If there was ever a ‘most charismatic fish’ contest, the salmon would be a strong contender. This amazing creature is surrounded by a rich web of myth and culture in Scotland and beyond.
A Scottish tale recounts how the Queen of Cadzow gave her lover the ring that had been given to her by her husband-to-be. While out hunting, the king spied the ring on the man’s finger. He stealthily removed it while the man was asleep, threw it into the River Clyde, and later demanded the ring from his wife. The king then imprisoned her, promising to release her only if she could produce the ring. In desperation the Queen asked St Kentigern (a.k.a. St Mungo), for help. He called upon one of his monks to catch a salmon in the river. The fish’s belly was slit open, and there was the ring! Kentigern is the patron saint of Glasgow, and a salmon appears in the city’s coat-of-arms.
The Celts associated the salmon with wisdom. In Irish myth the salmon of knowledge swam in the Well of Segais, and ate the magical hazel nuts that fell into the water. There was a prophecy that Finegas would catch and eat it, thereby gaining all knowledge. However his apprentice Fionn roasted the salmon and burnt his thumb while turning it. Fionn put his thumb in his mouth to cool it, and so received the salmon’s power. From that point on he only had to chew his thumb to gain knowledge of the future.
A very ancient salmon features in the Welsh tale, Culhwch and Olwen, an early Arthurian legend. Culhwch is given a series of near-impossible tasks by his prospective father-in law, before he can win the hand of his beloved Olwen. One of the tasks is to find and release Mabon, a divine child who has been imprisoned. After asking a series of wise old beasts, none of whom know the child’s whereabouts, Culhwch and Arthur’s men are directed to the oldest and wisest of the animals, the Salmon of Llyn Llyw. The salmon not only tells them where Mabon is, but kindly (and impressively) gives them all a ride on its back to the prison, where they succeed in their mission.
The salmon was admired for its power as well as its wisdom. The great Irish hero Cúchulainn was famed for springing upon his enemies with a mighty ‘salmon leap’ in battle.
Loki, the trickster god in Norse mythology tricked the blind god Hod into killing Baldur, the most beloved of all the gods. To escape the wrath of the other gods, Loki transformed himself into a lithe salmon and leapt into a pool. However Thor was quick enough to catch Loki. The taper towards the back of the fish’s body was said to be the result of Thor’s grip.
Salmon have been an important food source in many northern cultures, and for Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, salmon were a key part of their diet and culture. They feature in the stylised artwork of tribes such as the Haida and also in many of their stories. They also appear in Pictish stone carvings- although we know little about this culture, salmon were clearly important to them.
Salmon fishing is a popular pursuit in Scotland, and ‘biggest fish’ stories abound. The largest verified record was a fish caught in 1922. On that fateful day, Georgina Ballantine landed a 29 kilogramme (64 pound) fish by the River Tay. So many other records have been set by women that it has led to speculation that the male fish may be attracted to the female pheremones rubbed off on the bait as it is handled!
Even the natural history of these creatures oozes the makings of a great story. The word salmon comes from the Latin salire – to leap. Having returned to the river of their birth after years at sea, salmon determinedly swim upstream to their spawning grounds. It is truly amazing to watch them leaping up a waterfall, getting battered on rocks in the process, and then trying again and again.
Their dramatic life-cycle has been novelised in Salar the Salmon by Henry Williamson. This fictional account of the journey of a five year old salmon back to his spawning grounds offers a wonderful insight into the obstacles Salar faces: humans, otters, and more, in pursuit of his goal.
Sources & further reading
Anon, Gantz, J. (translator). (1976) The Mabinogion. Penguin: London.
Buczacki, S. (2002) Fauna Britannica. Hamlyn: London
Dunbavin, P. (1998) Picts and ancient Britons. Third Millenium: Nottingham.
MacKillop, J. (2004) A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. www.encyclopedia.com Accessed: 26 Jun. 2009
Matthews, J. & C. (1995) British and Irish Mythology. Diamond Books: London.
Sturluson, S. (2006) The Prose Edda – Norse Mythology. Penguin: London.
Williamson, H. (1936) Salar the Salmon. Faber & Faber: London.