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.

Nothing to Lose

Captain Scott, at rest after day’s adventure. **

The spring /summer of 1973 was for me a transition period between finishing school and starting studies at Glasgow university. With time on my hands I applied for and was fortunate to get a 26 day scholarship to join the adventure sail training vessel ‘Captain Scott’. Purpose built in 1971 in Buckie, Scotland it was a 380 ton three masted top gallant schooner. 52m long and 30m high she was the largest sailing vessel flying the British flag at the time. The ship was staffed by a variety of experienced sailors. This included officers from the UK’s army, navy and air force. 

Later in life I spent some 10 years associated with another vessel, the engine powered MV Logos. The Captain Scott, however, was a sailing ship, though it did have diesel motors as back up if needed. The time I spent on board has been my only experience using sails before or since. However the time was intense and a crash course in the basics of sailing with the wind. The primary job of the professional crew was to take us raw recruits and shape us into an effective team who could operate the schooner. 

As trainees we were from a variety of backgrounds. One cohort came from the services themselves. People recommended by officers for possible promotion. Another group were folk from industry or business, again maybe being assessed for management potential. The third group were school leaver types such as myself who had got a scholarship. We were younger than the rest and didn’t have a lot at stake. The others potentially had career prospects on the line. Everyone’s time on board would be assessed by a simple pass or fail. No other form of grading. These simple two possibilities heightened the tension for those hoping for promotion or CV enhancement. Being classed as a failure is not a great bargaining chip when wanting that job as a manager or possible officer material. Also for those sent by their employer they may not have chosen to engage in three and a half weeks of arduous mental and physical activity in cramped quarters. For me it had been a free choice. Although I enjoyed it immensely there were still challenges I had to face.

Captain Scott was ran as a kind of naval version of ‘Outward Bound’. Discipline, endurance and the ability to work together were important to its ethos. I suppose it was designed to make men of boys. Named after the Antarctic explorer Richard Scott there was a figurehead of him on the bow. The vessel’s home port was the little village of Plockton, Wester Ross on the north west coast of Scotland. I made my way there and joined along with a new batch of trainees.

As I recall there was 42 of us joining what was the 15th such course since its inception in 1971. We were split up into 3 watches of 14. Over the coming days we would be moulded into a team sailing round a number of islands on Scotland’s west coast. There was also an expeditions officer who organised forays into the mountains that surround the rugged and largely remote coastline. For some brought up mainly in the city this region of the UK would be very different from what they were used to. Both my parents come from the NW Scotland. As a result I had spent many holidays in a similar area nearby so was familiar with the terrain and coast.

Our route from Plockton 21st May – 16th June 1973

Certainly the discipline was tough. Lieutenant Commander Victor Clark’s initial lecture was no doubt to stamp his authority on this his new crew. He did make an impression by telling us he was allowed to keelhaul those who did not follow orders. Then proceeded to show how you go about it! Thankfully he did not use actual people to demonstrate! He did command respect. With several dozen sails and a myriad of ropes all with a specific purpose there was a lot to instil in us.

Commander Clark had a long and very distinguished wartime, naval and Admiralty career. At the time he was nearing 50 years at sea. Amongst many adventures upon his retirement from the navy he spent 6 years on a 48,000-mile voyage sailing round the world in a 9 ton yacht. It included nearly a year shipwrecked on Palmerston Island, a coral atoll in the Cook Islands. One highlight of the course was him showing slides and relating stories of his odyssey. 

The Captain Scott and its ethos became a reality through Commander Clark’s vision and determination. With Kurt Kahn (founder of Gordonstoun School) he enlisted Prince Philip’s aid in finding sponsorship. I (and I suspect hundreds of other young men starting out in life) am thankful for his leadership in making it all happen.

His 2nd World War exploits and sailing mishaps didn’t shorten his life and he lived till he was 97. Mariner and adventurer this vicar’s son had another side to him. His naval obituary says he was sustained in 1941 by Christian’s quotation in John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ “When thou passest through the Waters I will be with thee; and through the Rivers, they shall not overflow thee.” (Isaiah 43 verse 2).

Ropes everywhere**

The training wasn’t all at sea and the final ‘test’ was a 3 day traverse over remote Scottish hills where we were to survive without coming in contact with civilisation of any kind, not even roads. At the end we met up again with the vessel at another place. In small groups shadowed by the expeditions leader it was a welcome break from being on board.

In order to function safely there were many rules to follow. A course failure could come from disobeying one of them. One of these was no smoking or drinking during the entire course. This wasn’t an issue for me but for those who were regular smokers it was a huge discipline. An infringement meant failure. I was amazed at the vigour and detective work from officers when a cigarette end was found in the heads (toilets). This threat of failure led to resentment with some. Indeed one guy’s anger led to what could have been tragic consequences. He dropped a heavy metal sailing needle from a great height, narrowly missing one of the officers. Another officer had his canoe holed. It was rumoured to be the same guy who had done it.  

We trainees all slept together dormitory style in the mid-section. Port and starboard bunks lining the hull and tables for eating in the middle. Waking up procedure was the bosun entering and sharply blowing his whistle. From then we had 30 seconds to be on deck naked where you were hosed down with salt water from a powerful fire hose. If you flinched or were late on deck you had to stand still before the hose an extra long time. There can be few more effective ways of being fully alert from slumber in under a minute. This routine was OK at sea. However I recall us once being on deck anchored in Tobermory Bay (Isle of Mull). We were being duly hosed down when the early morning mist lifted to have a full view of Tobermory waterfront. I have often wondered what anyone in the harbour would have thought of a couple of dozen naked figures on deck. 

As stated we crew were in 3 watches. I think it was 8 hours on, 16 off or maybe at sea 4 on and 8 off. Some activities were done either as a game or in competition. A 3 masted schooner has many sails. The captain could, for instance, ask all 3 watches to select a hurricane sail from the claustrophobic depths of the keel locker. Each watch had to fight the other off. I do not like closed, confined spaces and found it hard. Caving is not something I have ever wanted to do. There were also mundane things such as tying knots, mending sails and scrubbing deck.

Another game would be races from bow to stern where your feet should not touch the deck. Involved making use of the extensive rigging. Going aloft to reef the sails was difficult initially. Grateful that we were clipped on most of time. Getting over my feelings of vertigo I eventually became more accustomed to the height.

Getting over vertigo!**

Life under a large sailing ship is from a bygone age. All 3 watches, not just the one on duty sometimes had to get up whether daytime or middle of night if captain decided we needed to radically change direction by adjusting or adding sails. The entire crew was usually needed to hoist or lower. She could sail at 18 knots in a stiff breeze. There is something absolutely thrilling being aloft and suspended over the open water when moving at speed. Being with people who had immense experience of sailing meant this unique vessel’s potential was realised.

I did it – ‘conducted myself in a seamanlike manner’!

As I wrote this post I googled what I could find about the ship. Amazed to discover there is a 23 minute film about the Captain Scott and the training course. I do not feature in it as it was done in 1972, a year before my time on board. If interested you can see it here. It captures the atmosphere well. The 1970s style fashions on display are also interesting!

POSTSCRIPT – The Trust that ran the Captain Scott operated these courses from 1971-77. Thereafter it was sold and became based in Oman. Renamed ‘Shabab Oman’ it has until recent years operated as a sail training ship for the Omani navy.

** All photos except my certificate are by kind courtesy of Bruce Mike Roberts (course 23). Sadly I don’t have any I took. Can’t even recall if I had a camera!