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Loch Awe Fishing

Good trout-fishing in Scotland, south of the Pentland Firth, is almost impossible to procure. There are better fish, and more of them, in the Wandle, within twenty minutes of Victoria Station, than in any equal stretch of any Scotch river with which I am acquainted. But the pleasure of angling, luckily, does not consist merely of the catching of fish. The Wandle is rather too suburban for some tastes, which prefer smaller trout, better air, and wilder scenery. To such spirits, Loch Awe may, with certain distinct cautions, be recommended. There is more chance for anglers, now, in Scotch lochs than in most Scotch rivers. The lochs cannot so easily be netted, lined, polluted, and otherwise made empty and ugly, like the Border streams. They are farther off from towns and tourists, though distance is scarcely a complete protection. The best lochs for yellow trout are decidedly those of Sutherland. There are no railways, and there are two hundred lochs and more in the Parish of Assynt. There, in June, the angler who is a good pedestrian may actually enjoy solitude, sometimes. There is a loch near Strathnaver, and far from human habitations, where a friend of my own recently caught sixty-five trout weighing about thirty-eight pounds. They are numerous and plucky, but not large, though a casual big loch-trout may be taken by trolling. But it is truly a far way to this anonymous lake and all round the regular fishing inns, like Inchnadampf and Forsinard there is usually quite a little crowd of anglers. The sport is advertised in the newspapers; more and more of our eager fellow-creatures are attracted, more and more the shooting tenants are preserving waters that used to be open. The distance to Sutherland makes that county almost beyond the range of a brief holiday. Loch Leven is nearer, and at Loch Leven the scenery is better than its reputation, while the trout are excellent, though shy. But Loch Leven is too much cockneyfied by angling competitions; moreover, its pleasures are expensive. Loch Awe remains, a loch at once large, lovely, not too distant, and not destitute of sport.

The reader of Mr. Colquhoun’s delightful old book, “The Moor and the Loch,” must not expect Loch Awe to be what it once was. The railway, which has made the north side of the lake so ugly, has brought the district within easy reach of Glasgow and of Edinburgh. Villas are built on many a beautiful height; here couples come for their honeymoon, here whole argosies of boats are anchored off the coasts, here do steam launches ply. The hotels are extremely comfortable, the boatmen are excellent boatmen, good fishers, and capital company. All this is pleasant, but all this attracts multitudes of anglers, and it is not in nature that sport should be what it once was. Of the famous salmo ferox I cannot speak from experience. The huge courageous fish is still at home in Loch Awe, but now he sees a hundred baits, natural and artificial, where he saw one in Mr. Colquhoun’s time. The truly contemplative man may still sit in the stern of the boat, with two rods out, and possess his soul in patience, as if he were fishing for tarpon in Florida. I wish him luck, but the diversion is little to my mind. Except in playing the fish, if he comes, all the skill is in the boatmen, who know where to row, at what pace, and in what depth of water. As to the chances of salmon again, they are perhaps less rare, but they are not very frequent. The fish does not seem to take freely in the loch, and on his way from the Awe to the Orchy. As to the trout-fishing, it is very bad in the months when most men take their holidays, August and September. From the middle of April to the middle of June is apparently the best time. The loch is well provided with bays, of different merit, according to the feeding which they provide; some come earlier, some later into season. Doubtless the most beautiful part of the lake is around the islands, between the Loch Awe and the Port Sonachan hotels. The Green Island, with its strange Celtic burying-ground, where the daffodils bloom among the sepulchres with their rude carvings of battles and of armed men, has many trout around its shores. The favourite fishing-places, however, are between Port Sonachan and Ford. In the morning early, the steam-launch tows a fleet of boats down the loch, and they drift back again, fishing all the bays, and arriving at home in time for dinner. Too frequently the angler is vexed by finding a boat busy in his favourite bay. I am not sure that, when the trout are really taking, the water near Port Sonachan is not as good as any other. Much depends on the weather. In the hard north-east winds of April we can scarcely expect trout to feed very freely anywhere. These of Loch Awe are very peculiar fish. I take it that there are two species, one short, thick, golden, and beautiful; but these, at least in April, are decidedly scarce. The common sort is long, lanky, of a dark green hue, and the reverse of lovely. Most of them, however, are excellent at breakfast, pink in the flesh, and better flavoured, I think, than the famous trout of Loch Leven. They are also extremely game for their size; a half-pound trout fights like a pounder. From thirty to forty fish in a day’s incessant angling is reckoned no bad basket. In genial May weather, probably the trout average two to the pound, and a pounder or two may be in the dish. But three to the pound is decidedly nearer the average, at least in April. The flies commonly used are larger than what are employed in Loch Leven. A teal wing and red body, a grouse hackle, and the prismatic Heckham Peckham are among the favourites; but it is said that flies no bigger than Tweed flies are occasionally successful. In my own brief experience I have found the trout “dour,” occasionally they would rise freely for an hour at noon, or in the evening; but often one passed hours with scarcely a rising fish. This may have been due to the bitterness of the weather, or to my own lack of skill. Not that lochs generally require much artifice in the angler. To sink the flies deep, and move them with short jerks, appears, now and then, to be efficacious. There has been some controversy about Loch Awe trouting; this is as favourable a view of the sport as I can honestly give. It is not excellent, but, thanks to the great beauty of the scenery, the many points of view on so large and indented a lake, the charm of the wood and wild flowers, Loch Awe is well worth a visit from persons who do not pitch their hopes too high.

Loch Awe would have contented me less had I been less fortunate in my boatman. It is often said that tradition has died out in the Highlands; it is living yet.

After three days of north wind and failure, it occurred to me that my boatman might know the local folklore—the fairy tales and traditions. As a rule, tradition is a purely professional part of a guide’s stock-in-trade, but the angler who had my barque in his charge proved to be a fresh fountain of legend. His own county is not Argyleshire, but Inverness, and we did not deal much in local myth. True, he told me why Loch Awe ceased—like the site of Sodom and Gomorrah, to be a cultivated valley and became a lake, where the trout are small and, externally, green.

“Loch Awe was once a fertile valley, and it belonged to an old dame. She was called Dame Cruachan, the same as the hill, and she lived high up on the hillside. Now there was a well on the hillside, and she was always to cover up the well with a big stone before the sun set. But one day she had been working in the valley and she was weary, and she sat down by the path on her way home and fell asleep. And the sun had gone down before she reached the well, and in the night the water broke out and filled all the plain, and what was land is now water.” This, then, was the origin of Loch Awe. It is a little like the Australian account of the Deluge. That calamity was produced by a man’s showing a woman the mystic turndun, a native sacred toy. Instantly water broke out of the earth and drowned everybody.

This is merely a local legend, such as boatmen are expected to know. As the green trout utterly declined to rise, I tried the boatman with the Irish story of why the Gruagach Gaire left off laughing, and all about the hare that came and defiled his table, as recited by Mr. Curtin in his “Irish Legends” (Sampson, Low, & Co.). The boatman did not know this fable, but he did know of a red deer that came and spoke to a gentleman. This was a story from the Macpherson country. I give it first in the boatman’s words, and then we shall discuss the history of the legend as known to Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. Andrew Lang.

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