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Wild Life in the West Highlands

THIS river flows in a northerly direction, winding from its source in a bleak and high-lying region of the north through a pastoral country, becoming more highly cultivated and populous as it approaches the sea. As I recall it, about the middle of its course, it is already of some magnitude—such a river as the salmon-fisher may usually cover without wading, but by no means to be forded, even at summer level, save at infrequent places. To the eye of the fisherman it is a perfect stream; deep pools break into foaming rapids which again flow on in glassy ‘glides,’ or widen out into broad gravelly shallows—throughout diversified by boulders and stones, great and small.

The little inn that is our resting-place stands on its bank at the end of the village street where the bridge carries the main road across. Here, under its high arches, the water ouzel, year after year, brings out its brood in perfect safety from the most enterprising urchin. This cheery little bird is our constant and welcome companion, bowing and curtseying on some mid-stream stone. Should we be able to watch him from a higher level, as he dips below the surface, we shall see him, as it were, flying through the water, stemming the strong current with his powerful little wings. Anon rising in a calmer corner, he floats high and buoyant on the water like a tiny duck, then diving again, continues his pursuit of the aquatic insects that form his food. It is pleasant to think that few are now so ignorant as to persecute this harmless little creature.

This river is noted as being one of the most prolific of trout-streams, excelling not only in the number but also in the size and beauty of its trout. It is a sight to be remembered when on some fine day in spring one happens to be witness of a great rise of March-browns, Blue duns or little Iron-blues. The surface of the water is broken by a constant succession of rings as the big and hungry trout suck down the delicate morsels as they emerge for a brief moment on the surface; for many of them their life-span may well, indeed, be termed ephemeral. The inexperienced youth who thinks that now at last he has lit upon that day of days of which he has so often dreamed is apt to be somewhat disappointed. Casting rapidly to right and left into the middle of the `boil' he finds too often that his best imitation is left severely alone; the genuine article is in too great abundance, and eventually he learns that it is before and after the exuberance of the rise that he will have his chief success, and that when the natural insect is thickest on the water, some fly quite unlike it is most likely to prove acceptable; just as with ourselves, `toujours perdrix' will sometimes pall.

Looking upwards from the bridge we see a stretch a quarter mile in length of water perfect to the fisherman's eye; pools large and small diversified by streams broken and vexed by stones and boulders. We recall whole days spent on this one portion, with the result that the pressure of the basket strap on shoulder hinted that enough had been done for sport and pleasure; for, be it noted, for the full enjoyment of one's river one must be alone.

A little way above the bridge a huge boulder stands half in the water which surges round and under its base. Standing just above it one day, a long cast towards the opposite side happened to hook an inconsiderable troutlet which was quickly drawn, glancing and splashing, across the stream to be released. As it passed the boulder a dim grey shadow shot from the black cavern beneath, and missed the wriggling prize Here, then, was an opportunity, and a plan quickly formed. From the shallows further down a four-inch baby trout was soon procured, sliced through in proper slant, trimmed secundum, artem and mounted on a big hook. A minute later this, too, came skipping and jerking past the boulder, and then the reel sang pleasantly as some twenty yards of line ran swiftly off; a beautiful trout, that presently pulled down the scale at about two pounds.

A little further up, a heavy plank reaching from shore to a big flat stone to command a certain salmon-lie, recalls an awkward predicament. This river holds salmon as well as trout, and one day in late summer a goodly fish was hooked in a pool some hundred yards above. In this pool, however, he refused to stay, the river was high and, in spite of all persuasion, down-stream he needs must go. And as the plank came ever nearer it was speedily seen that the river was almost lapping it and, should the fish pass beneath, the unpleasant choice would be presented either to 'break' or to dive overhead in four feet of water and follow his example. Fortunately, at this moment two ladies came along the river side, the fish was hauled by main force into a small deep eddy under the steep bank, the rod entrusted to one of the ladies to hold like grim death while the fisher slipped down with the gaff; and so all ended well.

Above this charming stretch, with its sound of many waters, the scene changes. An ancient and massive dam stretches across the river to impound the water for the needs of the quaint old mill below. Here, then, we find a long and placid pool, fringed on one side with noble trees that dip their lower branches to meet their own pictured shadows in the depths below.

That corner, where the mass of yellow marshmarigolds shines golden, reminds us of the reed bunting, with his black velvet cap and white cravat, whose nest cost so much time and pains to find. In the adjoining field a redshank one year nested. As we pass along the water side a moor-hen scuttles off the nest, splashing along in a way not conducive to our sport if on fishing intent ; or, later on, with its quaint upturned tail, leads its family of fuzzy little balls of down and teaches them to pick the insects from the stems of the water-grasses. A `plop' at the edge of the pool and a widening circle on the surface attracts attention, and is found to have been caused by a water vole, whose black coat, as he swims deep in the clear water, is spangled with glistening air-bubbles ; a black coat in this instance and not brown; for the black race or variety is here often to be seen.

