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Sketch Book of the North
With a Cast of Flies


"Get up, man; get up! Look at the morning! What florious sunshine! What mists rising on the loch!"

And, indeed, the fresh morning air through the open window, and the flood of rich sunlight falling on the opposite wall of the room, are enough to dispel all lingering drowsiness. Up, then, for a refreshing plunge in the deepest pool of the river, breasting the brown depths with the exulting strength that is born of the air of the mountain, and casting up, with waves of the sweet murmuring waters, a high-tide mark on the white stones that are hot already with the sunshine! Up for a stroll before breakfast along the warm Highland road; to hear the cuckoo calling across the valley, and, at the door of the byre, the sighing of the patient kine and the soft plash-plashing of the milk in the milking-pails! Cool yet is the air of the corrie as it comes from the waterfall, and all the mountain-side is musical with the far off call of the grouse Under the rich leaved plane trees there is the hum of bees at the green hanging blossoms, and from the meadows by the flyer come the bleatings of a thousand lambs. Appetite comes here keen as a knife if one but stands a moment on the sunny doorstep, and the morning meal is enjoyed with a whole-hearted zest that brooks no scantiness. Indeed, if there be healing power anywhere on earth for the wasted body or the sorrowing soul, it is to be found here among the hills. Who can long be sick at heart with that glory of valley and sky about him? and who frail of step with his nostrils full of the clover scent and his tread on the springing heather?

The newspapers have to be got at the morning train, and it is curious to see how the jaded folk who have been travelling all night in the close carriages from the far south open wide the windows to let in the mountain air, and begin to revive like flowers that have just been watered. Enviously they look at the sunburnt school-boys, who have come panting along the line, and whose faces compare all too well with their own pale features. The letters, too, have to be waited for at the village post-office. It is universal supply-shop for the countryside as well, so other business can be transacted while Her Majesty’s mails, a very small parcel indeed, are being sorted out. Then—for there is nothing needing attention in the correspondence—away for the loch side! It is too fine a day to waste at the displenishing sale up country, though gig after gig has passed carrying thither farmers on the lookout for bargains. A fair breeze has sprung up, and a cloud or two are moving across the blue, so there is the chance of a fair day’s sport with the fly. Bring, then, the rods, and put some provender in the basket, for there will be no coming home for dinner if the trout be taking.

The pleasantest road to the loch will be the path along the mountain side, and old John McGregor can be requisitioned as boatman, by the way. Yonder he is, under the flowering gean-tree, mending his garden wicket. An easy, comfortable life the old man lives with his many-wrinkled, bright-eyed old wife, on their "wee bit bield and heathery moor." In that snug, thatched little cot they have reared a stalwart brood—sons whose strong hands are tilling their own broad acres in the West, and daughters in southern lands, about whose knees are springing, sturdy as seedling oaks, the true materials for future nations. But old John and his wife will be beholden to none of them yet, and when his little croft has been planted for the summer and his peats cast on the moor, when the cow has been turned out to the hill in the morning and the calf tethered in the narrow paddock, he is always ready to take an oar on the loch. His broad-eaved Balmoral bonnet and his rough homespun coat are green with long years of sun and rain; but the head and heart below them are as hale as ever. He is full of anecdotes about the last laird and his feats with the salmon-rod, and it takes a long day of wind on the water to tire his arm when the trout are rising.

Quick, though! There is a cloud just now before the sun, and a fish or two may be got while the shadow is on the loch. It was a mistake to coil up the fly-casts in the tackle-book, for the gut will take some wetting to straighten it out again. It is better to keep the flies round your hat. There, push the boat off; the water is fairly alive with leaping minnows in the shallow bays, and if the bigger fish be only as eager there will be plenty of sport. Try a cast or two first across the burn mouth; a good chance of something lies there, for the trout wait in the running water to seize any food the stream may bring down. The boat can drift broadside to the wind, so that it is possible to fish both from bow and stern. Bring your line well up behind, and then with a turn of the wrist use the switch of the rod to send the cast out, fair and straight and light, before you. Take care, though; do not begin to work the line before the last fly has touched the surface. The day could not be better, with that ripple on the water, the wind behind, and the sun in front. Hardly an effort is needed to send the line out, and it is possible to put the tail-fly on the very spot where a trout has risen. See! here is a little fellow. What a splashing he makes as the line draws him up to the boat! The spring of the rod itself will lift him over the gunwale. There! you have another; a char, by his sides of gleaming silver and copper.

Whirr! Ah! here is a fellow worth catching; two pounds at least, by the weight on the rod. How the singing of the reel as he makes off gladdens the heart! There he leaps, for the third time; he is off with a rush, firmly hooked, surely. "Haud up ye’re p’int !" shouts John in a terrific whisper. "It’s awa’ below the boat! Ye’ll lose’t; an’ we’re clean a’most—the boat’s a’ but clean!" It is an exciting moment; but the hooks have not fouled the boat, and the fish’s freshness is spent. Slowly he is drawn in, showing the white of his sides. Now with the landing-net! There! he is safe on board—"A gey guid fish," according to the cautious critic. Then comes the inevitable story. The old man "minds ae nicht" here at the burn mouth. There was a party of three. It was a fine night, but dark, and they kindled a fire, when, whether owing to the light or not, they got a great basket of "as fine trout as ye’ll see."

But the sun has come out again, and, as the ripple is not very strong on the water, there is no great chance of doing much with the fly for some time. Something might be done with the minnow, however; so it can be let out with a long line and trailed down the loch.

Down the loch! By the little shingly bays where the swan is preening her plumage on the margin, while her lord floats near, admiring; where the keen-winged, little sand-martins are skimming bank and water, and the quack of wild duck is to be heard among the reeds; past the lonely farm, with its weather-stained roof, at the foot of its own wild glen—a place for life to linger and grow sweet and gather memories, a place for the growth of strong love or deep hate; and under the black crag that rises a thousand feet sheer against the sky, making a mile of cool darkness with its shadow amid the hot sunshine of the loch:—it is like the fabled Voyage of Maeldune. Then there will be the return in the evening, when the sun has set and the clouds roof the valley as with rust of gold; up the silent strath as the mountains grow dark, and, under the shadow of Ben Shian, the still river, like a pale-green thread, reflects its own clear space of tranquil sky; to the quiet village where there will be supper by lamplight, and the recounting to interested listeners the day’s exploits.


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