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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter XI - The Fionn Loch

I hope I may be excused if I am often guilty of asserting that Fionn Loch (the White Loch) is the best trout loch in Scotland. In one respect it is certainly superior to Loch na h’oiche, which I have extolled in a former chapter, because the Fionn Loch fish are of a much greater size. It is a magnificent loch, whether regarded from a natural history standpoint or from that of sport and scenery; indeed, the upper end has often been compared to Loch Coruisge in Skye. It was not part of the original Gairloch estate. Some time in the early forties, when my brother, the heir to Gairloch, was still a minor, my mother and my uncle (the trustees) bought the Kernsary property for him from the Seaforths, so as to give Gairloch the north as well as the south bank of the River Ewe; for, though Gairloch had a Crown charter of all the salmon rights in that famous river, it was more difficult to look after it and keep down poaching, etc., when the land on one side belonged to someone else. So in 1882, after I bought Inverewe, my brother sold me back the larger part of Kernsary, which adjoined and lay right into Inverewe, retaining for himself only that portion of it which ran alongside the river, and thus I acquired several miles of the shores of the famous Fionn Loch, sharing with the Earl of Ronalclshay the joint right of fishing in all its waters.

The Fionn Loch is some six miles in length and runs nearly parallel with Loch Maree, only that it is very much higher—viz., 538 feet above sea-level, whereas Loch Maree is only 32 feet. I believe there was hardly ever a boat on it until it came into our possession about 1845 or 1846. I think there must have been a boat of some description on its waters on one occasion, for I have often heard the story told that long ago the only scrap of cultivable ground on its shores—viz., the tiny green patch at Feith a Chaisgan—was dug and sown, and that when the harvest-time came the crop was made into a stack on one of the islands (the Eilean Fraoich) to protect it from the deer in winter. So there must have been some kind of a boat to ferry the sheaves across. I was told that once when the owners went to remove the stack in the spring, it was found so full of live snakes that they fled in terror, leaving the stack where it was !

I asked the old yeoman farmer, who was one of many who recounted the story to me, and happened to be telling it in English, if there were many snakes in the stack. His reply was rather quaint: “'Deed, yes, there waas severals of them." This snake story is a strange one, for though adders are so plentiful in many other parts of the Highlands, there happen to be none in the Gairloch district, and slow-worms (which are notoriously very slow) would not have been in a hurry to swim across those cold waters in any numbers!

At any rate, I know there was no boat on the loch when Gairloch got possession, and what a job it was thought to be, when a clumsy sea-boat had to be dragged over nearly five miles of bogs and rocks, and across a ridge of something approaching eight hundred feet high. Many a boat did we drag up to it in succeeding years, until at last I made a private road for carts and motors, with two good iron bridges over rivers, and built a pier and a boat-house up at the loch-side.

When the loch first became ours, a pair of whitetailed eagles had their eyrie on the island, still called Eilean na h'lolaire (the Island of the Eagle). It was quite small and low, and covered with little trees, but at one end a steep, bare mass of rock rose up suddenly out of the water, and on the top of this rock was the large nest. It was, however, quite accessible, and well do I remember, as a very small boy, clambering up to it, or rather to the mass of sticks of which it had been composed, and collecting no end of skulls and bones of beasts and birds, which lay scattered all around in great profusion.

The white-tailed eagles had evidently trusted entirely for their security to the fact of there having been no boat on the loch for many years, but after being robbed several times they flitted to a shelf in that stupendous precipice at the back of Beinn Airidh Charr just above Carn nan Uamhag (the Cairn of the Small Caves)—that wonderful cairn and stronghold of foxes and wild-cats, where the last of our martens was killed. When I was not more, than seven or eight years old, I was already quite a keen collector of eggs, and greatly coveted a clutch of those of the sea-eagle, which were always rare in this district, whereas the golden eagles were comparatively plentiful.

