‘Salmon Fishing Bothies on the Tay’; First Article (28 July, 1888)

The following is the first of two articles which discuss the state of the fishing stations and their accommodation along the river Tay in Perthshire.

Disgraceful State of Matters.

First Article.

The saying that property has duties as well as rights declares a principle which, in the latter end of this nineteenth century, is likely to be driven home to some purpose. Well had it been for property, and well, too, for the common weal of the kingdom, had this plain but important precept been more put into practice since it first became a watchword of political progress—since the time when Thomas Drummond, as Under Secretary for Ireland, applied the words in condemnation of the unreasoning rapacity of the landlords in 1839. Much has been done at variance with this rule, but signs are not awanting that change is imminent. Sharp work will be made with many sacred and cherished rights of property, which too frequently represent wrongs of the people; and amongst these the sacred right to maintain human rookeries will certainly receive but short shrift.

A New Species of Piggery.

One way or another the public are fairly alive to the miseries of the hovel in city and the miseries of the bothy in rural life, but to the riparian proprietors of the Tay belongs the credit of creating a new species of piggery to which the attention of the public may usefully be turned. At the instance of this newspaper a voyage of inspection was made last week among the lodges which stud the backs of the Tay between Perth and Dundee. Of these hovels—for by no other name can many of the wretched structures be more fitly described—there are over a hundred, and more than thirty were made the subject of personal inspection, while enquiry concerning the conditions of their lives when at work was made among the fishermen at various other points along the course of the river. The result in brief is the revelation of a state of things hitherto unsuspected, and which, as more particularly set forth below, proves that beyond all doubt a portion at least of the “property” of Perthshire is inattentive to its duties in a degree which decidedly constitutes a public scandal. For seven months of the year, from the beginning of February till towards the end of August, a period embracing the extremes of cold in winter and heat in summer, some hundreds of men are lodged in rickety buildings, which at the best could only be considered as a better sort of pig-stye—so constructed, so dilapidated and dirty, so utterly devoid of all comfort and convenience, that no person, let alone a laird with the amour propre peculiar to his class, would think of devoting them to the accommodation of a dog or a horse in which be took ordinary interest.

One Small Room for Seven Men.

With few exceptions these lodges consist of one small room, which in the average case has to accommodate from five to seven able-bodied men. In combination with the disagreeable nature of their work, the plight of these men is truly such that one is inclined to think that surely the salmon fishers of the Tay touch bottom rock n their experience of material discomfort. Wet, tired, and weary, they are forced to spend the period of rest and largely of leisure in a small and stuffy apartment, one hour in which to an ordinary mortal is almost enough to neutralise the benefit derived form a day in the open air. At once kitchen, dining-room, and dormitory, these hovels present to the eye of the stranger a scene of dirt and confusion of which no real conception is possible apart from personal experience. In very few is any provision made for ventilation, and the majority have only one small window nailed down to the sash. In each case the greater part of the space is devoted to wooden boxes divided by boards into sleeping bunks. In some of these beds hay and straw are used for bedding like common litter, and though a mattress was not unfrequently to be seen, the conditions under which life was necessarily led in the majority of cases obviously forbade the introduction of good material into such dens.

Uncouth and Unclean.

To some extent it may indeed be considered a necessity of the case, or at least an almost unavoidable feature, that the interior of these lodges should present an uncouth and far from comely or clean appearance. The bulk of the men employed at the salmon fishing are not and indeed can hardly afford to be, very finical in their ideas of what constitute comfort while actively employed employed on the river. But located as they now are, comfort if it exists at all has reached the irreducible minimum, and an apathetic regard to the ordinary decencies of life is a natural outcome of this circumstance. No doubt part of the want of tidiness apparent is attributable to the carelessness of the men themselves. In many cases the bothies would be dirty however arranged or constructed, and whatever the facilities for keeping them clean.

Rats and Vermin.

But as things now are, men desirous of having order and cleanliness around them are disheartened by the abominable nature of their environment. In no case was a table or chair to be seen in the bothy, for the good and sufficient reason that in most of them there was no room where such could possibly have been set. Rats and other vermin abound; water for drinking and cooking has frequently to be carried great distances; and very often the atmosphere of the apartment is rendered insufferably foetid with the steam and smoke from wet clothing set out to dry before large fires put on for the purpose. Under such conditions it is only natural to find straw strewn about, a mountain of ashes piled up in the fireplace, lumps of coal and miscellaneous rubbish scattered all over the floor, and little hillocks of rubbish, composed of egg shells, tin boxes, and other material, defending the approach to the lodge from every direction.

Popularity of the “People’s Journal.”

Amongst the stations on the Kinfauns estate which we visited was the Pye Rod. A sketch is given of the interior of this lodge. It is about twelve feet square, and is fitted up with sleeping bunks for six men. At present only three men sleep there, the others living elsewhere. The empty bunks are filled with a miscellaneous collection of articles, including clothes, boots, hay, boxes, and old newspapers. The sent is a long form placed at the foot of the sleeping berths, and for a table a large soap box resting on its side on a smaller box is used. A press for holding provisions was got by dividing the bog into two by a piece of wood. A large number of articles of wearing apparel were hung round the room, nearly covering up the small window by which light is admitted. On a shelf fitted up on one of the walls were a dozen to twenty empty jelly came and tinned meat boxes. As in too many cases the floor was dirty, and was littered with unbrushed boots. Two fiddles banging on the walls, several pictures from the weekly illustrated newspapers nailed up, and a copy of the last issue of the People’s Journal lying in one of the sleeping-berths afforded evidence of how the spare time of the men is spent. In nearly every lodge that was visited a musical instrument of some description was to be seen—a fiddle, a melodeon, or a tin whistle—and the staple literature appeared to be the People’s Journal. The occupants of this lodge complained that they had no water except what they took from the Tay, and one of them, expressing himself strongly on the subject, said it was enough to kill any one, that the Board of Health should look into the matter for the sake of the men and that proprietors should be compelled to put water into all their lodges. The same man, speaking of the accommodation in the bothy, said that when all the six men were on the floor-head it was impossible to move about, but that it was not so bad when there were only three in it. On leaving this lodge we stepped into one immediately adjoining. The room, which was pretty much like that just described, and had recently been whitewashed, was full of smoke. Two men were asleep inside.

