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About the River Ythan

Location and course


The River Ythan rises at Ythanwells (approximately 800ft above sea level) near Auchterless in Aberdeenshire. The river is approximately 63 km (39 miles) long, and flows through the towns of Fyvie, Methlick, Ellon and Newburgh on it’s way to the North Sea.

Tributaries & catchment area

There are three main tributaries of the River Ythan:

  • Fordoun draining the west of Fyvie including the Rothienorman and Fisherford areas and entering the Ythan at Fyvie
  • Little Water draining the area from south east of Turriff and west of New Deer entering the Ythan a few kilometres above Methlick
  • Ebrie draining southwards from the Auchnagatt area

The river’s catchment area covers approximately 690 km2 (266 sq miles). Most of this is used for agriculture, with approximately 5 percent of scrub, heath, woodland and urban areas.


The Ythan Estuary is well known for it’s populations of wading birds, eider ducks and terns. Common, little and sandwich terns, eider, lapwings, pink footed geese and redshanks can commonly be seen there. Both harbour (common) and grey seals can also be found there.  You can explore the river and estuary using Google's streetview.

The Ythan Estuary has the following designations:

  • Special Protection Area (under the European Birds Directive)
  • Ramsar site (wetland site of international importance)
  • Site of Special Scientific Interest 
  • Candidate Special Area of Conservation
  • Biogenic reserve
  • National Nature Reserve
  • Nature Conservation Review site
  • Geological Conservation Review site
  • Site of Interest to Natural Science

The Estuary is part of  the Forvie Nature Reserve (Scottish Natural Heritage website),  more information about the history of the reserve, it’s natural heritage, land use and management is available in The Story of Forvie National Nature Reserve PDF (Scottish Natural Heritage website).

River Ythan fish and wildlife

Fish and aquatic life

Fish and aquatic life found in the river include:

  • Brown, sea and rainbow trout
  • Atlantic salmon
  • Stickleback
  • Minnows
  • Eel
  • River and Brook Lamprey
  • Pike
  • Perch

An extract from GH Nall's 'The Life of the Sea Trout' about the River Ythan is available to download from our reports page.


Animals in the river and surrounding area include:

  • Roe deer
  • Water voles
  • Otters
  • Foxes
  • Badger
  • Common Shelduck, Mallard, Teal, Widgeon, Goosanders and Mergansers ducks
  • Heron, Curlew, Oystercatcher and Snipe wading birds
  • Cormorants, Rooks and Crows
  • Pinkfoot, Greylag and Canada Geese
  • Butterflies, moths and spiders
  • Harbour (common) and Grey Seals

Images of River Ythan wildlife courtesy of Ron MacDonald

History of the river

The River Ythan’s name, may be derived from the gaelic word ‘Athan’ meaning ford. There are some old reports relating to the times of the Roman presence in the area in approximately 220AD which refer to a river called ‘Ituna’.  Highlights from the river’s history include:

Royal pearls in the Seventeenth century

Possibly the largest Scottish freshwater pearl, the Kellie Pearl, was found in a tributary of the River Ythan in the 1621. It was presented by the Lord Provost of Aberdeen to King James VI and incorporated in the Scottish Crown Jewels.
More about the story (The Independent newspaper)

Known as the Honours of Scotland, the jewels include the crown, an elaborate sword and a sceptre dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They were first used together to crown Mary Queen of Scots as a child in 1543 and then at the coronations of James VI in 1567, Charles I in 1633 and Charles II in 1651.

More about the Scottish Crown Jewels (Visit Scotland website)

Sadly, the freshwater mussels producing pearls are no longer found in the River.

Record catches in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries

The biggest fish to be caught is believed to be a 44lb (19kg) salmon caught by a Dr Fowler of Ellon 1892 in the waters of Haddo House.
A dead specimen weighing 51lbs (23kg) is reported to have been found stranded in a pool in 1895 in Haddo Waters.

Earlier reports include August 1760 when 250 salmon were caught in one haul, all except 10 were reported to weighed more than 30lbs (13kg). And in July 1755 there is a report of mammoth fish was landed measuring 4’4” (132cm) x 27” (68cm) and weighing almost 70lbs (31kg).

Ythan Estuary and the Forvie Nature Reserve in the Twentieth century

The Ythan Estuary was incorporated into the Forvie Nature Reserve (Scottish Natural Heritage website) in 1979. The Estuary area comprises some 976 hectares of sand dunes, tidal mud flats and water, providing habitats for large numbers of birds including: ducks, waders, sea birds and geese as well as numerous plant species, butterflies, moths and spiders and marine life.

More information about the history of the reserve, it’s natural heritage, land use and management is available in The Story of Forvie National Nature Reserve PDF (Scottish Natural Heritage website)