Georgina Ballantine


The most famous woman angler of the last century is undoubtedly Georgina Ballantine. Her record 64lb Tay salmon has been the envy of male piscators ever since she caught it on October 7th 1922, and they have, not infrequently, attempted to play down and belittle her triumph in devious, male-like ways.

An angling friend, Mick Glover - master rod-builder and repairer - kindly sent me a copy of a letter, written by Ms Ballantine that tells the full story of her capture of this memorable fish. The letter was given to Nigel S Fallon when, as a young man, he and his father, a consultant at Perth Royal Infirmary, visited Georgina in 1968. Here it is. Read it and weep, gentlemen, and pay tribute not only to a remarkable fish, but to a remarkable woman.

Landing of the Record Tay Salmon 7th October 1922 (rewritten Oct 1927 by request of W. A. P. Lyle of Glendelvine).
“Hello, are you there? Hurry up, you will have to fill a vacancy today, there is a message from Glendelvine to say that the laird won't be down". Feverishly the household duties were performed that morning, and as I raced up the river bank to join the boat how I blessed the laird for having a headache! A whole day's fishing on a glorious sunny autumn day, how I rejoiced to be alive! But such feelings only an angler can appreciate.
To some the chief attraction of fishing lies in its uncertainty, to others the fascination lies in the solitude of the surroundings, the fragrance and beauty of the woods, the songs of the birds and the enchantment of running water. Where the angler worthy of that name can deny it to be the finest sport in the world?
And what of the boatman? One thing is certain, that a good deal of the angler's success - or failure - depends on the efficiency of the man on the oars. The oarsman that day was one of the finest anglers who ever cast a salmon fly on the waters of the mighty Tay - my father- but alas will never cast again. In addition to him was Melvin, who is blind of one eye and takes size 9 in boots. At tea time, we returned home with three salmon, so by then my arm was accustomed to the 'feel' of a heavy fish and my ear attuned to the birling reel.
As the clock would go back one hour that night and fishing days were nearing an end, we decided to continue till dusk. Melvin knocked off, my father and I refreshed ourselves with tea and leisurely towed the boat to the top of the Boat Pool, a favourite haunt where the stream is rapid and the current broken. As is customary when harling, two rod were used, the fly "Wilkinson" on the right and the silver minnow or dace which I played, on the left. We swung the boat out as the October sun hung low over Birnam Hill and a few turns at the neck brought no result. As the last beams of the great crimson ball shone directly in the eyes of the fish there came a ‘tug’ upon the line which I was playing, a sharp strike and the connection was established.
Then began a Homeric battle. He was hooked well out in the stream above Bargie Stone and after a few moments of very ordinary play, we decided to land him at the broken bank behind Bargie - on the Murthly side - the slack water there being an advantage. But the fish's plans and ours did not coincide. Whirr-r-r. An alarming amount of lie was torn off and the reel screeched as it had never screeched before and the fish careered madly downstream and down, down, following the fish we were compelled to go.
After this first furious rush, 200 - 300 yards, the fish lost its bearings and came to a sudden halt close to the north bank. By that time, however, I had retrieved about 100 yards of line and had him well underhand, though my arm ached desperately and my left forefinger was cut in an effort to check and regulate the line. Here, we were in the act of landing, when the fish rolled in to the end of the boat, thus affording an opportunity for gaffing.
Had a third party been at hand to hold the boat, the fish undoubtedly would have been gaffed in the space of ten minutes. Without delay, however, he righted himself and sailed off majestically, ever after showing a marked disinclination to come to close quarters. He again elected to go downstream and ran out in a line with the north pier of the bridge. A moment of frightful anxiety followed when he threatened to go through the between the piers. But he chose to favour us and the Bridge was safely negotiated.
We were now out of the boat and following the fish. He meanwhile keeping about twenty yards from the banks, but showing a tendency to get further into the current. Twilight was fading fast, so father thought it wise to run back and fetch the boat, while I hung on the "refractory beast" who kept advancing and retiring at intervals, but inclining always downstream. Again boarding the boat, we endeavoured to get round to his other side. But that seemed to only to spur him on to further effort and though we worked with him for fully half an hour in midstream he showed no signs of weariness.
He then settled down to intervals of sulking, giving an occasional dive and shake of his head. This period was a steady solid fight for victory between man and monster. I suggested pelting him with the stones in the boat but got shot cuttings - "Na, na, will try nane o' thae capers". Eventually we manoeuvred him to the opposite side, where in the darkness the trees of the Island stood silhouetted against the sky and where it now seemed as if we were doomed to spend the night.
Tiring of sulking the fish began to jag, each jag running like an electric shook through my spine ... What language can describe the phases we passed through in that hour; apprehension, hope and nightmarish fear. Would the line hold, was the cast frayed, was the fish lightly hooked, would the rod top straighten out if a heavier strain was put on? Unspoken thoughts such as these passed through or minds. Victory or failure was at hand, the next few moments would see the happiest or most miserable of human beings.
Though utterly exhausted, sheer determination kept me from giving up the rod, as tighter and tighter still the order came and nearer and nearer came our quarry. By changing my seat to the bow of the boat and keeping the rod in an upright position, father was able to feel with the gaff the knot at the junction of the line and cast. Gauging the distance by the length of the cast ... (3/4 yds.) the stroke was delivered and a wriggling monster was heaved over the seat into the floor of the boat vigorously flapping his tail.
Again, what eloquence could do justice to such a moment in one's life, better left to be imagined. He was hooked half a mile up the river at 6.15pm: it was now 8.20pm and quite dark; two hours and five minutes of nerve-wracking anxiety, thrilling excitement and good stiff work. One thing was decidedly in our favour, we were mercifully ignorant of the size of the fish. From start to finish, he never showed himself above the surface. That he was hefty we could well judge from his weight, but nothing over 35-40 lb was anticipated.
He proved to be the fish of the season, the fish of many seasons, the second for the British Isles. As we had no spring balance capable of coping with the fish's weight, two passers-by were hailed to carry the "beast" slung on a pole to the Boatlands Farm. In the presence of a number of people it was it was carefully weighed on a listed stulyard and turned the scale with bump at 64lb ... half an hour after capture. Though slightly copper coloured the fish was in good condition and fresh run as sea lice were found still adhering to its tail.
It was gifted to P.R.I. [Perth Royal Infirmary] by W Lyle where it was relished by both patients and staff. A cast was made at P D Mallochs and now the fish displays its lovely proportions at the Mansion House of Glendelvine were it is looked upon as one of the sporting treasures. An expert's reading of the scales showed that the salmon had not spawned previously, had spent two years in freshwater as a parr, three years in the sea and would have been six years old in 1923. J Arthur Hutton, the celebrated author of The Life History of the Salmon, mentions in his volume that the "condition-factor" of this fish works out at 40.6.
The salmon, a male fish, weighed 64lb, had a length of 54 inches, girth 28½ inches, head 12 inches and tail 11 inches. The river level on the gauge was 3ft. The catch that day (7th October 1922 was four fish weighing 127lb: 64lb, 25lb, 21lb, 17lb.
When Georgina’s salmon was displayed in the window of PD Malloch's shop in Perth, she stood at the back of the crowd who had gathered to admire it. Two elderly men were particularly overawed by the size of the salmon and Georgian heard them talking: "One said to the other, "A woman? Nae woman ever took a fish like that oot of the water, mon. I would need a horse, a block and tackle, tae tak a fish like that oot. A woman - that's a lee anyway." She said, “I had a quiet chuckle up my sleeve and ran to catch the bus." 

