in the dark, and per­haps mas­ter­ing one fish out of ev­ery 20 you take aim at’.

Sadly, those days are gone: how­ever flagi­tious, it all sounds great fun.

Open wide: the au­thor with his prized col­lec­tion of im­pal­ing de­vices

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