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Salmon And Salmon-Poachers In The Border
by [?]

What is it that causes a salmon to be so irresistible a temptation to the average Borderer? He knows that it is illegal to take “a fish” from the water at certain seasons, and at other times except under certain circumstances. Yet at any season and under any circumstances the sight of a fish in river or burn draws him like a magnet, and take it he must, if by any means it may be done outside the ken of the Tweed Commissioners and their minions. Even if he be a rigid observer of the law, a disciplinarian of Puritan fervour, in his heart he takes that salmon, and his pulse goes many beats faster as, standing on the bank, he watches the “bow wave” made by a moving fish in thin water, or sees it struggle up a cauld.

One can remember the case of a middle-aged gentleman, the most strict of Presbyterians, a church-goer almost fanatical in his attendance, one who would have suffered martyrdom rather than be compelled to forego long family prayers morning and evening; a man ordinarily rigid in his observance of the law to its last letter, unforgiving of those who even in the mildest manner stepped an inch beyond the line. Yet that old man, returning after long years to the scenes of his boyhood from a far land, where like Jacob of old he had “increased exceedingly, and had much cattle,” when in remote Border waters one day he was tempted by the Evil One with a salmon, fell almost without a struggle. To secure that salmon the old gentleman must needs get exceeding wet; moreover, it was close time. There was no shadow of excuse. But he was a boy again; fifty years had slipped off his shoulders. And I know not what came of the salmon, but it left the water; nor do I know what the watcher said who came over the hill inopportunely. Maybe the trouser-pocket where the old gentleman kept his silver was a good deal lighter, and that of the watcher a good deal heavier, when the twain parted. And therein the old gentleman sinned doubly; for himself he broke the law, and he put temptation in the way of the watcher, and caused him also to sin and to be guilty of grave dereliction of duty. Yet there it was! The most rigid of his kind in pursuit of virtue and in observance of the law, saw “a fish”–and straightway, irresistibly the old Adam moved within him. Nay! Under certain circumstances hardly would one trust even a black-coated Border minister if a salmon provoked him too sorely.

In former days, many were the ways whereby a fish might be induced to quit his native element. Now, it is different; though even now possibly his end might not in every case endure too close scrutiny. But in the days when our grandsires and great-grandsires were young, salmon were regarded as of small value; they sold possibly at 2d. the pound, and servants in Tweedside homes were wont to bargain that they should not be forced to eat salmon every day of the week. Then, practically no method of capture was illegal; you might take him almost when, where, and how you pleased. Indeed, one reads that at St. Boswells in 1794 the neighbourhood was “seldom at a loss for a small salmon, which proves a great conveniency to families.” It was not as if such a thing as a close season had never been known. Five hundred years before the date above mentioned there were laws in existence regulating the capture of salmon, and in the reign of James I of Scotland the law was most stringent. In 1424 it was enacted that “Quha sa ever be convict of Slauchter of Salmonde in tyme forbidden be the Law, he shall pay fourtie shillings for the unlaw, and at the third tyme gif he be convict of sik Trespasse he shall tyne his life.” But the law had fallen into disuse–was, in fact, a dead letter; practically there was no “tyme forbidden,” or at least the close season was as much honoured in the breach as in the observance, and, especially in the upper waters of Tweed and her tributaries, countless numbers of spawning fish were annually destroyed.