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Issue 1 - Divine Water

Scotland Magazine Issue 1
March 2002


This article is 16 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Divine Water

Bob McColl takes us on a journey through hills and heather to find the perfect day's fishing

After many years of talking, I finally took a long standing business friend from Gloucester on his first Highland fishing foray recently. Much planning and discussion went into the trip, and as D-day approached, Ian’s excitement and anticipation was heading higher into the stratosphere with each phone conversation we had. Finally the long awaited day arrived and we were driving up the A9 past Blair Atholl, Drumochter, Kingussie, Slochd, familiar names to generations of sportsmen who have followed the pilgrim road north to Highland sport over the centuries. By this stage I was getting a bit worried. Had I talked the fishing up too much? Could any hill loch deliver the quality of trout that were now rising freely to copious hatches of mayfly in Ian’s imagination?

A day later and we were enjoying a lunchtime sandwich on the banks of Loch Meadie near Altnaharra. By now I was sure all my worst fears had come true. The morning had yielded a smattering of half-pounders, but nothing more substantial had been seen or felt. Ian was worryingly silent, though I was a little perplexed by his contented, far off gaze and the euphoric edge to his smile. After his second sandwich, he finally put his thoughts into words, and they came boiling out. The situation, the scenery, the solitude, the atmosphere, the silence, it was fantastic. Better than he had imagined, even. But what really amazed him were the trout themselves. To have such an abundance of totally wild fish was a
rare luxury and a far cry from the stocked fisheries of home. Yes, the fish were small, but they fought like tigers and were, each and every one of them, miniature masterpieces of spotted gold. For me, it was a well-needed reminder of the many facts that we, who are lucky enough to live here, sometimes take for granted; notably that the size of the fish in the bag at the end of the day is only one small facet of the day’s total magic.

In writing about game fishing in Scotland, the biggest problem is deciding where to start and then when to finish, such is the breadth of sport available here. It ranges from the top salmon beats on big East Coast rivers like the Tay, Spey and Tweed to a never-ending selection of highland hill lochs containing brownies that might be six to a pound or might be six-pounders. Fishing can be sourced directly by contacting the owners or local angling clubs, through sporting agents or by staying at sporting hotels, or you can book a week at a sporting lodge. The advantage here is the variety of fishing available to guests taking your average lodge. Most tend to boast some salmon fishing, but if the king of fish is not obliging, you can always keep your spirits up with an evening at the sea trout, or a foray after the hill loch brownies. Later in the summer, for the all-round sportsman, there is scope to spice up your week’s fishing with a day’s deer stalking or some walked-up grouse.

The lodges themselves vary from sumptuous Victorian mansions and fairy-tale castles, like Amhuinnsuidhe on the Isle of Harris, with accommodation for 20 plus staff, to modest two-bedroom self-catering cottages next to the river bank. However big or small they are, there is always a cosy, relaxed atmosphere when a party of friends spend a week’s holiday there. One of the joys of such trips is unwinding round the fire in the evening, drink in one hand, game book in the other, discussing the day’s events, looking back over the sport of yesteryear and planning tomorrow’s forays.

As often as not, there will be those in the party who do not want to fish. In the past it may have been the ladies, but these days they are more likely found wiping the eyes of their male companions down by the water. But away from the water’s side, there is no need to get bored, with villages to visit, long empty expanses of beach to walk along, wildlife to enjoy and hills to climb, all well out of mobile phone reception.

Once you find a lodge that you like, you will probably find yourself going back for the same week year after year, and developing a deep relationship with the area and the friends you make among the locals. This will definitely improve your catch rate, as experience is the key ingredient to success in fishing. You will learn that salmon will lie behind this rock or under that trailing branch at such and such a height of water. And you might find that they will rise best to a tiny size 14 Silver Stoat double, rather than a two-inch long Ally’s Shrimp when the water is running this clear. Such intimate knowledge of a system is only possible after recurrent visits over many years.

It has been my great fortune over the years to develop such a relationship with the fishing at Moidart. Not to be confused with Knoydart, this part of the Lochaber district west of Fort William has an abundance of hill lochs as well as a great little spate river that carries nice runs of salmon and sea trout. Indeed, the Moidart held the Scottish record for a sea trout for a while, and the magnificent 191/4 lb fish is mounted in the hall of Kinlochmoidart House.

I never caught anything approaching that in size over all the years that I fished in Moidart, but as pointed out earlier that has not stopped me enjoying some truly memorable sport there. Wonderful memories jump from the pages of my game book as I flick through it. All that is recorded is the catch, the loch or pool fished, the weather and the fly used. But these snippets of information bring back all the other details not listed; the colours, the sounds, the smells of the area.