Bruce Sandison
is a writer and journalist and author of nine books, including the definite anglers' guide, 'The Rivers and Lochs of Scotland' which is being revised and updated prior to republishing.

He contributed to 'Trout & Salmon' for 25 years and was angling correspondent for 'The Scotsman' for 20 years. Sandison writes for the magazine 'Fly Fishing and Fly Tying' and provides a weekly angling column in the 'Aberdeen Press & Journal'.

His work, on angling, Scottish history and environmental subjects, has appeared in most UK national papers, including 'The Sunday Times', 'The Telegraph', 'The Daily Mail', 'The Herald', 'Private Eye', 'The Field' and in a number of USA publications.

Sandison has worked extensively on BBC Radio. His series 'Tales of the Loch' ran for 5 years on Radio Scotland and was also broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and on BBC World Service. His series, 'The Sporting Gentleman's Gentleman' and his programme 'The River of a Thousand Tears', about Strathnaver, established his reputation as a broadcaster.

Sandison has had extensive coverage on television. He wrote and presented two series for the BBC TV Landward programme and has given a number of interviews over the years on factory-forestry, peat extraction, wild fish conservation and fish farming.

Sandison is founding chairman of 'The Salmon Farm Protest Group', an organisation that campaigns for the removal of fish farms from Scottish coastal and freshwater lochs where disease and pollution from these farms is driving wild salmonid populations to extinction.

Bruce Sandison won 'Feature Writer of the Year' in the Highlands and Islands Press Awards in 2000 and in 2002, and was highly commended in 2005. Bruce lives near Tongue in Sutherland with his wife Ann.