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A Highlander Looks Back
Inveran — Angler


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 useless.

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 safely landed.

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 countenance.

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 company today?”

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 least.”

“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, clean-run fish.

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 ghillie.

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 interesting occupation.


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.


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