Having said that the catch is not necessarily the most important factor in a day’s sport, it is nice to have a red letter day every now and then. I see one before me in the gamebook: June 17th 1991, Moidart Hill Lochs, two trout, 43/4 lb. It is a stiff hour and a half walk up to the particular loch I fished that day. The old track meanders up the steep side of the glen, through the ancient oak woodland. At about 700 feet, you break out of the trees, and can look down upon the impressive Kinlochmoidart House, surrounded by a patchwork of wood and green fields, with the river and estuary beyond. Having enjoyed the view, it is back to work, climbing ever upward. At 1,000 feet, you reach the plateau, and the gradient eases out, but ahead there still lies a 40 minute slog over wet, broken terrain to the loch in question. Am I selling this to you? Respite is provided by the mournful calling of a pair of rare Greenshank as you pause to admire them circling overhead to protect their nest site.

Finally you break out onto the ridge, and your breath is taken away by the panorama before you. Ridge upon shadowy ridge stretch away before you, with the sea beyond. The horizon is dominated by the impressive profiles of Rum, Eigg and the other Small Isles. On a clear day, Uist is visible 60 miles away. But, being a fisherman, your gaze is soon drawn down to the convoluted outline of the loch below you.

This loch has a reputation for big fish, but they are predictably hard to tempt. Over the years it has yielded me small bags of fish, but they have averaged little over 11/2lb each, which is exceptional for a small hill loch. This is probably due to some enriching limestone in the bedrock below the loch, combined with poor spawning facilities, which results in few trout with plenty to eat.

On the said day, June 17th 1991, I finally arrived at the loch, put the splendours of the view behind me, and got down to the difficult business of enticing one of its leviathan inhabitants up to the surface from its hiding place among rocks and plants on the loch bed. These lochs have hatches of large caddis, huge moths a good inch and a half in length, so I was tweaking a monstrous deer hair sedge across the surface, having found that the really big fish will not come up from the depths to make an appearance unless you make it worth their while.

After a hour working round the little bays, I cast my fly near a likely looking sunken boulder. A couple of tweaks, and the water suddenly erupted. When a big fish comes rapidly up from deep, it makes quite a commotion when it reaches the surface. In among this maelstrom of heaving water and flying spray, I was rather dubious that the fish could have located my fly. But as the waves settled and I tightened the line, I felt the resistance of something very powerful at the business end of my tackle. When you find yourself connected to the very angry fish of your dreams, the first thing that seems to happen is your stomach turning to a very uncomfortable jelly-like consistency. This is heightened when you look down to find that the new-fangled weight forward line you are using has managed to get itself completely fankled around your feet and around itself.

Consequently I do not have many happy memories of the next 10 minutes, as I tried to simultaneously play the fish and untangle my fly line, all the while praying that the fish would not decide to head at pace for the far end of the loch. My luck held out, and finally, after what seemed to me a monumental struggle between man and fish – and fly line – slid the net under 31/4lb of hill loch perfection. An hour later I had added another fish, this one weighing in at 11/2lb, which nicely rounded off the bag. My only other clear recollection of this great sporting day was going to the cinema in Fort William to watch Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, and having had a perfect day as a very happy resident of Scotland, I ended the evening wanting to be a North American Sioux Indian. Maybe not the typical end to a day spent enjoying the sport at a splendid Highland lodge, but a satisfying one nevertheless.

There are many letting agents and private lodges for rent in the Highlands.
Here is a selection:
Kinlochmoidart House, Lochailort, Inverness, PH38 4ND
Tel: +44 (0) 1967 430 609

Rhidorroch Lodge, c/o Argule Street, Ullapool, Ross-shire, IV26 2UB
Tel: +44 (0) 1854 612 548

Scaliscro Lodge, Uig, Isle of Lewis. Tel: +44 (0) 1851 672 325
Grogarry Lodge, c/o South Uist Estates, Askernish, South Uist.
Tel: +44 (0) 1878 700 301

Amhuinnsiudhe Castle, Isle of Harris. Tel: +44 (0) 1876 500 329

CKD Finlayson Hughes, Lynedoch House, Barossa Place, Perth PH1 5EP
Tel: +44 (0) 1738 451 111 Web:

George Goldsmith, Catchpell House, Carpet Lane, Edinburgh EH6 6SP
Tel: +44 (0) 131 468 8535
Web: Email:

Strutt & Parker, 28 Walker Street, Edinburgh. Tel: +44 (0) 131 226 2500

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