The ‘race against time’ to document Scotland’s banned salmon netters

Colin McPherson is returning to the coastline to capture the people, places and traditions which underpinned Scotland’s salmon netting industry, the roots of which can be traced back to the Viking era, before knowledge and memory of the way of life is lost for good.

Salmon netting was hit with an indefinite moratorium by the Scottish Government in 2019 after a successful case was made by the angling lobby the practice, which catches salmon in open water as it makes its way to breeding grounds upstream, was responsible for depleting valuable river stocks .

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Mr McPherson first started to document the industry in the late 1990s and said he was now compelled to return to the project to create a lasting legacy for the industry.

Photographer Colin McPherson is returning to the traditional salmon netting communities of Scotland to record in-depth the industry which was effectively banned in 2019 in response to diminishing salmon stocks returning from the open sea to river. McPherson has long documented the salmon netters and here captured a salmon netter from Joseph Johnston & Sons of Montrose, recovering fish from a fly net on the sands at St. Cyrus, Aberdeenshire. Fishing with fly nets here was discontinued after the 1998 season. PIC: Colin McPherson.

He said: “It’s so urgent. If I don’t do this in the next two to three years, people’s memories will fade, people will die, knowledge will go and nobody will have recorded it all. It’s a race against time, to be honest.”

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Documentary records how an unlikely alliance ended salmon netting in Scotland

Salmon netters stretched from Armadale Bay in Sutherland down to the River Tweed and the Solway Firth, with places such as Balintore in Easter Ross, St Cyrus in Aberdeenshire and Montrose in Angus among their natural homes.

As he returns to document the impact of the ban, he has found bothies – where some fishermen traditionally slept during the summer – barricaded off, their flat-bottomed coble boats abandoned and the long, large stakes used to hold the nets rotting in the elements. .

James Mackay setting off in his coble boat from the salmon netting station at Armadale, Sutherland, to fish his bag nets in 2003. Photographer Colin McPherson will return to Armadale to track the impact of the salmon netting ban on the community. PIC: Colin McPherson.

The photographer, a founding member of the Document Scotland photography collective, said: “There is a realization among them that it is never going to come back.

“There is a real sense of loss. Every single one of them told me how much they loved going to work, that there was a bond between them. They have an amazing knowledge of weather, of cloud formations, of the tides. I don’t like to be too sentimental about it as at the end of the day it was an industry, but to me its imperative that it is recorded.”

The salmon netters also came under pressure from conservationists, who were angered by the shooting of seals to protect the catch as well as the impact on stocks given fish were killed before returning to breeding grounds.

More broadly, climate change and the rising gray seal population have been factored as causes of stock decline, as well as the impact of fish farming on marine environments. Salmon numbers lost to angling have exceeded numbers of fish lost to netting in some years, according to accounts.

Salmon netters Jim Mitchell (right) and Bob Ritchie fishing a ‘jumper’ net at low tide on the sands at Kinnaber, Angus in 2000.

Mr McPherson, who is raising funds to continue the project, said he wanted to create a full resource on salmon netting not only for the benefit of future generations, but to chart the changing relationship with the land and the loss of Scottish wild salmon.

“The next bit is to really marshal some resources to tell this really important story, it’s part of Scotland’s history,” he said.

The photographer can be reached via

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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