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Loch Leven

I had a friend once, an angler, who in winter was fond of another sport. He liked to cast his louis into the green baize pond at Monte Carlo, and, on the whole, he was generally “broken.” He seldom landed the golden fish of the old man’s dream in Theocritus. When the croupier had gaffed all his money he would repent and say, “Now, that would have kept me at Loch Leven for a fortnight.” One used to wonder whether a fortnight of Loch Leven was worth an afternoon of the pleasure of losing at Monte Carlo. The loch has a name for being cockneyfied, beset by whole fleets of competitive anglers from various angling clubs in Scotland. That men should competitively angle shows, indeed, a great want of true angling sentiment. To fish in a crowd is odious, to work hard for prizes of flasks and creels and fly-books is to mistake the true meaning of the pastime. However, in this crowded age men are so constituted that they like to turn a contemplative exercise into a kind of Bank Holiday. There is no use in arguing with such persons; the worst of their pleasure is that it tends to change a Scotch loch into something like the pond of the Welsh Harp, at Hendon. It is always good news to read in the papers how the Dundee Walton Society had a bad day, and how the first prize was won by Mr. Macneesh, with five trout weighing three pounds and three quarters. Loch Leven, then, is crowded and cockneyfied by competitions; it has also no great name for beauty of landscape. Every one to his own taste in natural beauty, but in this respect I think Loch Leven is better than its reputation. It is certainly more pictorial, so to speak, than some remote moor lochs up near Cape Wrath; Forsinard in particular, where the scenery looks like one gigantic series of brown “baps,” flat Scotch scones, all of low elevation, all precisely similar to each other.

Loch Leven is not such a cockney place as the majority of men who have not visited it imagine. It really is larger than the Welsh Harp at Hendon, and the scenery, though not like that of Ben Cruachan or Ben Mohr, excels the landscape of Middlesex. At the northern end is a small town, grey, with some red roofs and one or two characteristic Fifeshire church-towers, squat and strong. There are also a few factory chimneys, which are not fair to outward view, nor appropriate by a loch-side. On the west are ranges of distant hills, low but not uncomely. On the east rises a beautiful moorland steep with broken and graceful outlines. When the sun shines on the red tilled land, in spring; when the smoke of burning gorse coils up all day long into the sky, as if the Great Spirit were taking his pipe of peace on the mountains; when the islands are mirrored on the glassy water, then the artist rejoices, though the angler knows that he will waste his day. As far as fishing goes, he is bound to be “clean,” as the boatmen say—to catch nothing; but the solemn peace, and the walls and ruined towers of Queen Mary’s prison, may partially console the fisher. The accommodation is agreeable, there is a pleasant inn—an old town-house, perhaps, of some great family, when the great families did not rush up to London, but spent their winters in such country towns as Dumfries and St. Andrews. The inn has a great green garden at its doors, and if the talk is mainly of fishing, and if every one tells of his monster trout that escaped the net, there is much worse conversation than that.

When you reach Kinross, and, after excellent ham and eggs, begin to make a start, the cockney element is most visible at the first. Everybody’s name is registered in a book; each pays a considerable, but not exorbitant, fee for the society—often well worth the money—and the assistance of boatmen. These gentlemen are also well provided with luncheon and beer, and, on the whole, there is more pleasure in the life of a Loch Leven boatman than in most arts, crafts, or professions. He takes the rod when his patron is lazy; it is said that he often catches the trout; he sees a good deal of good company, and, if his basket be heavy, who so content as he? The first thing is to row out to a good bay, and which will prove a good bay depends on the strength and direction of the wind. Perhaps the best fishing is farthest off, at the end of a long row, but the best scenery is not so distant. A good deal hangs on an early start when there are many boats out.

Loch Leven is a rather shallow loch, seldom much over fifteen feet deep, save where a long narrow rent or geological flaw runs through the bottom. The water is of a queer glaucous green, olive-coloured, or rather like the tint made when you wash out a box of water-colour paints. This is not so pretty as the black wave of Loch Awe or Loch Shin, but has a redeeming quality in the richness of the feeding for trout. These are fabled to average about a pound, but are probably a trifle under that weight, on the whole. They are famous, and, according to Sir Walter Scott, were famous as long ago as in Queen Mary’s time, for the bright silver of their sides, for their pink flesh, and gameness when hooked. Theorists have explained all this by saying that they are the descendants of land-locked salmon. The flies used on the loch are smaller than those favoured in the Highlands; they are sold attached to casts, and four flies are actually employed at once. Probably two are quite enough at a time. If a veteran trout is attracted by seeing four flies, all of different species, and these like nothing in nature, all conspiring to descend on him at once, he must be less cautious than we generally find him. The Hampshire angler, of course, will sneer at the whole proceeding, the “chucking and chancing it,” in the queer-coloured wave, and the use of so many fanciful entomological specimens. But the Hampshire angler is very welcome to try his arts, in a calm, and his natural-looking cocked-up flies. He will probably be defeated by a grocer from Greenock, sinking his four flies very deep, as is, by some experts, recommended. The trout are capricious, perhaps as capricious as any known to the angler, but they are believed to prefer a strong east wind and a dark day. The east wind is nowhere, perhaps, so bad as people fancy; it is certainly not so bad as the north wind, and on Loch Leven it is the favourite. The man who is lucky enough to hit on the right day, and to land a couple of dozen Loch Leven trout, has very good reason to congratulate himself, and need envy nobody. But such days and such takes are rare, and the summer of 1890 was much more unfortunate than that of 1889.

