In 1995, I was walking with a friend on the vast, sandy beach at St. Cyrus, a few miles north of the town of Montrose on Scotland’s east coast, when I discovered salmon net fishing. Long lines of ropes and netting, suspended from poles dug into the soft sand, the waves softly lapping around them, gave off a mysterious and evocative atmosphere. There was no-one else around, but the mark of human activity was tangible on this lonely and deserted landscape.
I made enquiries and discovered that the long lines of nets, more than a dozen of them, belonged to Joseph Johnstone & Co., a local company famed throughout the world for supplying fresh, wild Atlantic salmon harvested from what they termed stake nets. I arranged to photograph the men at their work a few days later, something which would lead me on a 15-year journey around our long and varied coastline, in search of Scotland’s last salmon net fishermen.
By that time, the industry was already in decline: catches were dropping due to various factors, some current, many historic. The prevalence of cheap, farmed salmon on the west coast was undercutting the market too, which meant the future looked bleak. An aggressive campaign by anglers to buy up the licences to net for the wild salmon was also in full flow, meaning that for me it was a race against time to locate and document a way of life which had helped sustain coastal communities for generations.
I initially concentrated my efforts on the country’s east coast, and mainly around the Montrose area, which had been Scotland’s salmon capital. I would make several trips up there each summer, and observe and record the way the men worked, from staking out the various net types at the start of the season in spring, to the daily fishing which took place according to time and tide. Their work had an easy rhythm to it and felt almost ritualistic. But it was hard graft too, and the rewards, as with all things connected to making a living from the sea, were unpredictable, especially with the decline in fish stocks.
My project, which I called Catching the Tide, would eventually be exhibited and published extensively, both at home and abroad. The work took on a momentum of its own, and it still is part of my life today. The photographs have been purchased by various archives and collections including the National Galleries of Scotland and St. Andrews’ University Library. I am still in contact with some of the men, although many have sadly passed on now. There is an ongoing Scottish Government moratorium in place at present preventing all catching of wild salmon using these traditional methods. They say it is to preserve stocks. It certainly hasn’t preserved the fishermen’s way of life. That’s been up to me, and my camera.