So we wend our way upwards, past a famous pool where a considerable tributary joins our stream ; then, leaving behind us a hospitable mansion with many happy memories, we pass by stream and linn, each with its story of varying fortunes, under the long hanging wood carpeted with myriads of wild hyacinths, like a sheet of azure, until the upper march is reached. Here often has our gaze been cast enviously upward at that forbidden stretch that seemed so tempting ; not that it was one whit better than our own!

Another day, perhaps, we wander downward from the bridge, passing the great pool whose head it spans; a place where the modern dry-fly expert would doubtless find congenial conditions for his special craft. Here one side of the river is overshadowed by old trees that in ancient days no doubt formed an avenue for the stately old Scottish mansion that shows through their branching foliage, an idea strengthened when we find a tiny stream that here enters the river spanned by a little stone bridge of single arch and pillared balustrade, whose apparent age lends credence to the legend that a Queen of Scots had crossed it one day on her journeying.

These trees recall .that here one year, late in the month of May, a flight of at least a hundred fieldfares still lingered. How comes it that these beautiful thrushes ever refuse to remain to nest in this country, while in Germany they have for long been known to breed and are, indeed, steadily reaching southwards? But so it is, that the supposititious cases, now and then reported, are always found on investigation to be nests of missel-thrushes. This stream which we are now passing reminds us that here, one cold spring day, when trout were `dour' and nothing doing, the fisherman was startled by a sudden thunder-peal right overhead, followed by a heavy hailstorm ; when all at once the water was alive with rising fish attracted by the sudden appearance of swarms of the little 'iron blue,' which tiny insect seems to revel in cold and wet.

A gaunt old ash-tree gives its name to the next big pool where a wide stretch of gravel extends in ordinary states of the river from the water to the bank. Here once a lesson was learned of a danger to be guarded against when fishing these northern rivers. While wading in the shallow margin of the pool the water was seen to be becoming quickly muddy, although but a few showers had fallen there that day. The bank was barely reached when with, a rushing roar, a great wave of clay-coloured water swept down the stream and in a moment the gravelbed was covered by a relentless flood against which no man could have stood; there had, no doubt, been a`cloud-burst' further up.

Round the next bend we see a copse-crowned bank, every bush of which is covered with white blossom, as if by a sudden snow-fall. This beautiful effect is puzzling, until, coming nearer, the bushes are found to be the hack-berry or hag-berry, better known in the south, perhaps, as the bird-cherry. Here is another famous stream and pool where once a big and greedy trout came nigh to its undoing. A nice half-pounder had taken the fly and was making a brave little fight in the deeper water, when suddenly the resistance became quadrupled, the little rod bending to its utmost. Some sullen play ensued, and then, as the shortening line brought the quarry into view, it was seen that a monster trout had gripped the first fish crosswise in his cruel jaws and was allowing himself to be brought shoreward. With all possible care and caution the net was placed in readiness, but just as it was being raised the jaws were opened and the prey released; its sides were scored by the great teeth as if 'crimped,' as was once the custom on Tweedside with salmon.

A well-known cry overhead calls attention to a pair of oyster catchers flying down-stream to a neighbouring ploughed field where subsequently their nest was found-a foolishly named bird; our Scottish designation of sea pyet is surely more appropriate. In Gaelic it is named `Brideun' or `Gille-Bride' - St. Bride's bird or servant. Wherefore it is so called is obscure, but it is a quaint and noticeable bird which, for some reason known perhaps to itself, makes its way each spring from the seashore far up our rivers to its breeding place.

Another story is called to mind a little further down, where the violent tactics of a trout caused visions of something of really extraordinary dimensions to arise; but when brought to net after a prolonged conflict it was somewhat disappointing to find it was only a respectable `pounder.' Hooked fairly in the mouth, the casting-line had formed a running noose with one of the droppers just above the tail, and so lassoed, with all pressure on the mouth removed, the trout had been able to fight in the strong stream after the manner of a fish of five times its weight.

So downward we wander by the river until we reach a big pool of good repute among salmon fishers, where, years ago, an acquaintance of mine had an interesting experience. Fishing one day with a friend, they agreed to meet at this pool at lunch time. The day had been unproductive, and one of them had been trying a minnow as a last resort. While lunching on the bank the line and minnow were carelessly thrown into the pool. Some time elapsed, and the post-prandial pipe lit, when the tip of the rod was seen to twitch, the line running freely from the reel. When the rod was raised something strong and heavy was found attached, was duly played and landed; it was a handsome fresh-run grilse. It is surely a most uncommon occurrence for a grilse to take a dead bait lying on the bottom and to swallow it. A year later, almost to a day, the same two friends were once more lunching at the same spot, and, half in jest, the line was again baited with a minnow and thrown in. After an interval, just as before, the line ran out. The fishermen were almost uneasy at the uncanny coincidence; the fish was played and landed. But this time it was a large and slimy eel.

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