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Reminiscences of the Lews
Chapter II - Prospecting the Lews and the Callernish Inn

IT was a fair, beautiful Sabbath mom, that first day of my acquaintance with the Lews; but I confess we did not make the use of it we might have done! All I did was to go on shore to call upon Captain Burnaby, then commanding the party of Royal Engineers employed in the survey of the island, to inquire about his father, who had come up with us in the steamer, and had suffered horribly from seasickness all the way. And if the visiting the Lews had been productive of no other pleasure than the great intimacy that took place between myself and Burnaby, deep indeed would be my gratitude to the said land. More of this hereafter. I was not struck much with anything about Stornoway except the smells. We were then about the end of June—the heart of the herring-fishery season. It was very hot and dry weather, and those acquainted with the mysteries of herring-curing can imagine the balmy odours proceeding from the curing-houses and their accumulations. If you wish to sojourn in the town of Stornoway, do not choose this particular season of the year for doing so.

Monday morning came, and with it the factor—or rather, as he is grandiloquently called, the Chamberlain of the Lews,—arrived, John Munro M'Kenzie, the model of his class, a straightforward gentleman, as sharp as a needle; not to be outwitted, and no outwitter. His name will long be remembered in those parts. He has long been removed to another sphere of business, where, I am happy to hear, he is doing well for himself and his family. With him we started to prospect the shootings. First we tried the northern, or Gress quarters, as they are called. I cannot say much for the drive to Gress, or for the romance of the scenery. Whenever you come across the Minch, that and the mainland hills beyond it form a beauty of their own; but the island here of itself is not beautiful. Gress House stands well over the sea bay, but it was then a dirty hole; though I believe now it is much improved. I remember well a discussion about the rent of the house—£50 per annum— between M'Kenzie and the then proprietor, being cut short by F. M. saying, “I would not take £50 per Annum to live in it.” There was an end of that shooting, though it is of great extent, and a good deal of grouse ground; five or six good stags were to be got there then, if properly managed. There used to be some very good snipe ground on it, and a nice little river—the Gress—which, when in good water, had plenty of sea-trout and some salmon. So we returned back to Stornoway, and the next day, or the one after, started again to prospect the Sovai and Aline shootings.

Soval is about nine miles from Stornoway— the lodge, I mean. This is most unfortunately situated for the shooting—as, indeed, Highland lodges often are, and the accommodation was then so wretched, so totally inadequate to our wants, that we declined it at once; though in other respects it might have answered, for there were many things about it we liked. But more of Soval hereafter.

We proceeded on to Aline, twenty-three miles from Stornoway, at the extremity of the Lews, and on the confines of Harris. Then, indeed, as we advanced farther up, or rather down, the country, and neared Harris, it improved in appearance—extremely so from the time Loch Seaforth opened, and the grand panorama of the Park and Harris hills expanded. The lodge of the Aline shooting stands oyer Loch Seaforth, looking down towards the Minch, on the bounds of Lews and Harris, and of a soft summer’s evening, on a fairer or more lovely spot never did the eye of man rest. The sea-loch, without a ripple, at your feet; Glen Scarladale’s dark side, falling down upon its shores; and Cleisham towering into the evening mist, with the peaks of Langan Glen and the other Harris hills clustering round, form a scene that often and often have I passed hour after hour looking on, and thanking God for such a sight and the power of enjoying it. There are parts of the south-west of Ireland— Kerry, to wit—scarcely to be surpassed in beauty; but Loch Seaforth, on its proper day, has, in my eyes, no rival. The scene had the same effect on my two comrades, and before we retired for the night it was decided that, as far as the Lews was concerned, it should be Aline or nothing.

