In 1922, Miss Georgina Ballantine was fishing at Caputh on the Tay with her father, a ghillie, when she hooked a 64lb Salmon. She landed the largest Salmon ever caught with a rod and her record still stands to this day. Fishing was once viewed as a male dominated pastime however, over the years women have embraced the sport and put their stamp on it.
One of them is lady angler Claire Mercer Nairne who is a mother of 3 young children, a farmer’s wife and runs Meikleour Fishings in Perthshire. Claire and her husband, Sam, own the Meikleour estate. It was first established as a family business in 1362. Nowadays, the estate is around 4000 acres, 2000 of which are farmed directly and the remaining being forestry and tenancies. Carrots, potatoes and cereals are their main crops. In 2014, they took ownership of the Upper Islamouth and Meikleour stretch of the Tay.
Claire said: “I have a particular love for the river Tay, this is the first thing I see in the morning when I open my window, and a fascination for its iconic salmon.”
No stranger to fishing, Claire spent her teenage years on family holidays in a fishing village on the Atlantic coast in France enjoying sea angling. She moved to Meikleour in 2006 and fell in love with salmon fishing. However, she found it difficult setting aside time to practice her fishing as she and Sam had three children very close together so most of her time was devoted to bringing them up.
The female influence on the Tay at Meikleour is widely acknowledged in the river’s archives. Sam’s great grandmother, Lady Violet Astor of Meikleour, was a recognised sportswoman and passionate angler and in the 1950s she was first to introduce motors on the Tay boats.
Claire shares Violet’s passion for the river and feels strongly about it and the conservation of the fish, she said: “Those of us involved with the river can make a difference, it is our future and we must protect the salmon for our children or they will not be able to enjoy the sport we have now. We have a duty to give back to the river.”
“Managing the fishery with a team of ghillies and seeing the business growing as well as the river habitat improving is very rewarding. The wild salmon fisheries are about to go under a lot of changes, their management is being reviewed by the Scottish Government. There are good things for the river Tay but there are some uncertainties as well. This is one of the reasons that motivated me to put my name down for the election on the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board As the wild fisheries board, established in the 19th century, is being forced to evolve, I thought that having the voice of a woman was already showing that they are changing.” It is thought Claire is the first woman appointed to the board since the 1880s.
Claire and her team have worked hard to pull together elements of the estate. “We bought the hotel, the Meikleour Arms, in 2013 and few months later, in 2014, the Meikleour and Upper Islamouth fishery and reunited both of them with Meikleour Estate. We wanted to make the salmon fishing more accessible, more flexible, and wanted to attract novices as well as experts. We have made extensive improvements to the beat and can offer anglers a wide choice of boat and bank fishing and accommodation.”
Being hands-on is very important to Claire. “To improve our newly acquired business I needed to understand it. I love to get out fishing as often as possible and want to improve my angling skills so I have been working with a casting instructor.” She has also hosted a number of ladies fishing events including a charity day to raise funds for ‘Casting for Recovery’. The UK charity provides an opportunity for women whose lives have been profoundly affected by breast cancer to gather on a retreat in a natural setting and learn the sport of fly fishing. Claire is keen to introduce more women to fishing, she says: “It is a very gentle, relaxing sport so ladies of all ages with little or no experience can take part and enjoy. We are very well set up to welcome ladies to Meikleour with our two well-appointed fishing huts complete with all the mod cons. We also have a choice of accommodation available in the East wing of the historic Meikleour house, the Meikleour Arms hotel or in the estate’s holiday cottages.”
Claire’s feminine touch runs through the estate, she continues: “As a mother I inevitably have this need to nurture the place and from the pillow cases in the bedrooms to the wild flower border next to the fishing hut, this is obvious, there is an obsessed woman behind that!”
In the spring and summer months ospreys take up residence on the estate and are often seen hunting and nesting in the tall trees. Roe deer can be seen on the bank. The estate is a haven for wildlife and has one of the most beautiful river settings on the Tay. Next time you drive over the ancient Kinclaven Bridge look out for an elegant, well dressed French lady casting her rod out across the river to catch a gleaming bar of silver.