Friday July 27, 2018

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Up North

Written by Brian Morrison

thumbI was twelve years old when my Uncle Ronnie first said to me “We'll get you up North next year”.

We were queueing in the fish and chip shop on our way home from an unsuccessful days fishing on one of the local put-and-take style fisheries which are scattered all over the central belt of Scotland. When I say we were unsuccessful, I of course mean me.

I don't recall ever seeing Ronnie not catch at least two or three fish when we went fishing and even then, he'd call that a hard day. He was anxious that I hadn't caught any. He'd been taking me fly fishing for a few years now and was worried that my recent lack of success would be causing me to loose interest. In those days of course, put-and-take fisheries, or “stocky basheries” as I now call them weren't stocked to the same levels as they are today. Back then a competent angler would approach their session with a certain degree of confidence but not necessarily assume success. For someone like me learning the ropes it was almost inevitable that I'd return fish-less more often than not.

It was now the height of summer, maybe August- and despite fishing every week since April, I'd only caught two or three trout. My recent failures were clearly causing my Uncle some concern as I'd have to assure him at the end of each trip that I'd “come back again” and it “hadn't put me off”. He didn't realise just how much I loved just being out there, with him, how much I loved just fishing- I didn't expect to catch fish.

When we sat back down in the car to eat our fish and chips with our fingers he said it again, “We'll definitely get you Up North next year”

I remember very little of what he went on to say, the steaming hot food on my lap was getting much more attention. Never the less, he talked at length while I tried to see how much food I could fit in my mouth at once. While I ate and swigged at my can of juice he reeled off place names and rivers and lochs- none of which I'd ever heard of before, but every so often I'd make out a “There's some BIG fish in there” or an occasional “I can guarantee you'll catch in this place” and so it went on until our meal had been reduced to just the papers they had been wrapped in and the drink cans were empty and crushed.

I have no memory of the drive home that day but I am in no doubt that it would have concluded with the all too familiar brief meeting outside of my house where my mother would come to meet us. As my Mum stood in the driveway, Ronnie would have told her “He was unlucky today” and “He had a few chances” which of course was exactly the line Mum would have been waiting for in order to use her much rehearsed “Go on then, how big was the one that got away?”

For the rest of the summer and in to the autumn Ronnie continued to take me fishing every weekend. I would stay over at his house on the Saturday night. If I had caught any fish that day, we would mostly talk about how much my fishing and casting had improved- If I hadn't caught anything it would be put down to bad luck and the old threads of conversation regarding “Up North” would be picked up again, gaurantees of certain success would be reissued as well as countless over romantisised tales of monster trout, salmon and sea trout would be re-told week in- week out.


In December that year I was at home in my room and heard my mother take a phone call, it was the time of night when she would normally take a call from my Gran- her mum. They spoke every day. Except I could hear it wasn't my Gran on the phone, my mum wasn't speaking with her Gran phone voice. I couldn't put my finger on it- normally, even though I was in another room I'd be able to identify who she was talking to simply by the tone in her voice. It was a member of our family or close freind, that was obvious, but it wasn't Gran- Gran phone voice is a bit sharper. There's a bit less refinement to Gran phone voice, a few more snappy sounding come-backs, but this voice- this voice was something else. This was a bit more polished, a bit more patient- it wasn't quite as fast-paced and the responces didn't have any sharp edges. It wasn't school teacher voice or parcel delivery company voice- those were much more formal- I would hardly recognise that it was even my mother speaking when she spoke in school teacher or parcel delivery company voice. We were no longer working class when mum spoke in school teacher or parcel delivery company voice. My sister and I would probably know how to ski and the family car would be a Volvo instead of a Ford Escort in school teacher or parcel delivery company voice. Whoever it was, they were not arranging the delivery of a parcel and my mum seemed too pleased to take the call for it to be one of my school teachers. She made lots of sounds of agreement which would be punctuated every so often with a yeah or a yup (yeah and yup are both words which definitely wouldn't be in her vocabulary in school teacher or parcel delivery company voice). Every now and then I'd hear her say things like “oh well, just you let me know” and “He'll be pleased about that, I'm sure”.

By the time she ended the call with “I'll go tell him just now and speak to you later” I had pushed my bedroom door wide open in an attempt of catching any last minute clues as to the identity of our mystery caller. As I stuck my head out the door I saw my mum coming down the hall towards me with a grin on her face.

“That was Ronnie on the phone- he was just asking if you would like to go on a fishing holiday with him and Darren”

“Yeah! – when?” I asked

“July- when your on School Holidays”

As winter reluctantly receded and the fresh hopes of spring arrived, I found myself slotting back in to a now familiar routine. February and March was a mixture of Salmon fishing on the River Earn and fishing for “stockies” in various rainbow fisheries. Equally familiar, was my pattern of landing a fish every second or third visit although the amount of fish I was hooking and dropping had definitely been on the increase. Come April I found myself being introduced to some local reservoirs with resident populations of wild brown trout in an attempt of teaching me “the REAL thing”. In the evenings we spent more time talking about tactics with only the odd reminiscent story of bygone captures laced in there for good measure. Now it seemed, we were looking forward- not back.