But then here came a difficulty. The authorities were very anxious to let the north shooting, or Soval, but wanted more or less to keep Aline—and no wonder. The Park, which was part of the Aline shooting, though it was not a forest—for it was let as a sheep-farm—had plenty of deer upon it. There were deer, too, on Lewid and Cameval, the hills adjoining the lodge. The grouse shooting—if the disease, of the existence of which we were duly informed, had not done mischief—was fairly good. There was good sea-trout fishing, with occasional salmon, in the different lochs. The lodge—for Lewis lodges—had some sort of accommodation. Altogether, as things went, it was the best thing in the island. They offered us Gress and Soval shootings on the most moderate terms ; indeed, we might have had them for what we chose to give. But we stuck to our text, and took Aline for seven years, specifying for certain things to be done there before we took possession, and while this was doing R. M. and I were sent to the Callemish Inn, there to locate ourselves and fish the Grimesta river and lochs and the Blackwater. F. M. having business on the mainland, returned thither.

It was a queer place that said Callemish Inn, then—the dirtiest little den it was ever my misfortune to locate in. With the exception of the inns in Stornoway, and one small house at Dalbeg, it was the only caravanserai in the Lews. It was an exertion to hold on to the hard, slippery, black horsehair chairs; the beds not inviting; the food, when you arrived without notice, not of the first order. The mutton —generally good in Scotland—what Highland mutton where they smear hard can be—an outward sort of thick rind, like that of a wild boar, with a thin layer of fat between it and the all but invisible lean that adheres to the bone, and that thin line strongly impregnated with the taste of the smear. But it is of the chickens I have the strongest remembrance. "We had a couple for dinner the day of our arrival. We tried our hands and teeth on one: no impression. The next day, the remaining untried gentleman was sent out for our luncheon. We tried him cold, with the same success as the day before. We handed him over to the Highland keeper, who, after various futile endeavours, passed him on to Snow and Muggro, our two dogs. They had been refusing porridge in disgust for days, and, though half famished, could not- break up that singular bird. But for a cold lobster (and that none o? the best), I do not know what would have been the consequences of that particular day.

Fortunately, we caught plenty of sea-trout. In all Highland inns there are eggs and good preserves, and in this there was a wonderful servant, who made all those curious compounds called scones, that alone are made in the North, from meal, or barley, or flour, or Heaven knows what. A female was that servant, and she was the only one about the premises that ever seemed to me to do anything. She was both housemaid, parlourmaid, and washerwoman,—nurserymaid and lady’s maid, too, for she was sister to the hostess of the inn, who was generally occupied a great part of the year in either producing or nursing babies. Poor, dear Mrs. M’Leod! I was nearly the death of her in one of the frequent visits I afterwards made to her house. Her husband insisted on my prescribing for her one night when she was very ill, and the doctor had not yet arrived from Stornoway, sixteen miles off. Among my various reputations in the country, I had one—that of being a good medico. She was writhing with pains in the stomach, and I prescribed the hottest of brandy-and-water. Fortunately, my patient rebelled against the mixture, and, in the meantime, the veritable man, dear old Dr. Millar, arrived, and prevented the absorption of any stimulant, which, in her state, would probably have killed her; and I was forbidden to practise—upon females, at least—in future. And yet, with all its drawbacks, many is the happy hour I have passed with Burnaby in that small parlour. It was a delightful fishing station. The Grimesta lochs and river were about two miles off, to the mouth of which you rowed up Loch Eoag; the Blackwater river about the same distance.

The Grimesta, with its different lochs, take it all in all, is the best fishing in the Lews for sea-trout; and the different salmon-casts in the lochs, where the stream runs from one to another, are very good. The river itself, between the first loch and the sea, I never thought much of; for, though you may, and do, catch fish in it (by fish I mean salmon), yet, as a rule, fish do not rest in these short, rapid rivers. Indeed, except in very full water, there is not depth enough for them to lodge; and, generally speaking, fish do not take while running—at least, I never found them do so. I attribute the superiority of the salmon-casts in the Grimesta lochs to those of any of the other lochs in the Lews, to their being supplied with a very large body of water, as they form the outlet of the extensive and fine Loch Langavat, that receives all the waters of that side of Harris that run into Glen Langan; and the Grimesta has this advantage, that there is spring fishing in it, provided the weather is not too cold, and there is no snow on the hills or in the water. By spring fishing, I mean that you may catch fresh salmon in the Grimesta in the spring—not kelts or foul fish, of which you may catch any number, if you choose to devote yourself to such ignoble diversion. Why it has this superiority I cannot say, only that it has it. I have caught three or four spring fish in a day in the Grimesta.