I have known only one other nesting-place of the sea-eagles on this coast, where in a sea-clifE they continued to breed till within comparatively modern times. I gave my dear mother no peace until she had arranged an expedition to the nest; it was just beyond our march, but permission having been got from our neighbour, away we went on pony-back, with an expert rock-climber and ropes, etc. Though the precipice from the pinnacle of Spidaan Moirich down to Loch an Doire Chrionaich (Lake of the Withered Grove) at its base cannot be much under two thousand feet of nearly plumb rock, the eagles had fortunately chosen for their eyrie a fairy accessible shelf near the bottom. But, alas ! on our arrival we found we were just a day too late, for a south-country shepherd from the other property, having lately got wind that eagles' eggs had a certain market value, had taken them the previous day. However, a good Caledonian bank-note, if it had Tir nam beann, nan glecinn s’nan gaisgach (the land of the mountains, the glens, and the heroes), printed on it, was fairly powerful in those days; and for a pound-note of that description my enemy, Jock Beatie (for I fear I hated him in my little heart), handed over the two big, pure white eggs, and I returned home in a kind of semi triumph on my Shetland pony's back. Just below the north end of the Fionn Loch, which is but one of the many lochs in that wild stretch of moorland, is Loch an Iasgair (the Osprey's Loch). In Gaelic the osprey is called Ailein Iasgair (Allan the Fisherman). How well I remember the excitement over the arrival at Poolewe Inn of Lord Huntingfield and a Mr. Corrance—both, I think, from Suffolk—the first egg-collectors who ever came to this country ! Hearing of the ospreys, they made at once for the loch, where the nest was built on the top of a high stack of rock rising sheer out of the water. Their valet swam out, and returned with the two eggs safely in his cap, which he held between his teeth.

I flattered myself for some time that I was the first to find in Britain, or at any rate in Scotland, a goosander’s nest with eggs, and that was in an island in the Fionn Loch, but afterwards I heard that a Cambridge professor maintained he had found one in Perthshire prior to my discovery.

A few pairs of black-throated divers still float about on our lochs, and sometimes rear their young, but sad to say they are diminishing in numbers, and many lochs where they used never to fail to breed are now without these beautiful and most interesting summer tenants. The red-throated divers, which I can quite well remember nesting on a small loch near the Fionn Loch, and also on lochs in the Rudha Reidh point, have been quite extinct for close on seventy years.

The islands in the Fionn Loch, with its heronry and the lands surrounding it, both the high hills and the flat moors, were once upon a time good sporting grounds. The late Viscount Powerscourt hired the stalking of the great Fisherfield sheep-farm, just the year before the sheep stock was taken off it, and had a grand time among the stags. Having noticed, when stalking one day, the number of blue hares on little Beinn a Chaisgean, on the north side of the Fionn Loch, he planned a small hare drive.

There were only four or five guns, and I was one of them. We crossed the loch in a boat, strode up the steep hill, and were posted along the ridge on the very top, while a limited number of beaters walked in line along the sides of the hill. When the first beater came in sight, and called out to me in Gaelic, “How many hares have you got?" I replied that I thought I must have at least fifty, as my gun had got so hot that I could hardly hold it. Well, he gathered forty-seven. Twice I killed a brace of hares with one shot, as two of them happened to cross each other. We got quite a big bag that day.

This hill-top was also famous for ptarmigan in days gone by, and William Grant, who accompanied us to St. Kilda and was my right hand during the season I stalked at Carn Mor, told me that when he^'was in the service of a sporting innkeeper at Aultbea as a boy, they often used to make expeditions to the Beinn a Chaisgean, the worthy host armed with an old flint blunderbuss. It was, he said, never a question as to,-whether or not they would get any ptarmigan, but rather how it would be possible for him to carry home what his master shot; for the latter soon made a big bag, not by firing at them on the wing, but by taking pot shots at them on the ground, thus often getting several with one discharge. I am told that now there is not a hare^and hardly a ptarmigan to be seen on those forty 01* fifty thousand acres.

A few years later, when the ground had been cleared of sheep, and the deer had had time to breed and accumulate, one could sometimes almost make oneself believe that the smoother and greener patches on the hill looked red when the sun shone on them, so thickly were they covered with deer ! On our side of the loch, though the ground consisted of only bog, rocks, and heather, it was just about the best for grouse in our big parish. Shooting over it with dogs pretty late in the season, a cousin and I got 53 brace one day, and 50| brace another day. In the year when Lord Medway had our shooting, his total bag was 412 brace, and his lordship got 100 brace in two days on the shores of the Fionn Loch, on the two beats right and left of what was then the new road. These flat moors used also to have, besides grouse, a lot of golden plovers breeding on them, with their charming little satellites, the dunlins, whom stupid people often mistook for young plovers, because they also had little black patches on their breasts. Nowadays not a plover or a dunlin is to be seen, and the grouse are very few and far between. No one seems able to explain why all these birds have died out!

The biggest wild-cat we ever caught—and we caught many a big one—was a monster we got close to the Fionn Loch. It measured forty-three inches in length. How I lamented he could not have been tamed, as he would have looked so handsome on a rug, lying warming himself before a drawing-room fire!