Fly boxes were overhauled, new flies were tied- not like the big flashy, gaudy ones we had used for the Rainbows but neat little flies, flies that looked more like. .well flies.
Despite their different appearance, they still had equally ridiculous names: Soldier Palmer, Silver Invicta, Blue Zulu- and who in the name of Christ was Kate McLaren?
Stupid names aside, I was taught how to tie them all, always with one of Ronnie's tyings as a reference point.

Now Ronnie it has to be said, was not my greatest fly tying critic. No matter how untidy, messy or ridiculously wide of the mark my offerings would be, when I asked for feedback he would always tell me

“Well, that'll catch a trout”, which to me is like telling an artist that his latest painting will  “cover a space on the wall”.

One evening in late spring or early summer we were joined by my cousin Darren. Being ten years my elder and living two hundred miles down south, he was more like a distant uncle. Back then, I'd only meet Darren once a year when he made the pilgrimage north and we'd all go fishing together before he journeyed back home.

That was the first time I recall seeing where “Up North” actually was on a map. Darren had brought with him, an Ordinance Survey map of the area which he would point to whilst reading aloud extracts from books by Lesley Crawford and Bruce Sandison. He produced from his luggage, magazines which had been bookmarked at certain pages. These would show full colour images of Arctic Char as well as monstrous cannibal trout called Ferox which he assured me also took up residence in some of the waters we would be visiting. Darren of course, had been on holidays up north before and had a much clearer idea of what to expect- I did not. There is no doubt that I was excited about going away but despite now having two people guaranteeing me that I would catch fish I was not overly confident that I should catch anything. I did not doubt their honesty, it's just I'd gotten so good at not catching, I didn't see why these waters would be any different.

About two weeks before we were due to set off I was told that I would have to miss the first two days of the trip. I cannoed competitively then and the first day of our Holiday clashed with a competition on Loch Lomond which I had entered. It began to look like I would perhaps have to choose which I could attend but my sister Angela stepped in at the last minute with the offer of driving me up on the Sunday after my competition- a very generous offer considering it would involve a two hundred mile drive there, an overnight stay in our caravan, followed by a five hundred mile drive on the Monday as she had booked her own holiday at a theme park in England with her then boyfriend.

Exhausted from my competition, we left Loch Lomond around six in the evening. I managed to stay awake long enough to see Perth, Inverness and finally see us get lost in the dark on a single track road near Lairg. I did not see the rescue party of Darren and Ronnie who, when we had not arrived within an hour of our anticipated time had jumped in the car and tracked our route in reverse. I later learned that they had caught up with us somewhere along Strathnaver, just twenty miles from our final destination of Bettyhill on the extreme north coast of Scotland in the county of Sutherland. It was late when we arrived so or meetings were breif before turning in for the night.

Despite the extra sleep I'd had, I still had to be woken the next morning. Whilst I was still coming to my senses, everyone was busy making preparations. Due to our late arrival, Ronnie and Darren had allowed us to sleep quite late and the morning was already well under way. Angela was preparing for her long drive whilst Darren and Ronnie were filling coffee flasks and boxes of sandwiches. Breakfast was hurried and we were quickly out on the road. We were heading west to the village of Tongue which was to serve two purposes. There, we would collect our fishing permits but also Ronnie wanted to point Angela towards a much safer road South than the treacherous road she had taken in the dark the night before.

Driving towards Tongue from the east is something quite spectacular. As you take the last left turn towards the outskirts of the village you are faced with the stunning view of Ben Loyal- Queen of Scottish Mountains. On final approach into the village the road descends and the mountain appears to rise until the only way to see it's four magnificent granite peaks is to tilt your head back and literally look up. I have looked upon Loyal many many hundreds of times since that day and yet it has never failed to take my breath away.

We collected our permits and made the twenty minute drive out to the Loch and parked up by the little wood we had identified on the map as being the closest point to where the boat should be moored. As we felt our way through the thick, lichen clad birch trees and knee high ferns- the lack of wind made it stuffy and the midges were biting ferociously. The ground was soggy under foot and laced with holes which would catch us off guard and each of us it seemed, took turns at falling over, each more comically than the last. When we did find ourselves on the ground, the biting flies were the only motivation required to spring back up to our feet and keep walking. The walk was only a few hundred yards but had taken a full ten minutes carrying all our gear as well as the outboard motor. When the last line of trees parted to reveal the first view of the loch we found ourselves standing on a sandy beach. The sun was shining and there was a nice ripple on the water although the breeze was not quite strong enough to keep all the biting insects at bay. The boat like all of the hundreds I have seen since in the Highlands of Scotland was half full of rainwater and just like all the hundreds of boats I have seen since, It was my job to do the bailing. Within twenty minutes or so we were tackled up. The boat was empty, the motor attached and we were ready to go.


