In the early decades of the 19th century traditional fishing methods were turned on its head with the introduction of the Scotch Weir to Ireland. The origins are confirmed by the name, and the method of fishing is typified by what remains of the Woodstown weir near the mouth of the Waterford harbour.
We've looked at the use of head weirs in the harbour before. But weirs were not a distinct and uniform fishing engine. Weirs have been in use in various forms in Ireland since the 5th century. The foremost expert was Arthur Went who catalogued not just the methods but the dispersal of them. Many names are associated with weirs including head weirs, fly weirs, bag weirs and scotch/stake weirs. And there is undoubtedly many local variations and common names. Waterford harbour was the foremost location, and the head weirs, for which we should be very proud, were considered to date from at least the arrival of the Normans. The remaining weirs form a unique, but unappreciated, fishery heritage treasure.[i]
But weirs such as those at Woodstown were anything but "traditional" in an overall sense. Although the technology was centuries old, the traditional methods were a more sustainable and controlled fishing practice, with some rules such as the Queens (or Kings) pass (a gap allowing passage of fish up or down river) dating in origins to the Magna Carta. The Scotch Weirs originated in a different time, and responded to an improved method of using Ice to keep fish fresh. The process was introduced from China by a man called Dalrymple. [ii]
The new ice preserving method resulted in the ability to transport fish over longer distances. As a result, the time honoured control over the numbers of salmon caught were no longer necessary. The Scotch weir allowed for hundreds of fish to be taken at a time, and the nets could fish all tides and all weathers (the weekend closure was still enforced however). The basic design was as depicted at Woodstown.
|A sketch of a scotch weir. note that local varations in design were common|
The scotch weirs were generally instigated by the landed gentry, who realised the vast financial killing to be made. Although traditional nets-men may have complained, initially the weirs were erected unopposed. However, the plight of the traditional nets-men, anglers and some shipping and boating interests led to parliamentary committee hearings, and court cases.
|Some fishermen at work at Woodstown with the weir in the backgrond|
with netting attached ot the leader.
Photo via Bill Irish collection in A Century of Trade & Enterprise in Ireland
Generally to no avail however. for then (as now) the powers that be were either ambivalent or wholly ignorant to the realities of the practice. At hearings the landlords could call witness after witness to say that weirs had been in use for millennia. Laws, when they came, were considered by many to be too little too late. Some of the weirs were removed whilst others were permitted to continue to fish, the Woodstown weir operated into the 1960's I'm told. Two other weirs based on a similar design, but much smaller in size, operated in the Kings Channel into the 1990's.
Today only a few poles remain of the Woodstown Weir and beyond low water, some paraphernalia remains of the netting box. The site is now two centuries old and worthy of interpretation at least.
If you want some sense of the weir fishing method practiced at Woodstown, heres a link of how it operates from present day Nova Scotia
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