River Conon History
Thanks to Andrew Graham-Stewart for permission to reprint this chapter from his book "The Salmon Rivers of the North Highlands and the Outer Hebrides" which provides a fascinating account of the River Conon's history:
Lower Strathconon, now an open and serene landscape of rolling farm and parkland, used to have a very different appearance. Before it was drained in the 18th and 19th centuries, most of this terrain was bleak marsh and bog; the latter played a critical part in one of the most decisive battles of the clan era.
In 1491 the MacKenzie army of some 800 men were heavily outnumbered by over 2000 MacDonalds at the Battle of the Park (Blar na Pairc) near Contin. The MacKenzies, who were on home territory, cunningly lured the Macdonalds into a quagmire; as they wallowed and floundered in the peat, thousands of arrows rained down on them, before the MacKenzie line moved in to finish the slaughter. A few MacDonalds managed to flee towards the River Conon. As the river was in spate, they asked an old woman the location of the ford. Intentionally she misled them, and they attempted to cross at the wrong point; many were drowned, and those who desperately clung to the bank had their hands severed by the sickles of the old lady and her associates. No more than 200 MacDonalds survived to return to the Western Isles, and they never threatened the MacKenzies again.
The Conon system, by far the largest north of the Great Glen, drains 400 square miles of Ross-shire’s high mountains and moorland. Bordered in broad-brush terms by the Beauly to the south, the Ewe to the west and the Carron to the north, it is supplied by a fan-like formation of four main tributaries, each between 20 and 30 miles long; they are in clock-wise order the Orrin, the Meig, the Bran and the Blackwater. The Conon itself has a course of some 12 miles from the Conon Falls, initially Highland in character before flowing through the rich pastures and arable fields to its mouth at the southern end of the Cromarty Firth by Dingwall.
The Conon was a very important source of wealth for the MacKenzies. An apocryphal story that another strain of MacKenzies (of Conan Estate) lost their netting rights in a gambling episode in the 1700s has no basis in fact. The estuary salmon netting was highly lucrative, and remained so over the centuries; the Cromarty Firth, completely protected from the open sea, is an ideal netting location. By the 19th century there was a profusion of nets up and down the firth, supplemented by in-river nets and cruives (fixed salmon traps). Between 1828 and 1837 a long legal battle was waged by Cromarty Estate against the use of stake nets by two other proprietors with land adjoining the firth. In 1838 the court found in favour of the Estate, with the estuary defined as extending as far the mouth of the firth at the Sutors, inside which the use of fixed engine nets was prohibited. This was reconfirmed by the Byelaw of 1865.
By the latter part of the 19th century, as salmon angling became more valuable, the cruives at Brahan on the lower Conon became extremely contentious. Those fish not trapped in the boxes were netted below and escapement above was thought to be minimal. In 1890 a consortium of river proprietors, wishing to maximise escapement, leased the Brahan cruives and net fishing. For the next few years there was no exploitation at this location, allowing stocks the opportunity to recover. However on the face of it the main beneficiaries were the net and coble operators in the firth. The district’s netting catch increased steadily from 8,000 in 1892 to 27,200 in 1895. In the latter year the total for the rods including the neighbouring Alness amounted to only 800.
Evidently the intensity and productivity of the nets dismayed the river proprietors, and by 1901 the cruives were functioning again. According to Calderwood (1909), as well as the cruives, "27 shots (ie nets) are fished here in three and a quarter miles of water" and "it will be readily understood that a very complete control over all ascending fish can be exercised and, except during floods or the weekly close times, fish have a poor chance of reaching the upper waters". The efficiency of the nets was beginning to have a marked impact on stocks, as in 1907 their catch was reduced to little more than 4,000; this included "150 clean fish at the first sweep" on opening day (February 11).
Within a decade the decline in stocks was "serious", threatening the viability of rod-fishings, and the river proprietors decided to act. Sir John Stirling and Lord Roberts amongst others joined forces with the Sellar family (who had the Findhorn Bay nets) and the Lovats on the Beauly to form the Moray Firth Salmon Fishing Company in 1920. They bought up most of the area’s coastal nets including those in the Conon estuary and firth, so that they could be properly regulated and operated to achieve a balance; once stocks built up after a period of little if any netting effort, the company would reactivate their operations to exploit the better numbers. This was the pattern for four decades or so before it adopted a more business-like approach. As salmon stocks started to dwindle in the 1980s, so once again the company reduced the intensity of its operations; between 1977 and 1986 its annual average catch within the firth was 502 salmon and 1478 grilse. The company’s rights in the Cromarty Firth were acquired and mothballed by the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust in 1991.
