Season 1875

In June I went to Dalnawillan trout fishing.

The Thurso river rises in the heights of the Glutt shootings on the Sutherland march amongst a bewildering labyrinth of flows and black morasses, hideous, and gaunt. I have seen the inside of most Scotch wildernesses, but there is nothing anywhere within the four seas—aye, take in Ireland as well—that at all approaches the plateau from which descend the Berriedale, the Halladale, the Thurso, and the northern water shed of the Helmsdale, at a height of about 1400ft. above the sea.

The Thurso, commencing and for many miles a mere burn, descends from the heights through low flats, interspersed with three rocky gorges or glutts (from which, no doubt, the name of the shooting), of from half a mile to a mile each in length, the burn tumbling through them in a succession of small falls and rocky pools; and in the lowest gorge was a waterfall or force, as it would be termed in Yorkshire or Westmoreland.

One day fly fishing up the river, as far up as the entrance to the first gorge, I tried some of the rocky pools. They were quite unsuitable for the fly, but I took a number of pretty, little, bright trout.

Talking it over with the gillies next day, they said there was no remembrance of anybody ever having taken any fish with rod and line, or any other way, up in the rocky water.

Well, I bethought myself, as I felt sure there would be fish as far up as there was water, and that something might be done with the worm worth talking about in a small way.

I was an adept in that style of fishing, having had much experience and success in fishing small wooded brooks in Warwickshire. My mode of fishing was with a three-jointed light stiff bamboo rod, bored down the middle; the line, a very thin one, passing through and out at a hole near where the hand holds the bottom joint.

When too long take off the bottom joint; no reel, simply a few yards of line running loose behind, the hook whipped to one or two feet of gut, and one No. 6 shot about six inches above the hook, having no rings, no line bagging, you could push in the point of the rod anywhere, and drop the worm by shaking the rod.

A large bag of small worms was provided, and the tackle Stewart fashion, but with two small hooks only, and pretty fine gut.

David and I started away, and were at the foot of the lower gorge by 10 a.m., David behind me; and soon the fun was fast and furious, every little fall and the pool below it, the worm no sooner in the bubbles and froth than tug, tug, tug. "Lift him out, unhook him David and bait again; no, the worm will do." Tug again; "Unhook him and bait this time." Tug again. "Well, three out of that little hole is not so bad!"

David was disgusted at messing with such trash, as he termed it, but soon even he warmed to it.

The waterfall had a nice pool scooped out by the falling water, and, standing down stream below the fall, thirty came out of that place.

It was great fun to come across water and fish in these islands that were totally unsophisticated.

We worked up and up for miles, until the burn—aye, and the fish too—began to get very small, and at five o'clock we turned back, fishing a few of the best places on our way. The waterfall gave but two more, and I expect that was the last two in the pool.

Weighed at the lodge, deducting the basket, they scaled just 23-1/2lb., and counted out 188 trout, just eight to the pound, and pretty little bright fellows they were.

David looked at them deprecatingly; repentance at being a party to anything so derogatory had come over him, and he viewed them philosophically, with the sole remark, "What a mess!"

My fishing was in low water. My son Douglas went up a few days after, meeting a rise of water, and he also had a great number, but out of places that I had not fished in low water.

The waterfall yielded none.

The burn was tried again on another day, but it was done for a season or two; as in other things in the world, you can't eat a cake and have it.

In August I took down my family party for their holidays. There would be little or nothing to shoot, a few cock birds to pick out of the broods and some sundries, of course. The boys could fish away for trout and get a few odd salmon out of the Upper Thurso and Loch More, but they were very coppery and red at that season.

During the first fortnight David and I hunted the whole of the ground, killing the old cocks out of the broods when opportunity occurred.

The increase of birds was very satisfactory, quite 150 broods on the ground, and fine broods too.

Bag.Dalnawillan and Rumsdale.
Grouse 38½ brace.
Sundries 57½ brace.

Dunbar had been very fortunate, and let Strathmore to an old connection; rather more birds had been left by the scourge on the lower beats of Strathmore than on Dalnawillan. Those beats are the best ground in Caithness, and if there are any birds there they naturally will be. Dunbar looked the matter well in the face, told the tale, the whole tale, and let it on a seven years' lease, commencing, if I remember right, with a rent of £300, increasing up to £575, or thereabouts.

The gentleman who took it knew exactly what he was about. The good years that would accrue after disease were before him.

The year after the expiration of the seven-year lease and cycle, disease was again ravaging, and there was little or no shooting for two or three years after that.

The new tenant nursed the birds the first season, killing only a few cocks or so.

In September, with one of the boys, I went over to Orkney, to try the fishing of the Loch of Stennes. We landed from the tub of a steamer that plied between Scrabster and Stromness, after a terribly bad passage across the Pentland Firth. The tide ran very strong, the wind met it, and the steamer, built on the lines of a walnut shell, rolled about in the trough of the sea.

We landed, and hiring a cart to carry our traps, tramped away to the top of the loch in Harray parish, and lodged with Peter Flett, farmer and miller.

The trout were most beautiful, equal to any sea trout, but not plentiful, anyhow very stiff to rise; they ran all sizes. Our best day to two rods was 17-1/2lb., the largest scaling 2lb. 6oz.

On one other day we had fish of 1lb. 4oz. and 1lb., and amongst our take were some half-pound sea trout.

The loch was terribly ottered by the small farmers and crofters, but with very coarse horse-hair tackle. Certainly they did not get many; but, no doubt, that put them down from rising to the fly.

The ottering was not poaching, because every freeholder had the right, and nearly all were freeholders.

I asked Flett where he got his land from. "My father," said he; "and he had it from his father, and his father before him." I dare say if Peter and I could have traced it we should have found that the title commenced with his Scandinavian ancestors, who stole the land from the Pict, who lived in an underground house designed after the pattern of an improved fox-earth.

"What is done with the younger sons, Flett?"

"Oh, they go to the fishing, or into the Hudson Bay Co.'s employment." That was primogeniture with a vengeance. I wonder what the land reformers would have to say to that.

"Flett, what deeds have you to show?"—"Deeds! what do we want with deeds?"—"Well, suppose you want to mortgage."—"Orkney people don't mortgage," says Flett, with his nose in the air.

In a few days we had enough.

We loaded our traps on Peter's cart, and returned to Stromness, looking at an underground Pict's house on the way, where perhaps Flett's ancestor had disposed of the aborigines, by smoking them, and stopping up the outlets, as you would stifle rats.

Also we saw the Stones of Stennis, which, as Druidical remains, rank with Stonehenge.

We stopped on our way at the bridge that crosses the outlet of the loch to the sea, to try for sea trout. The tide water comes up to the bridge, and a little beyond, and from the bridge to the sea was about a mile.

On the rise and fall of the tide we landed six sea trout weighing 6-1/2lb., the largest 2-3/4lb.

On the fall of the tide the sea trout stopped taking, and then the sillocks came as fast as possible. We had seventy-nine of them in little over an hour.

I was very much pleased with Orkney. The land was good, and the climate was better than that of the mainland.

There were some grouse, and, as far as I could learn, the best moor was in Harray parish, where we had been fishing.

The moor was a common, and the whole of the commoners joined in granting a lease to the tenant of the shooting. I think the rent was £35 a-year, and he took off about 200 brace of grouse, and a really considerable number of snipe and plover, and I believe it was true that there was no disease. The game sold for more than paid the rent.