Well not exactly.

You see, Darren had brought a video camera to capture our week on film. He'd decided that he wanted a shot of our heros rowing away towards their great adventure taming the wild beasts of the loch. So he set the camera up on a tripod at the mooring and hit record. We jumped in the boat and I started rowing. It was really tough rowing as the loch was shallow for a long distance out. The loch is part of a network of lochs and the interconnecting river had been filling this end of the loch up with sand from further up the system for countless millenia. I seemed to be rowing for an age before our director finally declared that he probably had his shot and so I could turn around for us to retreive the camera.

2Due to our late start, it was nearly noon by the time we were afloat. Conditions were less than ideal, the Sun was beating down and the wind would come and go but we managed enough sport to keep our minds from wandering too far and also provide some “action shots” for the feature film. We covered most of the far side of the loch, finding little pockets of fish. When there was little or no wind we would pick up the odd trout on size 12 and 10 palmers. Darren as I recall, was finding them with a muddler of the same size. I caught two good ones when the breeze got up on a red tag.
During the hottest part of the day, the trout became less cooperative so we beached the boat on a sandy part of the shore for an extended lunch break.

As we sat on the beach eating sandwiches and drinking strong, sweet coffee I began to take in my surroundings for the first time. I'd arrived in darkness last night and so had missed the last fifty or so miles in which the landscape had changed so much. I drifted in and out of conversation with Darren and Ronnie who were both in good spirit but my eyes wandered out over the glinting loch to the Sutherland mountains beyond- a picture which was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Of course I'd seen lochs and mountains before but not like this- these were somehow wilder, less domesticated than the others. There was no regimental pine forestation which seems to clad all and sundry in Perthshire, there were no electricity pylons, hydro dams or dual carriageways as seen scoring through the Grampians- indeed here, there was little evidence at all of man's intervention. Ronnie had once told me that in the far north, a dinosaur wouldn't look out of place drinking from the waters edge, an idea which until now had sounded obsurd but now made perfect sense.

I don't know how long we spent there on the shore- an hour? An hour and a half maybe? Long enough anyway for Darren and Ronnie to have a nap. They stirred when a wind started to blow from the east, bringing with it some cool sea air. We washed our cups in loch water and hopped back in to the boat. Firing up the outboard motor briefly we positioned the boat adjacent to the bank which would allow a long slow drift homeward. Taking advantage of the breeze Darren and Ronnie took turns using the dapping rod. They rose fish but connected to very few. The wet fly was still producing sporadic sport too.

After some time the shoreline swept away from us and we allowed the boat to drift straight across a large deep bay. Ordinarily we would have adjusted and re adjusted the position of the boat to ensure that we were continually drifting over the magic depth of water but no flies were hatching in the cooling wind and we were content to merely take the more direct route.

When we reached the middle of the bay, the water directly in front of the boat burst in to a flurry of activity. Like an isolated downpour of rain, an area no bigger than the boat itself and no further than twice it's length away from us started to fizz and dance- first towards us then sharply turning off to one side. No sooner had we identified the phenomenon as small grouping fish when just a few feet behind, the water exploded and a Salmon burst through the surface three feet in the air. With hearts pounding we all seemed to cast and retrieve double speed as if at any minute our rods would bend double and we really would assume our movie roles of conquering heros taming the beasts of the loch. Of course we did not- and some ten minutes without any further sightings of either salmon or bait fish had passed before normality finally resumed.

The final few yards of our drift produced two good fish to the dapping rod which felt like the right way to end the day. We'd started with two good ones early on and these two now seemed to give the day a nice balance.

I probably don't need to tell you that I had to row us back TWICE- once to set up the camera and a second time to film the triumphant return.

It was a number of months before I ever saw the theatrical cut of Darrens film. He'd made a pretty decent job of editing it all together- he'd even managed to superimpose all the names of the lochs and rivers we'd visited over the course of our week at the appropriate scenes and had even pieced together a rather fitting soundtrack. Needless to say his efforts were never recognised by the accademy nor did it turn out to be the action packed blockbuster that Darren had most likely hoped for when he first conceived the idea, but if by chance, you ever did see the film you'd see he did capture a love story- the tale of a young man falling truly, madly, deeply in love with  the far north of Scotland- a young man who some twenty-odd years later I'm happy to report is still very much in love and has lived happily ever after.


Brian Morrison has been fishing and fly tying for nearly thirty years and is happiest whilst tripping through the heather in northern Sutherland  by the side of some unpronounceable loch.


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