In terms of angling the Conon was historically very much a spring fishery, with fresh fish in the lower reaches from opening day (February 11); incidentally there seems to be some confusion as to when and by whose authority the opening moved to January 26. The main runs of salmon were in March and April. Prior to 1939 the lower Brahan beat (above the tidal stretch) would typically catch 150 by the end of March, and 300 by the end of April; between 1898 and 1900, before the nets were brought under some control, Brahan Castle averaged only 96 up to the end of April. Up until the 1940s Fairburn Estate, with the right bank for some four miles upstream from the mouth of the Orrin, hardly fished after the end of June, and thus in most years no more than three grilse were recorded!
The Blackwater tributary, which joins the left bank of the Conon from the northwest some five miles up from the mouth, was also a superb spring fishery; the short Middle beat (below Rogie Falls) could easily produce 500 fish by the end of June.
The system was first tapped for electricity in the 1920s when a small power station was built to harness the potential of the Falls of Conon. Then between 1946 and 1961 the whole of the catchment was exploited in the most ambitious and comprehensive hydro-electric scheme in the north. In three separate stages- the Fannich Scheme, the Glascarnoch-Luichart-Torr Achilty Scheme and the Orrin Scheme- the Conon catchment was transformed with seven main dams, 20 miles of tunnels, 15 miles of aqueducts and seven power stations.
Thereafter the character of the system was fundamentally altered. Both the Conon and the Blackwater used to be wilder and less predictable in the spring. There were major floods in 1892 and 1922. There were also four big damaging floods between 1962 and 1989- after the harnessing of the system- before lessons were learned. In the 1962 flood the Marybank to Moy Bridge road was beneath 16 feet of water. The main stem of the Conon now carries far more water on an annual basis than previously, as it receives great volumes from outwith its own catchment- the headwaters of the Carron, the Blackwater and the Orrin. Since 1989 there have been no further floods, as more water is released on a regular basis from Loch Luichart, and consequently there is enough spare capacity to hold back flood waters when required.
As the scheme developed, the Hydro-Board bought all the salmon fishing rights (including the valuable Brahan Castle fishings, held for generations by the Seaforth family)- with one notable exception: the late Sir John Stirling refused to sell the Fairburn beats, despite the threat of compulsory purchase, as he believed that in due course the fishings would actually improve downstream of the dams.
During the 1950s the Hydro-Board put into place an extensive programme of works designed to mitigate for the loss of spawning grounds and natural flows. This "compensation package" included numerous fish-lifts within dams, a large capacity hatchery and guaranteed compensation flows (the Conon no longer becomes unfishably low in summer). New fish-ladders were installed- most notably at the Conon Falls; prior to this the falls had never been surmountable, although their blasting had been considered on several occasions since the late 19th century. With these falls circumvented, salmon had access for the first time ever to the River Bran (the largest tributary) and a vast area of virgin spawning territory. There were considerable teething problems with the downstream migration of smolts, but these have now been resolved and the Bran is already making a considerable contribution to the system's smolt-producing capacity.
The Blackwater was also radically affected by the Hydro scheme. Its headwaters were dammed and piped across to the Conon. Most of the spawning burns and habitat were lost, and consequently the two dams were constructed without fish-passes. By way of further compensation a large fish trap was built on the Upper Blackwater; this was designed to capture the entire run of adult salmon returning to the Blackwater, and these fish are indeed trapped each year as broodstock for the hatchery.
Whilst the importance of the Blackwater as a fishery has greatly diminished, it is still a vital nursery area; in fact two thirds of the River Conon's annual rod catch is now landed below the junction with the Blackwater. It is probably fair to say that the tributaries have borne the brunt of the effects of the Hydro schemes. The Meig, which flows from the west parallel to the Bran and joins the Conon below the falls, and the Orrin are no longer so accessible to adult salmon.
The Orrin, the lowest tributary (two miles up from the mouth), was another excellent spring fishery; the Falls pool was, by virtue of a separate royal charter to Fairburn Estate, extensively netted and in some years it yielded 1000 salmon, with fish taken as early as opening day. The Orrin was impounded prior to the 1959 season; that year the nets took 87 and the rods three, and the following year they had one and one respectively. The reason for this dramatic decline was the amount of dirt and silt being washed downstream from the works above. The tributary was then restocked, but the outbreak of UDN in 1967 meant that it was the early 1970s before adult numbers recovered, with the net taking an average of 111 salmon and 239 grilse between 1973 and 1982. Fish began to use the four Borland passes in the dam; however the smolts could not get down, and modifications were carried out- now some smolts are descending. Netting ceased in 1988, and these days there is hardly a fish in the Orrin before July.