Lodges Unfit For Cattle.

The Girdom station, about three miles from Perth on the South side of the Tay, belongs to the City of Perth. There are six men employed on it just now. The bothy is not so small and stuffy as some of the others, but like most of those visited it was very untidy. In the kitchen and there are beds for two persons, and the remaining four are accommodated in the other room. It is the subject of general complaint that the lodges are too cold in spring, and too hot in summer, that in the one season the men are like to be starved, while in the other they are apt to be roasted. Speaking to one of the men on this station, he said that he was glad to get home on Saturday to get a good sleep as he never got that in the bothy. Another said that it was a b— shame that the proprietors while getting so much money for the fishings compelled the men to reside in places in which they would not lodge their own cattle. On Tappie and Cruikie near Kinfauns the bothies are spacious and airy. They have been recently whitewashed, and being kept tidily they have an air of comfort which is to be found in few of the others.

One of the Worst Bothies.

Among the worst bothies that came under notice was that on the Ladyhole fishing, near Inchyra, belonging to the Rev. Archibald Fleming, of St Paul’s Church, Perth. There are two rooms, the floors of which are partly clay and partly wood, and are perforated with rat holes. In each the ceiling is a little over six feet high, and the room measures fourteen feet by twelve feet. There are beds for six men in each. One marked feature was the absence of light and ventilation. The windows are small, and do not open. Our heads almost touched the rafters. Otherwise the interior is similar to those already described. There is neither table nor chair, and all the cooking is done in the sleeping apartment. The atmosphere was stifling, and to get a little fresh air we were compelled to beat a hasty retreat. The roof, which is slated, is sadly out of repair, and at some parts daylight can be seen. In rainy weather the water comes through freely. When sitting up in bed the men almost touch the ceiling with their heads. There is no water except that from the Tay, but the men prefer to go a long distance for a good supply of wholesome water.

Neither Chairs Nor Tables.

Limie fishing station is situated nearly two miles below Perth, and is on the estate of Mr Stuart-Gray of Kinfauns. The lodge has been greatly improved recently by an addition which enables the sitting and sleeping rooms to be kept separate. Usually seven men are employed on the station, but at present there are only five. The sleeping apartment measure 15 feet by 10 feet by 8 feet. On The Ships, which is a little further down the river, there are four “shots.” Of these, thre belong to Sir James Richardson of Pitfour, and one to the Town of Perth. Messrs Anderson & Son, Edinburgh, are the tenants of the whole, and have five men engaged there at present. The interior of the lodge, which belongs to Sir James, in 13 ½ ft. long by 13 ft. wide by 8 ½ feet high. Like most of those which were visited, the interior was not at all inviting. A large fire was burning, and the heat from it and from the sun, which was striking on the window, made the place almost unendurable. The floor was of brick, and was far from clean. On a pole suspended from the roof a number of articles of clothing were being dried. The sleeping accommodation, which is pretty much the same all over, is of the most miserable description. For a bed each man has a bench set on trestles about three feet from the ground, and the only partition between him and his neighbour is a board about a foot high. These bunks were ranged round the side and end of the bothy. There was neither a chair nor a table in the place. In fact there would not be room for them, for, as the men said, when they were all inside they had little more than standing room. For seats forms were used, and an old box, or anything handy, was utilised as a table. As there was no water near the lodge, the men have to cross the river for water for cooking and drinking purposes. Immediately adjoining the lodge just described is the bothy which belongs to the Town of Perth. At present it is used as a store room for nets and other material, but quite recently it was occupied by two men. It is eleven feet long and a little loss in breadth, with open rafter roof, in which a small skylight is placed.

A Place For Dogs.

Stockgreen, on the Kinfauns estate, is a large station. Up to within a fortnight ago there were two crews, or thirteen men, employed on it, but six of them left then, it being thought that by this time of the year most of the fish can be got by one crew. Of the seven remaining, four reside in the bothy, and the three others have their houses in the neighbourhood. On inquiring as to what sort of accommodation they had in the lodge, one man replied that it was a place “more like for dogs staying in than for human beings.” Being asked about the supply of water for cooking and domestic purposes, the same man said, “We have no water but the Tay. We have just to put our head in like an ox and tak’ a drink. That is a thing that should be looked to.” Entering the lodge it was found to be superior to many of those that we visited. For one thing it was considerably larger than many of the others, being 14 feet long by 12 feet wide and 8 ½ feet high. It was lighted by two small windows. The sleeping bunks were ranged at the East end, and between the foot of them and the fireplace there was an open space of about eight feet. Straw was strewn over the floor, and the place was most untidy. Both windows were shut, and the room was very stuffy. The fishermen in the Tay seem to be very much averse to opening their windows, even when not using their lodges. Many of them complained of want of ventilation in their bothies, stating that at times they could scarcely see one another inside for “reek,” but on the day of our visit, when the sun was shining brilliantly and the heat was intense, it seemed to be the case that every precaution had been taken to exclude the fresh air, for both doors and windows were kept close. Unfortunately in too many cases the windows are so constructed that they cannot be opened; but the men themselves do not seem to be sufficiently alive to the importance of a constant supply of fresh air even to the limited extent at their disposal.

In another article we shall give further particulars of similar abominations.

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