Friday July 12, 2013

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A Paean To Loch Thom

Written by Ian Cramman

thumbHere is a wee quiz for the pub-quiz ‘kings’ amongst you. Prizes of imaginary Blue Peter badges for anyone who can tell me which of these is the odd one out and why:-

- infamous real life ‘Pirate of the Caribbean’, Captain William Kidd,
- a venerable football club, founded in 1874, which counts Sir Stanley Mathews, Joe Jordan, Jimmy Cowan and Tommy Lawton among its ex players,
- Victor Meldrew (well, Richard Wilson anyway),
- Lockerbie Bomber Abdel Bassett al-Meghrabi,
- the late, great, Chic Murray,
- the poet WS Graham (often labelled ‘Scotland’s Dylan Thomas’),
- Polar explorer ‘Birdie’ Bowers (who perished along with Captain Scott); and
- pioneering inventor and engineer James Watt

Got it anyone? Easy really, the odd one out is Mr al-Meghrabi because, while all the rest hail from the town of Greenock, he is the only current inhabitant (though a reluctant one ‘at Her Majesty’s Pleasure’). For a relatively small Scottish Industrial town I think you will agree that this is quite a roll call of genius, comedy and the ‘mad bad and dangerous to know’ (to quote the famous description of Byron).

Founded somewhere around 1592, Greenock’s name has nothing to do with any “Green Oaks” - despite local legend and popular song. In fact, my research (amazing how posh a Google search can sound) reveals that it comes from the Gaelic for 'sun' (grian), perhaps grian-aig (sunny bay) or grian-cnoc (sunny hill). This, as anyone who has ever been there outside of the maximum allocated 3 sunny days a year will testify, is quite incomprehensible! A final Greenock ‘factoid’ is that the town was the port of departure for the ships that made up the disastrous second Darien expedition to Panama in 1699. This empire-building fiasco bankrupted the Scottish Government and major landowners of the day and directly led to the Act of Union with England eight years later – sorry guys!

At this point, I am sure, some of you are wondering if you have clicked on “The Online Gazetteer of Scottish Post Industrial Towns – this week the letter G!” by mistake, but bear with me! What I am getting at here is that Greenock is known for many things, but not particularly its wild trout fishing. However, this isn’t a broonie desert by any means. Yes the area has a ‘healthy’ population of small stocked ‘bow waters, but above the town are extensive moors liberally sprinkled with long established reservoirs, big and small, that are chock full of native piscine gold. Chief amongst these waters has to be Loch Thom, where many moons ago my delinquent mates and I would head to on days 'skived off' from school. There we taught ourselves the basics of the ‘noble art’ and got hooked on the simple pleasure of hunting trout with an artificial fly.

1 Loch Thom has been Greenock’s water supply since the early nineteenth century. It was named after engineer Robert Thom (a Rothesay lad from ‘doon the water’) who designed the scheme which created the reservoir from the pre-existing Shaws Water and delivered water and power to the once numerous local mills via a long aqueduct known as The Cut. The Shaws Water Joint Stock Company was incorporated on 10 June 1825 with capital of £30,000 and the scheme was officially opened on 16 April 1827. The loch is about 2.4 km from north to south and lies at an elevation of nearly 200m. Along with the later Gryffe Reservoirs and a further thirteen smaller reservoirs nearby, these waters provide almost 650,000,000 cubic feet of water supply.

2 While Greenock has an attractive outlook over the Clyde towards Argyll, Ben Lomond and the Arrochar Alps, it has to be admitted that the town itself won’t win many beauty prizes. The former shipbuilding town, which grew as a major port and industrial centre in Victorian times, has a tough, gritty edge not much blunted by the re-development and regeneration schemes of recent years. However, just a couple of miles away over the other side of Shiel and Dunrod Hills where these waters lie, you could be millions of miles away from any urban conurbation. Just remember not to dally when crossing notorious Dunrod Hill - In the mid 1600s the last of the Lindsay family of Dunrod Castle, at the foot of the hill of that name, was reputedly a warlock in league with the devil and a regular consort of the many local witches. A verse still in local folk memory goes;

“In Auld Kirk the witches ride thick
And in Dunrod they dwell;
But the greatest loon amang them a’
Is Auld Dunrod himsel.”

