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Pearl Fishing

Pearl Fishing

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1998 Pearl Fishing


The Travelling Community

Record Breakers

Pearl Fishing

£10,000 find in River Tay

Although freshwater pearl fishing is now illegal there is a pearl on display in Perth known as the Little Willie Pearl straight from our own River Tay.

Since Roman times, Scotland’s rivers, including the River Tay, have been known for Freshwater Pearl Mussels (margaritafera margaritafera).  Some historians believe that the exceptional quality of Scottish freshwater pearls was one of the reasons why the Romans invaded Scotland. In Ancient Rome pearls were highly prized and worn by Roman citizens to show their social status.

Today, due to overfishing, poor water quality and habitat damage, the Freshwater Pearl Mussel is in serious danger of becoming extinct. Legislation was introduced in 1998 making pearl fishing illegal.  The freshwater pearl mussel is now a protected species.  It is illegal to disturb, injure, take or kill freshwater mussels. It is also against the law to sell or advertise for sale freshwater pearls even if they were collected before the ban was enacted. Anyone witnessing suspicious activity in or near a river that may have freshwater pearl mussels is advised to make an urgent call to Police Scotland on 101.

Before the 1998 legislation, poaching freshwater pearls or ‘pearlin’, along with agricultural work such as berry picking, and basket weaving was a source of income for members of the travelling community as can be heard in Adam MacNaughtan’s folk song “The Yellow on the Broom”:
‘I’m weary for the springtime when we tak the road aince mair
Tae the plantin and the pearlin and the berry fields o’ Blair.’

Coupar Angus man William Abernethy, who learned his skill from his father, was the last professional pearl diver in Scotland. In 1967 in the River Tay he found a very special pearl now known as the Little Willie Pearl.  

Cairncross Jewellers in Perth is one of only two jewellers granted a licence to sell pearls sourced before 1998.  The Little Willie Pearl has been displayed there for many years.  Recently the pearl has been taken from the display and is being protected from the light in a dark safe.
The Freshwater Pearl Mussel has an unusual and interesting life cycle involving a number of stages. Following fertilisation of the eggs small larvae called glochidia develop. In summer, each female can release between 1 and 4 million glochidia, but only a small number of these will survive. Within 24 hours glochidia must attach to the gills of salmon or trout or they die. The following summer, the young mussels drop off the host fish and bury themselves in the river bed where they remain for around five years until they are large enough to survive.

Freshwater Pearl Mussels can live to be over 120 years of age.The mussels live on the beds of clean, fast flowing rivers where they can bury themselves in coarse sand or fine gravel. They feed by drawing in river water and ingesting fine particles of organic matter. An adult mussel can filter more water in a day than the average person uses to shower. This helps to purify the river water which can be beneficial for other species such as salmon and trout.

 Another very famous and extra special Scottish Freshwater Pearl can be seen on the Scottish Crown, which is on display along with the Sceptre and the Sword of State in the Crown Room at Edinburgh Castle. The base of the Crown is made from Scottish gold and the rest of the Crown is encrusted with rubies, diamonds, amethysts and pearls.  One of those pearls is the Kellie/Kelly Pearl, the largest pearl ever discovered in the history of the Scottish pearl industry. It was found in 1621 in a tributary of the River Ythan in Aberdeenshire. The Crown of Scotland was the centre piece of the ceremonial opening of the Scottish Parliament on 1 July 1999.

For more about the Freshwater Pearl Mussel visit (Fast Forward to 1.01.42)
or watch the YouTube videos - Pearl Fishing(1961)British Pathe and Freshwater Mussel Life Cycle – Pratt Museum

It is with great sadness that we learned of the death of William Abernethy on 26 November 2021 at the age of 96.

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