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Perthshire Pearls

“In most of the rivers in Scotland,” says an old writer, “beside the marvellous plentie of salmond and other fishes gotten there, is a shell-fish called the horse-mussel!, of a great quantity, wherein are engendered innumerable fair, beautiful, and delectable pearls,
convenient for the pleasure of man, and profitable for the use of phisicke; some of them so fair and polished that they may be equal to any Oriental pearls..

In the 17th century the Scottish Privy Council, under the crafty King James, claimed the right of pearl fishing in Scottish rivers. having been inspired to this action by the finding, in the year 1620, of a precious pearl in the Kellie burn, a tributary of the Ythan, in Aberdeenshire. It was said then to have been the best pearl ever found in Scotland tbr size and beauty. Sir Thomas Menzies, Provost of Aberdeen, obtained the jewel and took it to the King in London. where James had it placed in the
Crown of Scotland. Three men were afterwards appointed to protect the Scottish rivers, and “nominate men to fish for pearls at convenient seasons.” Tay pearls were common, and they are mentioned in Henry Adamson’s “Muses Threnodie,” published in 1638. Now let us go the pretious pearls a-fishing, Tli’ occasion serreth well, while here we stay, To catch these muscles (sic) you call toyts of Tay. ft’s possible, if no ill eye bewitch us We jewels finde, for all our days to enrich us in 1771, Mr. Pennant’s book “Tour in Scotland” contains a
reference to pearls in the Tay: “There has been in these parts a very great fishery of pearl got out of the freshwater mussels. From the year 1761 to 1764 £10,000 worth were sent to London, but this fishery is at present exhausted from the avarice of the undertakers.” Tn the “Statistical Account of Scotland,” published from 1791 to 1799, the Rev. Mr. Bannerman, discussing the parish of Cargill, says: “About 20 years ago there was a great demand for pearls, and many people here were engaged in fishing for them. There is now in the custody of the Hon. Miss Drummond of Perth, a pearl necklace. the pearls of which were found here in the Tay, and for size and shape are not to be equalled by anything of the kind in Britain.”

The Rev. Mr. Robertson, in his account of Callander parish says: “In the Teith are found innumerable quantities of mussels”, and goes on to say, “The pearls they contain are esteemed for their lustre, their size and shape.” This lucrative fishing, we are told, was soon exhausted.

In Dowally, an old account mentions a pearl fishery which
attracted “crowds of people,” and the Rev. Mr. Mackenzie, in the “Statistical Account,” says of Dunkeld and Dowally in 1843, “Pearls of good form and colour are produced by the species of muscle (sic) common in the River Tay.”

At a sale ofjewellery in Perth City Halls, in 1870. a necklace of 100 Tay pearls was offered for £100.
In the summer of 1869, in the Earn, near the Bridge of Kinkell. a pearl was got which weighed 25 grains, and sold at £20. in the same season a Teith pearl sold for £10, and an Isla pearl fetched £15. The weekly earnings of a party of pearl fishers, in the Earn and the Isla, apparently varied from £12 to £29 in this season. The Perthshire Advertiser for July 6, 1871, records: “Though the Tay, the Earn and the Isla and other Perthshire rivers have been at a low level since the beginning of May, the pearl fishing has been less productive than for several past years. “The fishing has, however, been assiduously prosecuted by a large number of persons. in the Tay, at Grandtully last week, 36 fine pearls were found, but of small size generally. The largest pearl was sold for £6, and the prices obtained for the others were from £1 to
£4.” Another writer tells us: “The mussels were caught by an instrument like a spear, with two iron spoons at the end forming a kind of forceps. “The mouths of the spoons are closed, but they open when pressed
against anything, being long and elastic. The fisher, up to his chin in water, gropes for the pearl with his feet, and then grasps the mussel with his forceps. A cruder varietyof fishing instrument consisted of a long wand, slit at the end, which grasped the mussel between the two forks.” Tay pearl fishers carried a tin cylinder, closed with glass at one end, and shaped at the other end so that a face would fit it. With this, the pearl fisher could see down through 26 feet of water to the bed of the river.
Pearls were found only in old shells, which were invariably of crescent shape and covered with wrinkles. Tam Sandys, of Alyth, the old original pearl diver of Scotland we are told, “only drew up mussels likely to contain gems, leaving the others which his experience told him contained seed pearls.”

The pearl fishing season commences in June or July, but sometimes earlier, according to the state of the water. In 1875 the water was so low and clear that the fishing commenced on May 1. The Perthslzire Advertiser for August 19, 1967. reported that a record pearl had been found by Mr. Bill Abernethy of Coupar Angus, and had been bought by A. and G. Cairncross, Jewellers, of Perth.
Mr. J. K. Cairncross is said to have stated that: “The pearl was the largest taken from the Tay in living memory. No one seems to recall such a good one of this size.” The report goes on: “A representative of a Bond Street London firm estimated the stone to be
valued at between £4,000 and £5,000. If the quality claimed was correct, it could be worth up to £10,000.”
Then, amazingly, the Perthshire Advertiser for September 2, 1967, announced: “A second super pearl has been taken from the River Tay, near Perth. Following the astounding find of the unique Abernethy pearl comes the discovery of another ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ gem.”
The latest find was bought by the Perth jewellery firm of R. W. Proudfoot from the discoverer, Mr. Donald McGregor, of Rattray, Blairgowrie. This pearl was slightly smaller than the Abernethy pearl, weighing 28 grains compared with Abernethy’s 34-i; and it is 7/16 in. in diameter, being smaller too. The discovery of these two pearls within a month was a fantastic coincidence that may never be repeated. Especially since nowadays it it is illegal to catch, kill or disturb pearl mussels. It is also illegal to sell or advertise for sale freshwater pearl mussels or their pearls except under licence from the Scottish Executive.

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