Fresh Water Clam Pearls - Fished in Scotland, 1794

Fishing for fresh water clam pearls in Scotland, 1794, as recorded by Rev. James Robertson writing on Callander Parish in The Old Statistical Account of Scotland and by Rev. G. Gordon in His Mollusca of Morayshire in the Zoologist for 1854, J.B.Doyle in 1863 refers to Irish pearl fishers in the Proceedings of the natural History Society of Dublin and W. Japp describes the activities of a pearl fisher in 1885.

In the Teith are found considerable quantities of mussels, which some years ago, afforded great profit to those who fished them, by the fresh water clam pearls they contained, which were sold at high prices.

The fresh water clam pearls were esteemed in proportion to the glossy fineness of their luster, their size and shape. Some of the country people make 100 pounds in a season, by that employment. This lucrative fishery was soon exhausted; and it will require a considerable time before it can be resumed with profit, because none but the old shells, which are crooked in the shape of a new moon, produce pearls of any value.

They are fished with a kind of spear, consisting of a long shaft, and shod at the point with two iron spoons, having their mouths inverted; their handles are long and elastic, and joined at the extremity, which is formed into a socket, to receive the shaft.

With this machine in his hand, by way of staff, the fisher, being often up to his chin in water, gropes with his feet for the mussels, which are fixed in the mud and sand by one end, presses down the iron spoons upon their point; so that by the spring in the handles, they open to receive the mussel, hold it fast and pull it up to the surface of the water.

He has a pouch or bag of network hanging by his side, to carry the mussels till he comes ashore, where they are opened. The operation is much easier in shallow water.

The Rev. G. Gordon describes a further method in his Mollusca of Morayshire in the Zoologist for 1854:

In several parts of the rivers Spey, Avon and Doveran, it has been gathered for the sake of the pearls - few and far between - expected to be found within it. Lachlan Shaw, the historian of Moray, 1775, says 'in the river Spey there are pearl shell in which I have seen many ripe fresh water clam pearls of a fine water and great value', Mr. Charles Grant, schoolmaster of the parish of Aberlour, has collected and kindly communicated the information, 'that about eight or ten years ago, an individual from Iverness fished for fresh water clam pearls at Abernethy, on the Spey, but, after the toil of two weeks and the destruction of many a mussel, he is reported to have carried off no greater reward than six or seven, of what size or value is unknown, as he was so tenacious of his fancied treasure, that he refused to exhibit them to the inspection of any one.

Telford Iron Bridge, Built in 1815, across the River Spey, Scotland, United Kingdom, Europe

Telford Iron Bridge, Built in 1815, across the River Spey, Scotland, United Kingdom, Europe
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He found the shells in still pools having a muddy bottom; and the instrument of landing was a long pole, having a string with a noose attached to its end. he contrived to get the noose round the shells, and tightening it, with a sudden jerk, drew them ashore'.

Mr. Grant adds 'In my fishing excursions I have frequently met with the shells, which are about four inches long by two broad, and of a dark gray color outside; but I have no recollection of having ever seen one with a live fish. I strongly suspect that the flood of 1829 has destroyed great numbers of them, as their remains along the banks of the Spey are now less frequently to be met with than they were previous to the period. There is a traditional account of an English Company having fished for them sixty or seventy years ago; but the fishing turned out unsuccessful and was discontinued.

J.B.Doyle in 1863 refers to Irish pearl fishers in the Proceedings of the natural History Society of Dublin.

The favourite season is during summer months when the rivers are low. On a calm bright day the fisherman with a sharp pointed wattle and a large wooden scoop stations himself on the brink of a pool and waits until he sees some of the mussels moved, which they do with great rapidity by the aid of their strong muscular foot. Sometimes they lie basking, as it were, in the sunshine, the foot extended and mantle visible. The fisherman thrusts his pointed stick between the valves and lifts the shell out of the water - afterwards he wades into the pool and shovels them out wholesale onto the bank.

The heap is then examined, the deformed and wrinkled shells are first examined as likely to contain the best fresh water clam pearls and then the remainder.

At the extensive fisheries at Port Glerrone, Co, Antrim, on the Bann it was customary to throw the mussels into a large heap to decompose which they quickly do. They were then taken and washed in large tubs, the mass being stirred with a stick. After several washings the shells and grosser parts were removed and the pearls sought for at the bottom.

W. Japp describes the activities of a pearl fisher John Farquharson in 1885.

John Farquharson, pearl fisher, Coupar-Angus, who dubs himself pearl-fisher to the Prince of Wales, and who certainly has been lucky in finding valuable fresh water clam pearls, and in selling them to the high-born, has constructed for himself a small wherry the size of which is about 3ft 3in each way. He seats himself in his little boat and having provided himself with a long pole or wand, with a small split at the lower end, he eyes the mussels with correct aim; and when the bottom of the river is free from disturbance and the water peaceful and in its ordinary state, he can bring up about 6 mussels in a minute.

He seizes the mussel with the split of the want; and pushes it down until the swelling of the shell is passed and with a gentle pull he renders the mussel a captive and lands it in the wherry or on the side of the stream.

Historical accounts of gathering fresh water clam pearls in Germany

More stories of fresh water clam pearl gathering.

Source: The Scottish Pearl in its World Context by Fred Woodward

Photos of Scottish River Tay

Learn about Scottish pearls

Famous Abernethy Pearl

Pearl gathering in Scotland is banned.

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