In the Blackwater, two miles from it, I never caught but two spring fish in twenty years, and in the Laxay I do not think I ever caught a dozen spring fish in the same space of time. I am no great believer, from experience, in spring fishing anywhere, though no doubt it does exist; but there is none, that I could ever find, in the Lews, except the Grimesta. The Laxay I believe to be a very early river, and the fresh fish there begin running in December, or at any rate by Christmas, just as they did in Killamey; and the run of salmon is over by the 'middle or latter end of March. Sea-trout are plentiful in the Grimesta, but they do not run large—not so large as in the lochs in the Park—nothing like so large as those in the Harris lochs, which are the best I have ever seen. At the time that I am speaking of, Hogarth had the net fishing of the Island of Lewis, and his bag-nets had effectually done, their work—so effectually that, at the expiration of that season, he begged to be allowed to give up his lease, as he had fished out the island, and would be a heavy loser if held to it. This resignation the proprietor wisely and generously accepted; but, as far as salmon were concerned, the mischief was done. I do not think that, during the-month we were at Callemish, we killed above three or four grilse. The Blackwater, about two miles off, attached to the Soval shooting, we never tried, as it was very low; and Hogarth’s fishermen— and no men knew better—assured us there was little use, for they thought there was not a single fish in the river. However, more hereafter about the Blackwater, as it passed into my possession when I took Soval.

The fishing in the Grimesta lochs is of course mostly done in boats, which to many is a great drawback, the generality of anglers preferring river fishing from the banks to loch fishing in a boat. No doubt, the endless varieties of a river are most captivating. You may, if you like, fish a loch from the shore; but I do not like it. Fish generally lie in a loch along the shore on which the wind blows; at least, sea-trout certainly do, and grilse, and very often, particularly if it is blowing hard, very close in shore. Now, if you cast from the shore in the teeth of the wind, to a certain extent your fish rise on a slack and bellied line, not the best form in which to hook them effectually. Having learnt the casts pretty well in many of the Lews lochs, I went to some expense in building out piers to command the different casts; but, somehow or other, I never did much from them or from the shore. But, then, I do not pretend to be anything but an enthusiastic—I never was a good—fisherman; and I must say this, that about one of the best and most successful I ever saw in my life, Sir James Matheson’s piper, never fished a loch but from the shore, and always laughed at me and my boat, and nobody knows the quantity of fish he has killed in his life. I myself, despite this celebrated man’s opinion, confess to being very fond of dancing about in a small coble, well held by a good oarsman, who knows the casts and how to hold his boat to them, which is all the battle, otherwise your line is slack over every rising fish instead of taut. And for wildness, I think of a rough day, in a wild mountain loch, with plenty of squalls, the rush of a fish and the bringing him to bay are no trifling excitement, particularly if the fish are game. I have had harder fights with a good 14 lb. fish in the upper lake of Killarney than ever I had with a river fish; but, then, those said Killarney gentlemen were the gamest fish I ever had to do with. Surely, however, this will be conceded, that it is wilder sport fishing a loch than a river in a boat, and there are many rivers that in places can only be fished from a boat. All this, however, is matter of opinion. In my experience of Lews fishing, fish fight much harder in the lochs than in the rivers; and for a very simple reason—the rivers are so small and narrow that fish have no room to rush and run about. In the lochs they have; in neither, however, are they very combative. As a rule, too, the fish do not run large, or, rather, did not run large; though of late years, owing to my plan of introducing artificial floods, they have much increased in size. Also, wherever rivers run much through peat moss—and in the Lews they run through nothing else—I have invariably remarked that fish, after they have, been a few days in the fresh water, get dull, and have no fight in them.

But to return from this long digression. We remained about a month at Callemish, where we disported ourselves indifferently well, and then left it. Poor dear old dirty place! As a hostel it exists no more, and in its stead a very comfortable one has been built at Garrynahine, some two miles on the road to Stornoway, and kept by an excellent host and hostess, Mr. and. Mrs. Morgan, who put you up well and comfortably at very moderate rates.

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