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Bill Abernethy, who found Scotland’s largest freshwater pearl, dies aged 96

Bill Abernethy.

Bill Abernethy, Scotland’s last pearl fisherman and the man who gave his name to the largest freshwater pearl found in Scotland in living memory, has died aged 96.

In 1965 he uncovered the pearl while fishing on the River Tay, which he and his father, Robert, had worked for decades.

It became known as the Abernethy Pearl, was stored at Cairncross the jeweller in Perth, and secured Bill’s place in history.

The Abernethy Pearl, also known as Little Willie.

However, his friend Doug Allan, one of the cameramen on masterpieces such as Blue Planet and Frozen Planet, has revealed the pearl was not Bill’s favourite.

That honour was reserved for a pearl Bill found in the River Earn that had almost translucent qualities.

Doug, who worked as a diver with Bill between 1973 and 1975, said: “The Abernethy Pearl was big but it was not the best one Bill found.

Doug Allan on location in Canada.

“He took one from the Earn which I believe was incorporated into a piece of jewellery presented by the City of Perth to the Queen Mother.

“It was something special, beautiful salmon pink in colour and you could almost see through it. The Abernethy Pearl, also known as Little Willie, was big and perfect but not as subtle as the one found on the Earn.”

Bill’s ashes are to be scattered on the River Conon where Bill fished and close to Nairn and Culloden where he lived in later life.

Doug, currently on a speaking tour of Scotland, said: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful circularity if a few wee grains of Bill’s ashes found their way into a mussel and formed the nucleus of a new pearl. I’ll lay odds it would be a lovely gem.”

Bill’s ashes will be scattered on the River Conon.

In the early 1970s, Doug answered an advertisement in a magazine: “Diver wanted for interesting work in Scottish rivers.”

Doug had just graduated in marine biology from Stirling University and was looking for adventure rather than further studies towards a PhD.

He went to meet Bill at Stanley Mills near Perth and was tested on his diving skills.

“Bill told me he always did this because he had had a few chancers in the past who clearly had never dived, one he almost had to rescue.”


The pair formed a great working relationship. Doug spent time living with Bill at his Coupar Angus home and found he enjoyed a simple life.

He had cardboard rather than carpets and owned land on which he allowed a farmer to graze his animals in return for vegetables. He was close to being self sufficient.

On fishing trips away from their base, they would sleep in the back of Bill’s estate car.

Doug remembers the depth of Bill’s knowledge of rivers and pearl fishing.


“Two things about Bill were that he knew the rivers where the best pearls were, and he knew the shapes of the shells to look for.

“This meant that we only had to take a small number of shells, which caused virtually no disruption to the natural populations in the river.

“Bill taught me to look for two classic shapes of shell.

“He called one a Backrig with its pronounced ridge down one side of the shell, and the other was a Humph ‘n’ flatrun.

“If we came across a Humph ‘n’ flatrun there was a 90% chance of finding a perfectly shaped spherical pearl in it.”

Bill never revealed where in the Tay he found his famous pearl.

Pearl fishing was outlawed in 1998 because of concern for the numbers. Fewer young mussels were establishing themselves in the rivers.

Doug said Bill blamed this on deteriorating water conditions in the rivers because of fertiliser run off from fields, and he also had his own theory that salt washed off roads was a factor too.

“Bill loved and cared for the rivers and he was greatly saddened that the pearl was now being threatened,” he said.

In the early 1990s, the Abernethy Pearl was at the centre of an ownership dispute between Bill and Cairncross, where it had been stored since the 1960s.

A court found in Bill’s favour and the jeweller agreed to buy the pearl for an undisclosed sum.

Bill never revealed where he found the pearl or how much he was paid by Cairncross but it is estimated the pearl is now valued at nearly £200,000.

A 1992 news report about the end of the Abernethy Pearl legal dispute.

He fished for pearls from before the Second World War until the ban came into force.

Many of his pearls found their way into jewellery made for the Royal Family and the Queen is said to have a brooch containing Tay pearls found by Bill.

Over the decades he travelled all over Scotland, fishing the Tay, Isla and Spey among many other rivers but was always circumspect about the exact locations.


His knowledge was so great that he knew the best spots to find pearls and was often trailed by amateur fishermen on his travels.

A friend of Bill, who has asked to be called by her first name, Sandra, said when he worked in the north of Scotland, he was often followed.

“When he was not sleeping in his estate car, Bill stayed in guest houses and the owners were often asked where he was fishing but he had won their trust over many years and they never gave away information.”


He was born in Coupar Angus but in later life moved to Nairn and then Culloden. One of the reasons for the move, said Sandra, was the vibrant country dancing scene in the Highlands of which Bill had a great love.

Until his sight deteriorated several years ago Bill, together with Sandra, of Inverness, and a group of friends, was still attending dances around the Highlands.

Bill was educated in Coupar Angus but it is unclear if he went on to Blairgowrie High School for secondary education.

What is certain is that in his early teens he joined his father and uncle pearl fishing on the Tay and Isla.

Bill Abernethy with a mussel in Glen Esk, Angus.

Bill’s father was famous in his own right. In the 1920s he is said to have recovered pearls worth £2,000 at the time from the River Don.

The only interruption to Bill’s pearl fishing career was war service with the Merchant Navy.


Sandra, of Inverness, said: “Bill did not speak about his war service but he did speak of being in hotter climates.

“We later found out that he was on a vessel dropping US troops on Anzio beach in Italy. He also said he should not be alive because a torpedo went through the bunk he had just vacated. That is all he shared with his friends.”

After the war Bill, who never married, returned to pearl fishing with his father.

He said of his famous find in 1965 that he knew there was going to be a pearl inside but it was twice the size he expected.

Amazing find

He wrapped it in a dock leaf to prevent it being scratched and held onto it for a while before taking it to the jewellers who were stunned at his find.

Bill and Doug Allan remained great friends and kept in touch throughout the rest of Bill’s life.

When Doug was awarded an honorary doctorate from St Andrews University in 2010, Bill was his guest.

Then, two years later in the BBC documentary, Wildlife Cameramen At Work, Doug introduced Bill as one of his guests.

Country dancing was his other of Bill’s passions. He attended dances around his home in Coupar Angus, Dundee and Highland Perthshire, then was a regular at events across the Highlands.


After he retired, he bought a plot of land in Nairn and built his own house.

Sandra said he led a quiet life, kept bees, grew his own vegetables and was known for healthy eating.

“He did not talk a lot about the Abernethy Pearl but he was a man with a great knowledge of a lot of topics.

“Bill was a very kind, quiet and genuine man who had a lot of friends and enjoyed a laugh and a blether.”