Guddlin : An age-old technique of tickling fish

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Davie Donaldson
University of Aberdeen

Guddlin : An age-old technique of tickling fish

Nawken have deep knowledge of Scotland’s landscapes and importantly the foods that can be found there. Fishing was consistently described as one of the main methods of getting food from the landscape, with many families reliant upon salmon and trout populations. An interesting method of fishing was described in the art of ‘Guddlin’, where Nawken would kneel down at the riverbank and using only their hands they’d fish for salmon. As Nawken were often materially poor, as well as travelling light – this artform was preferred by many.

This method also spoke to a larger Nawken ontology, that animals and humans are spiritually linked, therefore any animal’s death should be at your own hand and in close proximity – that by being personally invested in such a way gave more respect to the animal you were about to eat. Throughout conversations with Nawken elders they commented on the ‘disrespect’ that modern farming had for the landscape, and how they had distain for salmon fishing as a sport. Elders would explain how they felt their hereditary rights to fish salmon had been degraded by a class-based prejudice; that they couldn’t understand how people could ‘own’ salmon and that families treated as poachers had been sustainably fishing those same locations for centuries. The feeling among Nawken was that whilst landowners may ‘own’ places on paper, no place could be truly owned and that Nawken had the right to feed their children from the land and thus ‘poaching’ was not a crime in Nawken eyes. one elder explained;

“the fish don’t touch the ground, they move through the water as the clouds move through the sky – nobody can claim they own the clouds, can they?”

One Nawken elder, Jimmy Williamson, described to me his first experience of what may be viewed by non-Nawken eyes as an example of ‘poaching’. He recalled when he was around 5 years old, how his father used a snare on a stick to catch a salmon on Arkinglas estate in Argyll, before preceding to tie the large fish around Jimmy’s waist. Jimmy remarked “we were very hungry…we needed that salmon that day, because we’d walked from Inverary to Cairndow – 14 or 15 miles.”

This worldview has often caused conflict to arise between the Nawken people and authorities.


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Sincere thanks to the Nawken tradition bearers who took the time to share their experiences and memories of fishing. Specifically, Jimmy Williamson and Dave Donaldson, Nawken Elders.