But, I'm straying again. The point is, these lochs are a valuable and well-loved facility for the local angler and on any given day, there will always be a quiet corner or bay in which to lose your cares for a while. The Greenock and District Angling Club runs Loch Thom and the scatter of smaller waters immediately to the North, with other Clubs controlling the Gryffe and remaining waters. The G&D stock Loch Thom each year over the winter with a supplementary one-off batch of broonies, so the fish are a mixture of wild and introduced. The satellite waters have been only sporadically stocked over the years and so the fish in these are predominantly wild. The average Loch Thom fish is a standard Scottish half-pounder, with regular three quarters fish, and the occasional one of a pound or more. Occasionally though a real ‘lunker’ is caught and I remember a trout of over six pounds coming from the main Loch in 1986. Some of the smaller waters can also produce a surprise and no. 7 (Yetts) Reservoir has always had the reputation of holding some big but dour beasts. Catch it on the right day though and you never know…… I once had a three-fish bag of nearly five pounds there one summer afternoon during a fall of beetles, when a small, twitched black foam beetle was bringing up some of the big boys – pure magic.

3 My own favourite patterns for the Loch are predominantly traditional. I like a sparse Blae and Black with a slim wing and soft starling hackle when black buzzers are about early on, and a similar style Greenwell’s when olives are on the water. A Blue Zulu is always worth having on the top dropper in a blow. There can be good sedge hatches on summer evenings and locally there’s a long tradition amongst the old boys of fishing well into darkness with big fussy ‘moth’ (sedge) patterns - often taking good baskets of the better than average troots. Lying amongst well watered (despite the town’s name) heather and grass moorlands these waters see a lot of daddies come the back-end which can lead to some exciting top of the water sport.

As to good spots – well the beauty is in finding your own hot-spots. I have personally never done well in the area of the main dam and the steep rocky North-West end of the loch but otherwise I'd say try wherever takes your fancy. The East shoreline from Routen Burn bridge north up to and past the island is always popular with its bays and points but it’s not hard to find a quiet spot anywhere away from the road.

For permits, hints and tips on flees and tactics, a good selection of gear and info on other waters nearby, the best advice is to see Brian in the Fishing Shop, 24 Union Street, Greenock, 01475 888085 - who'll see you right.

4 The celebrated Greenock poet WS Graham also clearly appreciated Loch Thom and its surroundings and one of his most famous poems was written about and named for the water:-


And almost I am back again
Wading the heather down to the edge
To sit. The minnows go by in shoals
Like iron filings in the shallows.

(From 'Loch Thom')

So, the next time you are in the Greenock area with a few hours on your hands, don’t forget that rod in the back of your car. Head over the hills for a few hours peace and quiet on the moors – just keep a 'weather eye' out for witches and pirates!

I’ll leave the last word to the poet of this moor who seems to best catch the mood and stark simple beauty of the area:-
And there we lay halfway
Your body and my body
Over the high moor. Without
A word then we went
Our ways. I heard the moor
Curling its cries far
Across the still loch.

(From 'Letter VI' by WS Graham 1918-1986)

Ian Cramman was born in Helensburgh in 1970 and first picked up a fishing rod shortly thereafter. His interest in fly fishing started as a child living in Kyle of Lochalsh and shows little signs of diminishing after nearly thirty years of obsession bordering on mania. Mainly based overseas these days, Ian tries to get back to the North West Highlands as regularly as he can. However, he can often be found wandering the shorelines of muddy lakes and rivers in strange out of the way parts of the world, fly-rod in hand, vainly pretending to be in Assynt to the bemusement of any passing locals!



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