ON the River Shin I could tell many
incidents and stories many of which could only be appreciated by the
artist who has not only caught many a salmon and lost not a few but
might also be of interest to the uninitiated. I believe that on one
occasion I saved an angler’s life. It happened in the following way. The
angler and myself went to a favourite spot, knowing well that the salmon
were there. On arriving all was in order and a plan made to cope with
any difficulties that might arise as it was no place where even a man of
experience could afford to take chances.
My angler, unfortunately, had defective vision, and in front of us and
around a corner was a turbulent stream with the river in flood. Soon
after his first few casts, a fine heavy salmon got hooked and after some
glorious runs and tumbling about he turned tail and off round the
corner. There was only one thing to do, follow the fish; then I came to
the rescue by taking over the rod, but as hard as I could run, the
gallant fish remained well in advance. I eventually got him stopped in a
pool at least 200 yards from where he started, leaving my angler with
the gaff to follow on at leisure. With the bend in the river I could not
see what progress he was making. The fish by this time was ready to lift
out, but without the aid of the gaff in such a place as it was, I was
Now getting anxious about my fisherman, I laid my fishing rod down and
went in search of my companion. The first thing that caught my gaze was
his burberry sailing down the river. Imagine my feelings when I caught
no sight of my man. Carrying on I finally found him clinging to a rock
with a hold that if once released meant sure drowning. I quickly got him
on to the path, a man of considerable weight and elderly at that.
He enquired “what of the salmon?” I told him my story, ending by saying
that had I known his perilous position the salmon could have carried on
to the Dornoch Firth if it cared: my first concern was his safety.
I must add that he was full of determination and would not suffer
defeat. Together we sallied forth to the fishing rod where to my
amazement the salmon was still on. I passed the rod to my gallant
fisherman and, as only the man of experience can, he soon had bur quarry
The burberry was, meantime, held up in a whirlpool on the opposite side,
and after a few attempts I contacted it with my Thunder and Lightning
fly with fly-hook intact, after which we gaily marched home, and after a
hot bath—and no doubt something else—my friend was none the worse.
I will now strike a more cheerful vein. Out one day by myself I had
occasion to pass an angler and the ever-popular ghillie. The ghillie was
complacently sitting on a rock with his pipe going full blast in a
manner that would do credit to a locomotive engine. Apparently the
angler was anything but a good fisherman, but an adept at cracking off
every fly the ghillie would put on to the cast. The ghillie’s patience
got exhausted and in sheer disgust he took up his position on the rock
referred to. In passing I noticed the angler knee deep in the river and
in his own way doing his very utmost to contact a salmon but with no fly
on the cast. I immediately drew the ghillie’s attention to the missing
link, and said: “Why, man, can’t you see that the gentleman has no fly
on?” The answer came like lightning: “Oh, let him be, he is just as well
that way.” I passed on, having enough to do to keep a straight
That night the ardent fisherman had no fish at all to his credit. On
whom to put the blame of the merits of the angler, I will say nothing,
but the ghillie vehemently protested that it was not his fault and the
companion was left to wonder the reason why.
On one occasion the fishing tenant had in his party a very genteel,
decorous little lady who one would imagine would not say “Boo” to a
goose. For a fortnight despite her best efforts she got no salmon but
lost many. Her visit ending, her host had a beautiful fish carefully
packed for her to take with her, but this could not be the same as if it
was one of her own catching. So the host asked me, providing I had the
time, until proceeding to the train, if I would take the lady to the
near-at-hand pools as a last resort to getting her what she so ardently
wished. No time could be lost, the others anglers had gone, and still
hoping, we too went to the nearest likely spot.
Just as we arrived I noticed a nice clean-run salmon come in to the pool
with a splash of contentment, and I hoped he would settle where his
ancestors before him often did. I said nothing to my lady angler for
fear it might unnerve her. The casting began not very brilliantly. As
the desired spot was a good way across the river, however, yard by yard
with the help of a favourable breeze, the lure was getting near the
mark. Just a little further, my lady, and he might be there—when behold!
in the very next cast, up my hero got and made no mistake either. Now
the fun began. The fishing rod all of a dither—or was it the lady? This
was to be her own salmon at last, but the best laid schemes do not
always come off. The salmon had other ideas, and with a wild rush up the
river he went as only a spring salmon can, the line singing as though
from a well-tuned violin.
The shore was rocky and whilst I was saying “keep opposite him” and
keeping my eye on the fish, the lady slipped and came down on a big
stone on a rather delicate part of her anatomy, gripping the line as
though in a vice. The salmon wildly sprang in the air and in the descent
broke the cast. I shall never forget the look on that lady’s face as she
lost contact and, turning round to me with a very pronounced “O, D—”
could not conceal her utter disappointment, which was not entirely the
fault of the salmon. So we had to roll up and make for the train, but
not without a good and heavy fish.
