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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Robert Buist   26 February 1868


26 February 1868.

Dear Sir,

I duly received your Note of the 17th.1 to which I would have sooner replied but waited to see a friend who takes a great interest in our operations here, & whom I might compare notes with. We concurred in observing that it is some time before we can discover the difference of the sexes, but when the Keeper of the Stormontfield Ponds, who feeds the young fish every day, comes to town, I will try what he has observed and write you.2 I think there is something in my little Pamphlet wherein you may see as to the curious and anomalous nature of the young Salmon.3 If you have not seen my little book, I will be glad to send you a Copy.—

In regard to the other part of your enquiry, I have to say that both my friend and I have had the best opportunities to know that male Salmon do fight very keenly for possession of the females. The opportunities we had of doing so were excellent. At one Perth Bridge the river runs directly north and south, and a fine Spawning Ford is in the river close above. The level November sun strikes through the spacious arches straight upon the Ford, so that people standing on the Bridge can observe what is going on below, in the glare of the sunshine, framed by the dark shadow of the Bridge: that and the strong sunlight make objects still more distinct on the field below. There are busy scenes going on. We observe first the female fish settle on the ford, or what we call in Scotland the redd. A large male fish appears at the same time, and then the female begins to dig the gravel: no sooner do these two come together than other male fish begin to gather around them and endeavour to get to the female. The first male flies out to drive them off, and is constantly so engaged while the female is employing herself in spawning.— While the combat is going on, the spawning bed is infested by small trouts (of upwards of a pound weight), who seem to pick up ova at every turn the female takes, and what between the driving off of the males and the trouts, it appears to be wonderful that the eggs can be impregnated at all.—

This proves that male fish do fight, and if one large fish meets with another, “then comes the tug of war”, which may account for the numbers of large-sized dead male fish found in our rivers at the end of the Spawning Season.— As to the attachment of the fish, the only inference we can draw is that the first couple are the selected, but from what we have seen going on, they seem to have no more mutual attachment to each other than those of the canine species. I know little or nothing about other fishes. You are welcome to take notice on my authority of what I have said on the Salmon and if I can give you any further assistance on that point, I shall be happy to do so.—

I am Dear Sir | Yours truly | Robert Buist

CD annotations

1.1 I duly … Copy.— 1.8] crossed pencil
2.1 In … above. 2.5] crossed red crayon
2.4 At] opening square bracket red crayon
2.5 The level … going on. 2.9] crossed blue crayon
2.9 We observe … redd. 2.10] crossed red crayon
2.10 A large] opening square bracket red crayon
2.10 A large … Season.— 3.3] crossed blue crayon
2.13 The first … spawning.— 2.14] scored pencil
3.3 As to … do so.— 3.9] crossed red crayon


CD’s letter to Buist has not been found. CD had been advised to contact Buist for information on salmon (see letter from W. B. Tegetmeier, [before 15 February 1868]).
The Stormontfield breed ponds were established in 1853 next to the River Tay, about five miles north of Perth, for the purpose of artificially breeding salmon; the keeper was Peter Marshall (W. Brown 1862, pp. 29, 39).
Buist refers to his The Stormontfield piscicultural experiments, 1853–1856 (Buist 1866). CD’s copy is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.


Brown, William. 1862. The natural history of the salmon, as ascertained by the recent experiments in the artificial spawning and hatching of the ova and rearing of the fry, at Stormontfield, on the Tay. Glasgow: Thomas Murray and Son.

Buist, Robert. 1866. The Stormontfield piscicultural experiments. 1853–1856. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas.


On the pugnacity of male salmon during the spawning season.

Letter details

Letter no.
Robert Buist
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 82: B76–7
Physical description
4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5937,” accessed on 19 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 16