I was nearly forgetting the otters. The Fionn Loch is a particularly favourite resort for them, and the little Gruinord River is their highway from the Fionn Loch, and the twenty or more smaller lochs that empty themselves into it, to the ocean, which the otters much prefer in winter to the fresh water. One could not possibly imagine a more perfect home for otters than the islands of the Fionn Loch. I remember one day when fishing on it, and when right out in the middle, we saw a very young otter swimming along, which must have somehow got separated from its mother. During the chase it happened to come up near enough to the boat to be captured with the landing-net, and after keeping it for some weeks, we sent it to the London Zoo, where it lived and throve for many a long year in the otter pond.

About the year 1860 I had a delightful tame otter, which had been captured when quite tiny, and was brought up on milk. What a fascinating pet it was. It was never so happy as when playing like a kitten with a bit of stick, or tumbling about among dogs and puppies under the kitchen table, and it loved a good hot fire. I got it in April, and in the following winter I used to let it out with a very long cord in the big sea-pool of the Ewe below the bridge. One day the cord came off, the otter disappeared, and after swimming along the coast for two or three miles, came upon some boys fishing for cuddies off the rocks. Not being in the least afraid of human beings, it clambered up the rock, and began eating the fish, but the boys, who did not know it was tame and belonged to me, began belabouring it with the butt-ends of their rods and killed it. They added insult to injury by bringing the skin to me for sale a few days afterwards. How I did bemoan the loss of my otter!

My readers will agree that the records which I am going to give of the various fishermen are truly amazing. From time immemorial the Fionn Loch has been always famous for its enormous trout. As there were no boats on the loch, the old crofter population, who lived around its shores in their shieling bothies, used to catch fish by tying a cod-hook to the end of a long string, baiting it with a good-sized trout, and throwing it as far as possible out into the loch from certain points and promontories best known to themselves. They also used to spear the trout by bog-fir torchlight in the burns and the rivers in October and November.

Soon after the purchase of Kernsary by Gairloch, my uncle happened to come across the late Sir Alexander Gordon Cumming of Altyre, who was then a very keen young sportsman, both with gun and rod, and on hearing of the reported size of the trout, Sir Alexander determined to try the loch himself. Of all unlikely times of the year for trout-fishing, he chose the middle of March, when no one but himself would have had hopes of catching anything; but in spite of the odds against him he caught plenty of fish, many of which were real giants.

The old people declared there were three different species (or at least varieties) of these big trout, and gave them three different Gaelic names—viz., Clciigiomiaich (skully, big-headed), Carraigeanciich (stumpy, short and thick), and Cnaimhaich (bony, big-boned). Certainly the trout do vary a lot in shape and colouring.

How perfectly do I remember one evening in April, 1851 (when I was just nine years old), Sir Alexander sending down a message to us at Pool House, asking my mother and me to come up to the inn and to witness the weighing of the fish he had brought back that day, in case his own statements might be doubted in future years. There were four beauties lying side by side on the table of the small drinking-room, and they turned the scales at 51 pounds. The total weight of the twelve fish caught that 12th day of April by trolling was 87 pounds 12 ounces, made up thus: 14 pounds 8 ounces, 12 pounds 8 ounces, 12 pounds 4 ounces, 12 pounds, 10 pounds, 6 pounds 12 ounces, 6 pounds 8 ounces, 3 pounds, 3 pounds, 2 pounds 12 ounces, 2 pounds 8 ounces, 2 pounds.

Sir Alexander did very well on many of the other days, even in March. He was so energetic that, in order to lose as little time as possible in going to and from the loch, he sometimes put up at the Srathan Mor shepherd’s house with my enemy, Jock Beatie of the sea-eagle5s eggs. Before leaving he gave my mother an exact list of every trout he caught during this stay, with all the dates and weights. This list we always retained in our possession. As Sir Alexander had also a great name as a crack shot, we were keen to see him perform with the gun, so the day before he left Poolewe my mother and my uncle, who was then residing on his model Isle of Ewe farm, planned an expedition with him to the pigeon caves at the point of Cove to test his reputation. The sea proved too rough for him to shoot from the boat the pigeons as they came out of the cave, so he had to do the best he could from the tops of the caves, and the pigeons very nearly beat him, though he did knock over a few. But he did one thing which I never happened to have seen done before, nor have I seen it done since. A great black-backed gull, one of those cruel marine vultures, measuring sometimes nearly six feet from tip to tip of their wings, rose off a rock on the approach of the boat and soared high up over us. Sir Alexander’s gun was loaded with one of Eley’s wire cartridges, which were then the fashion, and he fired. There was a strong breeze blowing, and the gull fell straight down on to the water, though it was quite alive, and the wing was blown away in quite another direction by the wind; it had been cut clean off by the cartridge, which had failed to burst.