One day whilst fishing the home pool within fifty yards of the hotel
door, the scene of many glorious battles, I had with me a very dear old
lady. This angler was indeed a bonnie fisher although she could not
throw a long line. She believed in having plenty of the line about her,
however, and having coils of it near her feet, which she could never get
rid of. Salmon often take a fly when least expected, and so it happened
on this occasion. Without any warning my lady angler got fixed to what
she thought was the bottom of the river. She gave a tug, to which a
magnificent salmon instantly responded with a wild rush, and having
plenty loose line, there was no check.
The line got entangled in her good old-fashioned buttoned boots, and as
she had stood within rounds of the loose line it also got fixed well up
under her skirt. The lady’s undies, as I could now see, were not the
kind we hear so much of today, but pure warm red flannel.
The salmon meantime was attempting to break loose, but the tackle was
good—and required to be; it was hard put to! I believe it was a
Hardy—and stood the strain until at last I got my lady extricated from
what was surely a Chinese puzzle, and a beautiful fish of 25 lbs was
safely landed and all is well that ends well.
Sometimes the best of sport gets marred not only by disappointment, but
in this case by the grim reaper. One morning one of our best beloved
guests, after a heart seizure and despite all that medical skill could
do, passed away, causing very deep sorrow for truly he was a great
personality. Being of the military type he had a mind very much of his
own, but which only required understanding to learn that he had a heart
of gold and was kindness personified.
Somehow or other the ghillie and this angler could not always see eye to
eye with regard to the fishing procedure. I am not to say wherein lay
the fault. On the morning referred to the ghillie arrived, and not
knowing that anything unusual had happened set immediately about getting
the fishing gear in order. It was my lot to break the sad news and never
shall I forget the scene: old feuds were forgotten and instead could be
seen genuine sorrow. The ghillie removed his cap from his head and
turning to me said in no unmistakable words: “Och, well, he’ll not get
so much of his own way now,” putting special emphasis on the now. At the
funeral service I am certain that no one felt the passing more than did
our good Highland ghillie.
On being asked one morning by a rather impatient angler, “where is my
gaff?”, the reply came immediately from the ghillie: “Just where you
left it, sir”. And “where will the fish be this morning?” “Where but in
the river, sir”. This remarkable ghillie was liked by all anglers.
Indeed each morning it was usual to hear it said: “Who is to have his
In his company, sport or no sport, one never got wearied. In a style all
his own, whatever the circumstances, the funny side could always be
seen. For instance, on a very bright summer day in a low river the
tenant asked him: “What are the prospects today?” Pretending not to hear
and knowing well what the prospects were, he gave no answer.
But the questioner was not to be denied, and duly repeated the question.
Very reluctantly came the answer: “I am saying nothing, sir.” He, of
course, was playing safe, as the result at the end of the day proved.
Never was anything said that savoured in the least of discourtesy, but
always in the best of good humour.
On the Shin river there are two very fine spring fishing pools within a
distance of three hundred yards or so above lnveran Bridge. In high
water a hooked salmon is often inclined to rush or be carried
downstream. I have often seen salmon break away here if they reach the
bridge, which has three arches. The only hope of saving the situation is
to get the fish manoeuvred under the near arch where one can follow it
to the pool below, “Home Pool”.
I have done this many times, but on one occasion I had a most exciting
experience. I hooked a fish in the further away pool, “Smith Pool”. The
river was very high; the salmon did just as I expected. After a few wild
runs he turned tail and bolted downstream. I hoped to stop him in the
next pool, “Bridge Pool”, but it was not to be; the salmon had other
ideas. The “Home Pool” for him. I tried the old trick of getting him to
the near arch, but my best laid scheme On this occasion failed me. The
middle arch was the run selected by the noble fish.
My old friend John Ross was with me. I asked him: “What length of line
do you think is on the reel?”
He replied: “There is plenty of backing and altogether eighty yards at
“Well,” I said, “that should take the fish into the Home Pool.”
“Yes,” said John, “but what then?”
I had a quick impulse. Rather than break off, I let the salmon run,
keeping my eye on the reel, which was fast getting emptied. At last the
strain slackened; the salmon was lying quietly in the Home Pool.
We, John and myself, got what was left of the line quickly through the
rings of the rod, tied a piece of wood to the line and threw it right
into midstream. It had the desired result. It went sailing down through
the middle arch and was retrieved in the Home Pool. Getting the line
quickly on to the reel again and rolling up, we found the salmon still
on, sulking at the bottom of the pool. Now I was master of the
situation, and soon I had my quarry on the grass, a beautiful, heavy,
On another occasion I had a rare experience along with Ghillie Forbes.
In the month of February, I was fishing from the left bank of the river
in high water. Fresh fish were scarce, and all I could get were kelts.
As I was approaching the tail of the Home Pool I had a good rise.
“Another kelt,” said Forbes.
