Jewel of the River

by Phil Baarda

Image provided by Phil Baarda

Did this one contain a pearl? I didn't know, of course, and I hoped no-one would ever find out

There's one in the water, quite a large one about the size my palm, making it perhaps a hundred years old but who can tell without lifting it out of the river and taking it apart. Which, of course, would not only kill it, but the mere handling and removing a freshwater pearl mussel out of its watery world is a criminal offence. The reason? They're now incredibly rare!

It's said that Julius Caesar came, and saw, and plundered the British Isles primarily for the quality and quantity of our pearls. Mussels have been harvested during the millennia since, up until recent times. The harvesting, though, is not sustainable. With odds maybe as low as one pearl per hundred mussels found, the prized-opened mussels die. Taking many years to grow to a recognisable size, after a complicated and chance establishment stage as microscopic larvae attached to salmon gills, and being vulnerable to pollution and siltation throughout their life, freshwater pearl mussels are so scarce and scattered their sites are secret and heavily protected.

Perhaps the same thrill seizing Caesar two thousand years ago, was grabbing me now on the banks of this Highland river. A friend had said she'd seen one and I was now peering through the rippling surface of the water, seeing a multitude of stones that could be mussels but weren't, until I saw one, sitting on the river bed only a few inches from me.

I looked around, scanning the river bed upstream and down, then further and further away, but I couldn't make out any others. After what was probably some considerable time, I stopped looking, realising this single mussel might not have any molluscid mates. This spot was, however, a new location for these remarkable creatures, and I was content in the knowing that a single siting offers hope that freshwater pearl mussels may become more resilient and widespread.

I'd seen a jewel in my local river, and knowing that was worth the keeping.

Did this one contain a pearl? I didn't know, of course, and I hoped no-one would ever find out.


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Stories are at the heart of what we do as a project and we are always looking to learn more about what the Highlands and Islands means to people who live, work, and visit here.

The connections between people and rivers, burns, and streams are timeless. Rivers bear witness to the stories, traces, and scars of historical and contemporary societies as much as the land. Inspired by this story we would love to know, what are some of your favourite rivers in the Highlands and Islands? How do you feel they represent the Spirit of the Highlands and Islands? Tell us below, we can't wait to hear from you!

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