The luncheon was not the worst part of the outing. It was provided by my uncle, and was composed of the produce of his island. The previous day there had been an extra low spring tide, a flat, calm, clear sky, and a bright sun; and he had been out with his landing-net at the end of a very long pole, and had scooped up quantities of the most lovely oysters and big clams. So what with the wonderful butter and cheese from his model dairy and the delicious scones and oat-cakes, oysters and clams, our hero was made very happy in spite of having missed a few pigeons, and declared it was the best alfresco luncheon he had ever sat down to.

In my young days I was taken up rather more with shooting than with fishing. Owing to my living generally at Gairloch, I was far away from the Fionn Loch, and only occasionally able to make expeditions to it. Sometimes when we wanted to make sure of showing some friend a sample of the big Fionn Loch trout we would send a couple of men up the previous evening with two or three lines, each having six hooks on it and baited with small parr caught in the Ewe. These lines were set by tying them generally to a boulder, of which there are plenty in the loch standing up out of the water. One day I remember, as we were approaching the little sandy bay, where we kept the boat in the pre-road days, we noticed a great commotion on the surface of the water. One of the men said, ££ Oh, that is where we set one of our lines last night.” When we reached it there were two twelve-pounders on it. How they dashed about and jumped out of the water before we could get the clip into them! I could point out the very boulder even now, though I am seventy-eight, for one does not forget an event like that in a hurry!

Another day I was fishing with a friend of mine, and trolling along past the Eagle Island, when he caught three fish in quick succession, of 9 pounds, 7½ pounds, and 7 pounds. But the most exciting thing that happened to me on the Fionn Loch was the hooking of the biggest fish I ever saw on that loch. It was only a few years ago. I was casting with a light rod, and had on an ordinary cast with three small flies, just where the small burn flows into the loch at the Feith a Chaisgan sandy bay, when I hooked an enormous fish. Some readers might say it was just a big salmon, for both salmon and sea-trout come up into the Fionn Loch by the Little Gruinord River, though they are very seldom taken; but I am a pretty good judge of fish, and my two rowers—my late faithful friend and gamekeeper, John Matheson, who came to me when he was sixteen and I was nineteen, and lived all his life with me, and our present stalker, Donald Urquhart, who has also been all his days with us—were as positive as I was that this monster was a typical Fionn Loch trout, only quite double the size of any we had ever seen before. It jumped three times clean out of the water close to the boat, and we saw it as well as if we had handled it; but in spite of us all doing our very best to ease the tension on the line, it soon carried off everything. Without in the least wishing to exaggerate, I honestly declare that fish to have been a twenty-five pounder!

Just once (perhaps about the year 1863) I set a net in the Fionn Loch which we used in the sea to catch lythe, and got such a haul of fish that the two men who went to lift it could hardly carry them home across the moor. The biggest of the lot scaled eighteen pounds, and I sent it over to my friend Lord St. John of Bletsoe, the grandfather of the present peer, who was then and for many years after my brother’s shooting tenant of Gairloch, just to show him a sample of the trout we could catch in our lochs! I have heard of one other having been caught of a similar weight.

The last big fish I handled was one caught a couple of years ago by my son-in-law, Mr. Robert J. Hanbury. He had said that the first twelve-pounder he got on his own rod should be preserved. He was not long in getting a real beauty, and very grand it looks in its glass case!

A Mr. Byres Leake got during the last days of April and on eighteen days’ fishing in May 1,370 trout, averaging about 70 per diem ; on three successive days he caught 122, 107, and 100 fish ! Mr. W. L. Boase and party arrived at Inverewe on the 1st of June and fished thirty-eight days. They caught 2,384 trout, weighing 900J pounds, and let go between 400 and 500 which were under half a pound. I remember that one day Mr. Boase, who was himself an old man, and a friend of his, a Mr. Lindsay, who was an octogenarian, were fishing on one of our lesser lochs, near the Fionn Loch, in quite a small boat, when both of them hooked a trout at the same moment. The two fish were safely secured, and a pretty pair they were, of 5 pounds and 8 pounds. On landing, the two fish were laid side by side on a slab of rock and photographed. On the same small loch I have known of an 11-pound ferox being caught with a small trout fly. Another day a son of Mr. Boase was fishing from the bank close to the Fionn Loch Pier with three small flies, when he hooked a big fish which took him over an hour to land. When weighed it turned the scales at 10 pounds. Eight of Mr. Boase’s trout were over 4 pounds and weighed as follows: 10 pounds, 10 pounds, 9 pounds, 8 pounds, 7J pounds, 6| pounds, 5 pounds, and 4J pounds.

But perhaps the best record of all was that made by Mr. F. C. McGrady, and I give an exact copy of his own account of his fishing on p. 167.

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