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Capturing memories of Berwick’s net fishing past


Net fishing for salmon on the Tweed is a tradition which dates back hundreds of years but has almost disappeared today.

However, researchers from Newcastle University are hoping that a research project to capture people’s memories of the once-thriving industry might help revive interest in the nets in Berwick.

'Salmon fishing on the Tweed: Past. Present. Future' is a new citizen-storytelling project which aims to understand what salmon fishing means to the local community and how it could play an important role in their future.

Social geographer Dr Helen Jarvis is collecting stories via a pop-up ‘listening booth’ which captures people’s memories in their own words. These stories will be included in a book to celebrate the historic traditions, activities and employment associated with salmon fishing in Berwick.

Researchers have already gathered more than 30 stories ranging from childhood memories of dangling feet over the side of the pier waiting for the fish to be brought in, to the arduous slog of standing in the middle of the river in February working a four hour shift with every tide, day and night.

The Berwick 900 Festival, which starts this month, will provide researchers with an ideal opportunity to highlight the significance of net fishing on the Tweed. “The timing of this project is crucial,” explains Dr Jarvis. “Not only to tap into the buzz around the Festival, which has ignited a new interest in the town’s history, but also to connect to the deeply felt public attachment and sense of belonging triggered by the threatened closure of Gardo, the last Berwick fishery.

“It’s vital that we preserve the vast knowledge of different parts of the river if locally caught wild salmon is ever to be part of Berwick’s future.

“One of the issues is that much of what is at stake is relatively intangible when measured from a purely economic point of view. However, if you look at it from a ‘slow philosophy’ perspective, you have a wealth of natural assets, a rich cultural ecosystem of fishing stories, sensory experiences and heritage and social values.

“We’re finding local people coming to us with a mixture of emotions – some are looking back with rose-tinted glasses at the net fishing industry and see it as very much a thing of the past, while others are fired up and saying ‘why can’t this premium product be a part of Berwick’s future and help put us back on the map’?”

One of the two remaining net fisheries on the Tweed, at Paxton House, has had some high profile fans in the past, including Rick Stein, who in the 1990s commended the salmon’s quality and provenance. Today, it works in partnership with the Tweed Foundation to fish only for educational and scientific purposes.

The right to catch and sell wild Tweed salmon is only held by net fisheries; rod-caught salmon cannot be sold commercially, so without the nets, there is no legal source for the wider, non-angling public.

Researchers will be in Berwick’s Town Hall with the storytelling booth collecting people’s stories from 11am until 4pm on 17-19 July 2015 as part of the Tweedmouth Feast.

This project has evolved from earlier PhD research by colleague Tessa Holland into the ‘slow town’ movement. Berwick-upon-Tweed is one of four towns in the UK that is part of Cittaslow (pronounced “cheetah-slow”) a worldwide network of more than 200 small towns in 30 countries that have adopted a common set of goals and principles intended to foster social, economic and environmental sustainability.

The slow values advocated by Cittaslow Berwick, the not-for-profit partner organisation working with Newcastle University and Berwick 900 on this project, include: attracting more people to stay and live in the town because of its arts and cultural heritage; promoting economic activity and a thriving community; and providing a platform for inclusive, creative and empowering community engagement. 

Salmon fishing on the Tweed: Past. Present. Future was awarded £4,000 from Newcastle University’s Institute for Social Renewal.

Image courtesy of Berwick Records Office.

published on: 6 July 2015