I’m standing in the front of a small wooden dinghy which is floating on a remote loch in the central highlands of Scotland, and I’m rhythmically, but aimlessly flicking out a fly line armed with an old fashioned Aussie blue bottle dry fly
It’s a warm afternoon in late autumn and in the background, the low hills of Rannoch Moor are covered in purple flowering heather and bog-myrtle and their sweet lilac and honey scents carry to me on a soft breeze which is chopping the surface of the loch, making the fly difficult to see for both me and the trout. The dinghy starts to drift off and so do I.
Away to the west over towards the famous Glencoe, we hear the grumble of distant thunder and within five minutes we see red deer scurrying for shelter as the high, dark storm clouds move in. The air now becomes still and we sense the barometric pressure drop before the storm cell is sucked in. As the pressure drops, the peaty waters of the loch come alive with billions of tiny midge larvae or chironomids, which begin to hatch, and then float up to the now totally calm and clear surface film of the loch.
The hatch is a dinner gong to the loch’s giant steelhead trout and now we can see three of them, feeding in the top metre of the water column, cruising back and forth at right angles to the drift of our dinghy.
I tie a tiny epoxy midge fly onto about a metre of four kilo line, trailing behind the blue bottle, so that it can sink a half a metre down and hopefully attract the monster steelhead. This is the moment.
From 30 metres away, I see a patrolling steelhead feeding half a metre below the surface. I cast too short, but the monster still spots the tiny midge fly from five metres away, then turns at right angles and dives to intercept the sunken fly. In an instant, the steelhead strikes, my indicator disappears below the surface, my heart leaps to my throat and I set the hook.
Yikes! I was on!
Do you remember the scene from The Hunt for Red October, when the 7000 ton Dallas burst out of the water at 25 knots, its giant black snout clearing the surface and crashing down in a shower of spray?
Well, the steelhead trout I’d hooked was just as impressive as the Dallas – to me at least. It was heading in a dead straight line for the near bank of the loch, first diving to about three metres and then careening into the air, as it whipped out my 30 metres of fly line, and then tore into 100 metres of bright pink backing braid.
At this point, the front of the dinghy where I was standing was being slowly pulled towards the giant steelhead and I realised we were actually being towed by this piscatorial demon toward the opposite bank, as my reel continued to whine. I only had a few metres of backing left by this stage and when that went something would go snap – most likely me, as I dove into the freezing loch to rescue my disappearing line. This bugger wasn’t getting away.
The only thing that saved me was the small size of the loch. The demon steelhead ran out of water, did a quick right hand turn and began jumping and twisting, trying to rip my tiny size 14 midge fly from the corner of its jaws. The guide books tell you that at this point you’re supposed to drop the tip of the rod, to loosen the line, so that fish can’t get any direct purchase and snap the lightweight tippet on the end of the fly line. Fat chance of that, with 200 metres of line on the water.
The fishing gods smiled on me that day and my four kilo fluorocarbon line held and I was able to work this monster slowly back to the boat, where my ghillie Ian Nelson slipped a net under him. This was a big fish and my big adventure of our Scottish trip. It weighed five kilos or over ten pound in the old scale. And it was definitely harmed in the production of this story because we ate it.
We normally catch and release but the loch was a put and take fishery and these big cannibal fish had to be removed before the loch could be re-stocked, so it just wasn’t his day, really.
The next day we went fishing further out on Rannoch Moor, a spectacularly wild and desolate watershed of peat and bog covering 20 square miles of central Scotland, where rivers start their journeys towards the Atlantic in the west and to the North Sea in the east. It’s such a harsh and inhospitable spot in bad weather that the Defence Department use it for training SAS recruits and pilots and we were regularly over flown by Tornadoes bombers and Hercules heavy transports at what seemed like zero feet. We tried to get pictures, but it’s hard when you’re face down in the mud.The moor is so boggy there’s no road across it, although there is a railway line over to the west coast at Fort William. The line took 5000 navvies five years to build. The peat had to be overlaid with brushwood, tree roots, and ash, and this fill is all that prevents it from sinking into the bog. At midnight in summer, when it’s finally dark, you walk home on the railway line, as the risk of colliding with the well-lit evening train is far outweighed by the risk of ending up in the bog, like one of the pit ponies from that awful scene in the Hound of the Baskervilles.
We were heading for the Loch of the Sword – so called because a couple of local tough guys in kilts had been going to have a fight over it, but were seized by the beauty of the place and perhaps a flask of the local whiskey, and decided to throw a sword into the loch instead. What can I say? You need to bear in mind there that these were men who used to prepare for a big fight by getting plastered on hallucinogenic liquor and painting their tattooed bodies blue and then they would charge screaming into battle wearing nothing but a big sword, or claymore and a shield to cover the bits that were too difficult to paint or too painful to tattoo. The local heavies had just wanted the day off from this sort of thing and who can blame them?
So, there I was, wife and son on the bank of the loch, with Ian furtively rolling a cigarette (it’s the national pastime in Scotland – I think to keep away the midges) and out of nowhere rolls this little passenger train, trundling along the Moor of Rannoch railway track, which ran along the other side of the Loch.
When I commented on the beauty of the loch, the bloody history of the moor and the incongruity of a modern train meandering through the scene, Ian recounted a fishing trip there at the same loch a year ago, when the original Hogwarts Express materialised out of the mists, and ran along the same line alongside the loch, with Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron and scores of other would be wizards, hanging out the windows, laughing, shouting and waving their wands. The train was followed by the helicopters and film crews, capturing another scene from the latest Harry Potter film. Pure magic.
