There now follows a Whitsun tide holiday special edition of this column, which, in the grand manner of Hello and OK, is picture based with little real content.
One month ago I was kindly invited to fish for a few days for salmon on the Carron, an hour north of Inverness. My employer, her son and two of their friends were my hosts, and after feeding the fish and walking the dogs in the morning, a midweek flight for an hour in orange from Bristol set me down in the middle of the afternoon in the capital of the Highlands.
A car was hired and my course plotted. Five minutes in, I was distracted by signposts to Culloden, and in the spirit of the “Butcher himself” The Duke of Cumberland (whose sausage I greatly favour) I hurried my trusty steed and made tracks for the field of battle.
The visitors centre bordering the battle field is fairly new and reasonably well done, telling the tale of the lead up to the battle that saw the end of the Jacobite rising in 1745. The price for the visitor centre was a tad toppy and compulsory re enactments grate a little when a hairy arsed Jacobite born under the only hedge in the Highlands and is all growl and spit is portrayed by a genial wisecracking septegenarian hailing from the heart of Hereford.
Visitor centre done I set out for the battle field, which can be walked free of charge and is the highlight of any visit. There are a series of guided walks and a variety of flags imparting any amount of information on the battle. The clan graves at the centre of the carnage are particularly moving, each cadaver identified by his tartan and flung in the relevant hole. Signs asking for quiet and respect, for what are war graves, were routinely ignored by a variety of visitors and the cairn at the centre of the piece marked the spot where literally hundreds and hundreds were hacked to death in close quarter fighting.
Suitably humbled and thankful that I have never had to experience battle or war close up, I sped on my way, crossing the Black Isle before turning left up a hill where the temperature dropped to freezing and for five minutes snow fell, breaks in the cloud revealed the oil rig repair shop at Invergordon and brief glimpses of the coast road.
On descent Dornach Firth, the body of water that receives the waters of the Carron, Oykel and Shin came into view, and within ten minutes I was munching the first of nine miles on the single track road that winds up the Carron valley, where I was distracted at every turn by photographic opportunities of one of the prettiest salmon rivers I have ever seen.
Many photos later I pulled up at a lodge on the Amat estate. A beer was pushed in my hand, supper was at least an hour away so,get that beer drunk boy, pick up a rod and get out there and fish. The party had caught four fish to date during the week and there was much concern over air temperature and water temperature.
Now at this point I must point out that I am fairly hopeless with a double handed salmon rod. With a single handed rod I would back myself to flick a fly most places with the other hand placed jauntily on my hip but introduce a second hand to the rod handle and my mind goes to mush. All of the salmon that I have caught have fallen to a spinner, worm, maggot or electricity, never a fish on a fly. Now, following my oddyssey north, I was presented with a 13ft double handed salmon rod, 9wt line, sink tip with a murderous monkey (I think thats what he said)on the end and required to spey cast, an action that has previously resulted in near multiple piercings and a Harry Potter scar on my forehead that aches whenever an ally’s shrimp enters it’s ether.
Slightly foxed by beer and keen to see the river, I set off, and in a further triumph for drunken blundering my fourth cast was snaffled by an eight pound salmon which careered around the pool before beaching itself five minutes later, a mass of torpedo shaped muscle and my first salmon on a fly. Emboldened by my success I fished on but no further fish followed so we returned to a fantastic dinner that featured scallops, black pudding and belly pork, to a monologue of epic proportions (think Beowulf with fish)as to how I had tamed this leviathan. Later I climbed the sunshine mountain for my first night as a successful spey caster and fly fisher for salmon.
As expected the following day saw four seasons in an hour, with bright sunshine followed by hail and snow, freezing temperatures climbed to near double figures in a matter of minutes before the wind got up and blew some more clouds in. The pools we fished were stunning and each one individually different.
The Glencalvie falls are prime territory for Tom Daley should he take up salmon fishing, although he may have difficulty sourcing some neoprene budgie smugglers, and the pools below are fished from a series of board walks that require the cutest of roll casts that was completely beyond me. Pool followed pool and created what must be one of the sternest tests for a returning salmon. The fish that run the Test and Itchen have it easy with a few hatch pools and ladders and must be relatively flabby when compared to these freshwater athletes that run the Carron.
Trees lining the bank hung heavy with lichen, a sure sign of super clean air,
Oystercatchers nested amongst the shingle and scree, Sika deer were all over the show and on a splash in a field up from the house a Bar tailed Godwit probed daily for dainties.
Towards the end of the day, I ended my fruitless thrashing with a fly, to visit a church in a neighbouring strath, built to a design by Thomas Telford in 1827 and infamous for events during the highland clearances when Landlords drove out tenant farmers whose families had survived on subsistence farming for generations, in order to make way for sheep.
In 1845 ninety people were cleared from Glencalvie, and with nowhere to go, they took refuge in impoverished shelters in the grounds of Croick church where they recorded their plight in scratchy writing on the windows. Like Culloden there is an eerie felling hanging heavy in the air, particularly as I visited alone in the perfect silence of this little glen.
Further food followed in the evening, the highlight of which was a magnificent beef wellington before I once again climbed the stairs to ponder where my salmon catching skills had failed me during the day. Was it the beer on arrival that had been key to my early success? Worth another try I suppose.
The following day, the river had risen a few inches, temperatures were good and fish were reported to be running the river. Early morning found us on the river where I saw two fish move in fast water before I hooked my second fish, a bright bar of silver that my host put at around eight pound but I had at nearer twenty. Further fish jumped, I had another touch later on and three other fish were caught by our party before I had to depart for my evening flight back to Bristol, where I drew admiring glances from some of Stelios’s tangerine clad crew (particularly Nigel) at what they were not to know was a black pudding in my pocket.