The Conon system's run patterns have changed substantially. The spring runs are a faint shadow of their former selves, but the grilse runs are generally excellent. Whilst the Hydro regime has contributed to the demise of the system’s spring run, other factors have contributed, including UDN and marine mortality. There are indications that numbers of multi sea-winter salmon are beginning to recover, as a result of restocking programmes. Thus the Brahan beats’ 2004 spring catch was over 70, compared to an average of 39 for the previous three years.
Salmon in the high teens of pounds used to be caught by rods in good numbers. Fish between 20 lb and 30 lb were landed on a regular basis. Heavier examples are not unknown. One spring in the early 1920s the Stirling family's German tutor, a salmon angling novice who had never caught a fish, was struggling to put out a line on the Muirton Falls Pool (now submerged at Torr Achilty dam). Somehow he managed a reasonably long cast, and hooked a fish. Realising that this was the salmon of a lifetime, old Forbes the gillie seized the rod without ceremony and 45 minutes later a cock springer of 48 lb was on the bank. In the early 1900s a baggot was caught by a rod on the Brahan water. Before it was released, it was laid out on the sand, so that its outline could be recorded. From the measurements its weight was later estimated at over 60 lb.
By any standards the magnitude of the current stocking policy is impressive. In the last ten years an average of 2,600,000 ova per annum (an astonishing figure) have been handled by the hatchery. The river board's approach is as follows: "By distributing the juvenile salmon in large numbers and at an early stage of development over the suitable nursery, they are exposed to natural selection for as long as possible in freshwater. The resulting smolts are of indigenous stock, have lived in the wild for two or three years and are well adapted to the habitat that produced them". In the last decade close to 100 miles of previously inaccessible juvenile habitat have been brought into use; this includes half a mile of a specially created “nursery channel” (completed in early 2004), with optimal habitat to support a high density of fish, adjacent to the lower river. Each year over 700 holes are dug by hand in the headwaters to create artificial redds. These continuing efforts have ensured that the Conon system remains a significant fishery, as these figures for the average annual rod catch for the main river and the Blackwater confirm:
It is fair to stress that these numbers could not have been achieved without the immense assistance of Scottish Hydro Electric, which has been freely provided on every level for four decades. The harnessing of the Conon is a fait accompli; that said, the company does everything within its power to promote salmon regeneration.
In the 1980s Hydro Electric sold off their salmon fishing rights; the company was really not set up to be riparian owners. The prolific Brahan fishings, purchased by Peter Whitfield in 1985, were successfully syndicated; consistently they now enjoy over 50% of the system's rod catch, and their annual average (1991-2000) was 986, dropping to 690 for the period 2001 to 2004.
On the netting front the Conon Board spent over £250,000 on buy-outs in the 1980s. All that remain are three bag-net operators outside the Firth and five sweep-net operators inside the Firth. Their take is approximately 500 fish a year; they have an incentive to restrict their netting to six weeks from mid-June, as the board then allows a 90% rebate on their rates.
The Conon is afflicted with a formidable and diverse array of predators. Seals have always been a problem, as Grimble noted; "their depredations are very serious". Today the population in the Cromarty Firth is close to 400, a considerable gauntlet for salmon to run, and they make frequent raids into the Conon, as far upstream as Torr Achilty dam, some seven miles inland. In 2001 a 25 lb fish was landed with no less than four large seal bites. Recently a lady angler, on the Green Bank Pool of the Lower Brahan beat, had played out a salmon and was bringing it towards the net, when it was seized and removed by a seal.
Considerable populations of pike exist in the lower Conon. There are frequent encounters with pike in the 12 lb to 14 lb class. It seems likely that the pike emanated from Loch Luichart, where in the early 1960s the Hydro Board netted a 32 lb specimen. The Bran tributary holds considerable numbers of perch. Mink are steadily establishing themselves, especially on the Blackwater. Perhaps the most unusual alien species discovered to date is a cobra; in 1999 one was found, newly expired, in bushes on Moy Island.
Recently there was an unusual case of attempted unsanctioned human predation. In 2001 a local poacher was apprehended in a wet-suit, carrying a spear gun, by the Russian pool on the Brahan water. At his subsequent appearance at Dingwall Sheriff Court, he pleaded "not guilty" and stated that he was "shooting eels in the burn to feed a sick otter". The magistrate then asked, against a background of considerable mirth, why a wetsuit was necessary in the burn. The defendant replied that the unfortunate otter was on the other side of the river, and so it was going to be necessary for him to swim across with the eels. Rarely has a court of law collapsed so uncontrollably.