One great mistake is made by the company which farms the Loch, stocks it, supplies the boats, and regulates the fishing. They permit trolling with angels, or phantoms, or the natural minnow. Now, trolling may be comparatively legitimate, when the boat is being pulled against the wind to its drift, but there is no more skill in it than in sitting in an omnibus. But for trolling, many a boat would come home “clean” in the evening, on days of calm, or when, for other reasons of their own, the trout refuse to take the artificial fly. Yet there are men at Loch Leven who troll all day, and poor sport it must be, as a trout of a pound or so has no chance on a trolling-rod. This method is inimical to fly-fishing, but is such a consolation to the inefficient angler that one can hardly expect to see it abolished. The unsuccessful clamour for trolling, instead of consoling themselves, as sportsmen should do, with the conversation of the gillies, their anecdotes of great trout, and their reminiscences of great anglers, especially of the late Mr. Russell, the famed editor of the “Scotsman.” This humourist is gradually “winning his way to the mythical.” All fishing stories are attached to him; his eloquence is said (in the language of the historian of the Buccaneers) to have been “florid”; he is reported to have thrown his fly-book into Loch Leven on an unlucky day, saying, “You brutes, take your choice,” and a rock, which he once hooked and held on to, is named after him, on the Tweed. In addition to the humane and varied conversation of the boatmen, there is always the pure pleasure of simply gazing at the hillsides and at the islands. They are as much associated with the memory of Mary Stuart as Hermitage or even Holyrood. On that island was her prison; here the rude Morton tried to bully her into signing away her rights; hence she may often have watched the shore at night for the lighting of a beacon, a sign that a rescue was at hand.

The hills, at least, are much as she may have seen them, and the square towers and crumbling walls on the island met her eyes when they were all too strong. The “quay” is no longer “rude,” as when “The Abbot” was written, and is crowded with the green boats of the Loch Leven Company. But you still land on her island under “the huge old tree” which Scott saw, which the unhappy Mary may herself have seen. The small garden and the statues are gone, the garden whence Roland Graeme led Mary to the boat and to brief liberty and hope unfulfilled. Only a kind of ground-plan remains of the halls where Lindesay and Ruthven browbeat her forlorn Majesty. But you may climb the staircase where Roland Graeme stood sentinel, and feel a touch, of what Pepys felt when he kissed a dead Queen, Katherine of Valois. Like Roland Graeme, the Queen may have been “wearied to death of this Castle of Loch Leven,” where, in spring, all seems so beautiful, the trees budding freshly above the yellow celandine and among the grey prison walls. It was a kindlier prison house than Fotheringay, and minds peaceful and contented would gladly have taken “this for a hermitage.”

The Roman Emperors used to banish too powerful subjects to the lovely isles that lie like lilies on the Ægean. Plutarch tried to console these exiles, by showing them how fortunate they were, far from the bustle of the Forum, the vices, the tortures, the noise and smoke of Rome, happy, if they chose, in their gardens, with the blue waters breaking on the rocks, and, as he is careful to add, with plenty of fishing. Mr. Mahaffy calls this “rhetorical consolation,” and the exiles may have been of his mind. But the exiles would have been wise to listen to Plutarch, and, had I enjoyed the luck of Mary Stuart, when Loch Leven was not overfished, when the trout were uneducated, never would I have plunged into politics again. She might have been very happy, with Ronsard’s latest poems, with Italian romances, with a boat on the loch, and some Rizzio to sing to her on the still summer days. From her Castle she would hear how the politicians were squabbling, lying, raising a man to divinity and stoning him next day, cutting each other’s heads off, swearing and forswearing themselves, conspiring and caballing. Suave mari, and the peace of Loch Leven and the island hermitage would have been the sweeter for the din outside. A woman, a Queen, a Stuart, could not attain, and perhaps ought not to have attained, this epicureanism. Mary Stuart had her chance, and missed it; perhaps, after all, her shrewish female gaoler made the passionless life impossible.

These, at Loch Leven, are natural reflections. The place has a charm of its own, especially if you make up your mind not to be disappointed, not to troll, and not to envy the more fortunate anglers who shout to you the number of their victories across the wave. Even at Loch Leven we may be contemplative, may be quiet, and go a-fishing. Andrew Lang.

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