Cast your bread upon the waters

A nice fish tea for four.

As a boy nearly every summer holiday was spent staying with either my maternal or paternal grandparents. My mother’s parents lived in a small village on the North west coast of Scotland. My father’s were from a crofting community in the same area. My maternal grandfather was in his 70s but still a very active outdoorsman. He had lived most of his life as fisherman, crofter and gamekeeper. A crofter is a small scale tenant farmer. I think when I knew him he had retired from gamekeeping but he still continued to hunt, trap and fish. 

For a child coming from the city of Glasgow it was exciting following along with him in some of these activities. Especially fishing. One of the highlights was when he went night fishing in the nearby salmon river. What an experience as we would travel out with his motorbike and spend about 2 hours fishing from midnight till 2am. As a former gamekeeper he had the right from the landowner to fish the river for his lifetime. I didn’t fish with him, the rods were too big. Also working a fast flowing river in pitch dark was a bit much for a little lad. Holding the net, the possibility of disturbing a poacher and being awake at an unheard of hour was excitement enough. If a salmon or sea trout was above a certain weight he would hand in part or all of it to the current gamekeeper. It seemed to be a kind of agreement with the landowner. 

Granda (right) with a 36lb salmon (16kg) in 1937 (several decades before my time!!)

Though not fishing on the river I did get to fly fish in the lochs (loch is Scottish word for a lake). These dotted the whole area. Granda taught me how to cast and tie on flies. The ‘blue zulu’ was my favourite fly. Also had to learn the not so pleasant task of gutting any fish caught. He also showed how to tickle brown trout, I guess a lost art nowadays. To catch a trout in a burn (Scots name for a small stream) is quite a trick. Putting your hand in the water you wiggle your fingers and somehow mesmerise the fish to come near your hand. Then lightning quick close your hand and grab it! I never caught anything that way. 

Granda would also teach patience, necessary for any fisherman. If I cast and a fish rose to the fly but didn’t hook I would get excited. Stubbornly I would keep casting to the same patch of water. His instructions in such circumstances were always the same. “Cast 3 times, if they don’t bite move on to another area”. He knew what he was talking about as sometimes he would catch 40-50 brown trout in just a few hours. Maybe I’d catch 4 or 5. Such abundance of fish are not there nowadays. Living in a village where people depended on one another there was a strong sense of responsibility to the community. Whenever he caught more than the family could eat, whether from the sea or loch, it would be shared with neighbours. This was the norm. 

The routine preparing for sea fishing involved some effort. We would go to the shore and pick mussels. He would show me how to shell them raw with a knife. This was tricky with small hands as you needed to extract the mussel without cutting it. Then he’d teach how to put the shelled mussels on several dozen hooks as bait for line fishing. Strange nowadays that mussels are a delicacy for humans and not for fish! Again as with freshwater loch fishing there was an abundance of fish. Sometimes you could catch 80-100. Also a great variety which could include haddock, whiting, cod, pollack, saithe (coalfish) and flounder. In August when mackerel shoals were around you could catch very many of them. On occasions even a conger eel or a skate. Since these days throughout adulthood I have spent many times with my father carrying on this tradition. Times have changed though. Catching such riches from the sea just a few hundred metres from shore are not common today. Probably caused by decades of large scale seabed trawling near coastal shores.

Do I still fish nowadays? Maybe on average once a year and only fly fishing in the same place. For many years it’s nearly always been the same ritual. I go to a remote loch about an hour’s hiking from the roadside. Granda had shown me how to find it. He showed how to find the direction too this ‘hidden’ loch from the rock patterns on the horizon. He didn’t seem to use a compass in the hills or moors. Of course he knew the area inside out. There were many lochs but not all had fish. ‘Granda’s loch’ always had fish. He also revealed which areas around the loch to fish and where it was a waste of time. That knowledge of where to find it and where to fish I have kept mainly to myself. Am not divulging the loch’s name! 

In all my years of visits I never met anyone else on the loch though a few times others have accompanied me. Except for one occasion which I mention later. My routine is usually the following. A one hour walk each way to the loch with about 2 hours enjoyable fishing. Careful to only fish those spots granda told me all those years ago. I think I have always come back with something (a fisherman would say that!). The whole experience can be meditative, hopeful and refreshing. Perhaps explains why fishing is popular with so many. 

For each cast of the fly on a particular patch of water you are expectant of a bite. If it doesn’t work after 3 casts you move on to another patch of water which you think looks good. Occasionally there would be the drama of a fish on the line. Always exciting. Put small ones back in the water to live another day. In between savouring the quietness and solitude giving space to think. 

The one occasion when someone else was fishing was a surprise to me and think also to him. It almost felt an affront, an invasion of privacy. How dare anyone think they could fish what had become in my mind ‘my’ loch! It turned out he was a local and I knew him. He was a bit older than me and from the village I had spent childhood holidays. He also knew my grandfather. As we chatted I was encouraged as he spoke warmly of granda. In fact he said he had taught him all he knew about fishing! It seemed granda had more than one disciple when it came to fishing. It did look like he had learnt well as his bag was full of fish.

“Cast your bread upon the waters for you shall find it after many days”

Ecclesiastes chapter 11 verse 1.

The above verse is a picture to me of patience, hope, expectations of a bright future and generosity towards others. Looking back granda demonstrated these traits to a little boy though I didn’t know it at the time. I am grateful to him, to parents and other such mentors in life.