JK Rowling, you see, lives nearby at Killiechassie House, a 19th century estate house on the River Tay, near Aberfeldy, which is also just down the road from Pitlochry where we headed to the next day.
That day we enjoyed a spot of salmon fishing on the famous River Tay until early afternoon, then we adjourned to Pitlochry to order a kilt at MacNaughtons, followed by one of the nicest curries I’d had in ages over the road at the Prince of India restaurant and later we saw an eerie night performance of the local Scottish drum and pipe band, while enjoying a wee dram from the new hipflasks, before retiring for the night to our castle gatehouse by the banks of our private stretch of the famous River Tummel for supper of single malt and some smoked trout. Seemed like a good day to me.
I had come to Scotland trying to find the parents of my great great great great grandfather, Rev James Black, who had been born in 1754 in Scotland, soon after the 1745 uprising of the Stuarts.
The Blacks had been a sept, or sub-clan of the local MacGregor clan, meaning they were under the protection of the MacGregors. And, until 1603, the MacGregors were good guys to be under the protection of, although they did acquire a certain reputation for their Marxist attitudes towards private property and a tendency to keep the heads of their opponents as souvenirs of battle. This latter habit tended to discourage negative comments from passers-by about the former habit.
After some misunderstandings about cattle and sheep rustling and the odd spot of looting, which ended in a bit of marauding, the Privy Council, in 1603, legislated that anyone called MacGregor was: “compelled, on pain of death, to adopt another surname, and all who had been engaged at the battle of Glenfruin, and other marauding expeditions detailed in the act, were prohibited, also under pain of death, from carrying any weapon but a knife without a point to cut their victuals. They were also forbidden, under the same penalty of death, to meet in greater numbers than four at a time.”
So, whenever a Campbell, the local enforcers for the Redcoats, saw five or more MacGregors, around Rannoch, or even one MacGregor with a sharp knife, they were for the chop, if you’ll excuse the pun. The locals called this “untopping”. If you were a convicted crook yourself, and you collected enough untopped MacGregor heads, you could even buy a Royal pardon.
To keep their heads, the MacGregors had two choices: they could go respectable, adopt one of their sept surnames such as Black and move house, possibly to the lowlands, where Rev James surfaced, or they could keep nicking cows for a living, which meant they had to regularly hide out on a fortified island in the middle of Loch Rannoch.
This island was accessed via a secret path of large stones, just under the surface of the loch, known only to the MacGregors, who would dance across the loch on their secret stones, leaving their pursuers waving their claymores at them from the far bank. What the MacGregors would wave back at them is not recorded, but it could have been a blunt knife, your Worship.
The ruins of the fort are still to be seen, but the stone path and most of the island of Eilean nam Faoleag (Isle of Seagulls) has now been submerged under a few metres of water, thanks to the new weir at the end of the loch, probably built by descendants of frustrated pursuing redcoats.
After our last afternoon, as we drove back to our nineteenth century stone gatehouse for some baked trout, we passed by the fort at Eilean nam Faoleag and it was framed with a picture perfect rainbow, rising from the other side of Loch Rannoch.
Loch Rannoch may not have been the original pot of gold, but it was close enough for me.
Break out story…
Within an hour’s drive of Loch Rannoch, you can find the following attractions:
Magic? Visit the Hogwarts Express scenes from Harry Potter near Rannoch Station. Or the Enchanted Forest by night at Faskally Woods. Or the Beatrix Potter Garden at Dunkeld. Or the mystic Mountain of Schiehallion. Or the Sleeping Giant mountain.
Adventure? Head off on the moors with Ian Nelson to chase a giant steelhead and make sure you don’t fall in trudging back across the moor at night. Or try white water rafting on the River Tay through the UK Olympic Kayaking training centre.
History? Head for the hauntingly beautiful ruins of the Medieval Cathedral in Dunkeld near Birnam Wood (remember Macbeth?) and discover the burial site of the infamous Wolf of Badenoch. Or take one of the clan walks around Loch Rannoch, through the wreckage of Dunalastair Lodge, or the Black Wood of Rannoch. Creepy.
A Kilt? You can get these at McNaughton’s in Pitlochry … they’ll post it out to you. Have a curry at the Prince of India opposite while you wait to be measured.
Whiskey? We lost count of the number of distilleries around Rannoch- Famous Grouse, Dewars, Glenturret, Edradour, Dalwhinnie. Hic!
Golf? This place invented the game and there’s courses everywhere. We wandered over the eighteenth century General Wade stone bridge to the beautiful little Aberfeldy Golf Course. They were lovely people.
Local Culture? Head for Pitlochry, where the autumn cultural festival features Ghost Tours, Halloween Marquee with mulled wine, Celtic storytelling, street festivals and the famous Pitlochry Festival Theatre which runs six different plays from Monday through to Sunday. And every little highland town has their own highland games, usually in August.
Souvenirs and Kitsch? Head for the house of Bruar at Bruar Falls and get some ridgy didge Scottish tucker, including their famous haggis, neeps and tatties …. And some authentic highland tweed, with accompanying deerstalker and deer antler topped walking staffs. You will really look the part, but I’m not sure which part.