But to me it felt quite different. I thought it the genuine thing. My
companion did not give me much encouragement. In a few more minutes my
impression was definite; I had no doubt about it being a clean-run fish.
All suspicion was gone, and very carefully I was bringing the silvery
salmon to the gaff when a strange thing happened. An otter made a dive
at my fish. The fish got clear and like a streak of lightning he darted
across the pool and down the opposite side of the river.
In very high water, as it happened to be this day, one cannot follow on
the left bank. The angler can well imagine my feelings as I stood
helpless with a reel screaming as if pronouncing disaster. If the salmon
carried on over the rapids, disaster it surely would have been. I,
however, slackened off, throwing some loose line from the reel. Suddenly
the salmon hesitated. I left him quietly for a time, then put on a
gradual strain, and led my bold hero upstream but as near the opposite
bank as he could get. Eventually I got him well above me and having the
best of tackle I laid it on, and Forbes whom I was glad to have present
to corroborate this strange experience made no mistake with the gaff as
he lifted from the river a 25 lb fish with sea lice fresh from the sea.
At the Falls of Shin there is a grassy platform cut out from the steep
embankment; future generations may wonder why and how it got there. It
was constructed by order of Mrs Andrew Carnegie of Skibo for me to play
my bagpipe on when large parties went from Skibo Castle to luncheon at
the Falls, as otherwise, from the steep nature of the ground, I could
not play with any degree of comfort.
Some personalities make a lasting impression upon me, and such is my
experience of that great statesman, the late Sir Edward Grey of Fallodon,
as he then was, later Viscount Grey. It was my proud satisfaction to
have Sir Edward stay at the Inveran Hotel on occasions, on his way to
fish the Cassley river, a river which he so fondly cherished and from
which he angled, I believe it safe to say, hundreds of salmon.
Like all great men, Sir Edward was a kindly, considerate man and besides
being an expert angler he was—as is so well known—a great lover of bird
life. He understood the habits of birds as I believe no other man did. I
remember one fine spring morning at Inveran, the cockerels in the
farmyard adjoining the hotel were rather noisy, and whilst having his
breakfast I said to Sir Edward that I hoped that he was not unduly
disturbed from having a good rest and sleep. At once came the reply: “On
the contrary, it is a great joy for me to hear them.”
There is a true story told of Sir Edward. On one occasion whilst fishing
the Cassley river the ghillie drew Sir Edward’s attention to a water
wagtail which built her nest on the river bank overlooking a favourite
angling pool. From that moment until the mother bird hatched and flew
away with her bonnie brood, Sir Edward would not cast a line near the
nest, knowing, of course, how shy and timorous the wagtail is—undue
sightseeing and her ladyship would abandon her precious flock.
As I can testify from a case on the Shin river bank, I believe that Sir
Edward was well rewarded for his tender consideration for that lovely
little bird, which each succeeding spring cheers the hearts of those of
us who live in the Highland glens, after the storms of winter have
passed. The time of which I write was during the First World War,
1914-1918, when Sir Edward was Foreign Secretary, and his noble
influence and outstanding ability in those anxious days will go down in
history echoing the imperishable deeds of a great statesman and a
gentleman of rare understanding.
I have often been asked by the angling tenants to record my knowledge
and my fishing experience. I would rather refrain from this, as 1 do not
pretend to know more about the art than the many great anglers with whom
I have fished on the Shin and other rivers. But happily, as in all
spheres in life, fishermen are not all built alike and each must be
allowed to use his own methods even if this should, among the more
arrogant-minded, produce a difference of opinion. The man who cannot
agree to differ has yet, in my opinion, a lot to learn. To my mind what
is needed for the angler who has already acquired the art of how to
throw his line and play his fish is to know the different peculiarities
of the various rivers, for they all differ, and here comes the knowledge
of the local ghillie, if he knows his job.
After the angler has made himself thoroughly acquainted with his river,
let there be no commanding officer giving orders from the river bank
when a fish is hooked. It is now up to the angler to prove that he is
master of the situation, and if he fails, well, all honour to the noble
salmon, and the angler only must take the blame for what he did or
failed to do in the disaster. In the novice case, of course, the
situation is quite different, and success depends largely upon the
A lot has been said—and more will be, I am sure, written— about the
habits of salmon and how to deal with them, all very interesting, but if
the day should ever come (and I feel it never will) when all is known,
then the glorious uncertainty of salmon fishing is gone. The man who can
boast that he never lost a salmon has certainly not caught many, and so
the angler must go on living and learning until at last old age prevents
his pursuit of that sport which is second to none.
The direction of the Shin river anglers is now under the care of Mr
James Macrae who came on to the river as ghillie when old' John Ross was
still in control and should be well qualified to carry on (his most
A day’s piping on the bank of the Shin River. Those in the group are Mr
Angus Macpherson, the author; Mr Seton Gordon, Pipe-Major John
Macdonald, Inverness, and Mr Malcolm Macpherson, the author’s son.