Donal MacDonald, resting on his oars, asked passionately, "Have you got a Goat's Toe at all?" His ill assembled features were screwed up tight and his eyes glittered. He was into his manic phase again.
"No, not even at all," I told him. We were sick of the question, Williams and I. He knew we didn't have a Goat's Toe, indeed that there wasn't a single one left on the island. He was trying to bring us down again, shifting the burden of guilt, a typical ghillie's trick. He knew as well as we did that Loch Roag, at drought level and now brassily reflecting the September sun, was about as likely to yield up a yellowfin tuna as a salmon. A couple of hours previously a big, weary sea trout had heaved itself through the surface film and collapsed back onto it, but that had been the only sign of life. Mercifully MacDonald had been fairly silent up to this point, too, as he suffered from the early, depressed stage of his normal monumental hangover, although now and then he expressed surprise at his ailment, as if it were some act of God or mysterious viral infection over which he had no control. A stranger, overhearing our grunted exchanges, might well have concluded that relations had deteriorated between ourselves and the ghillie. He would have been entirely correct.
It is part of the mythology of sport that the ghillie, the guide, the boat skipper, is always a well-seasoned character, full of resource, humor and wisdom, though sometimes he has to speak bluntly to the idiot who has hired him—purely for the idiot's own good. Naturally he is infinitely skilled in the ways offish and game. I have rarely met one like that. I go along with Negley Farson.
Farson was one of those swashbuckling American foreign correspondents who flourished between the World Wars. He took his rod with him when he covered the rise of Hitler, and between dispatches wrote the best fishing book I've read, Going Fishing, unhappily out of print this many a year. He had a lot of trouble with ghillies and guides, especially in Scotland, and in an uncharacteristically ill-humored outburst he wrote—after one of them had broken the tip of his Hardy rod—"Ghillies...need firm handling. The local man always knows more than you do. Also, although he may be clever enough to conceal it, he resents your presence: this 'foreigner' he is taking around. I do not succumb to the philosophy of the local man."
September 28, 1975
Maybe that's not universally true, not even of Scots ghillies, but after four bad days in the boat with Donal I was beginning to think that Farson could have gone a lot further. This matter of the Goat's Toe, for instance. Everywhere you go for Atlantic salmon there is a favored fly or lure, and sometimes it has been favored for half a century without any guide or ghillie seriously questioning its supremacy. On the island of South Uist, off the West Coast of Scotland, where we were now the prisoner-clients of MacDonald, the Goat's Toe was the only fly to use.
Oddly enough, I'd come to South Uist because of Negley Farson and then only because he sneered at it. He'd seen the veranda of the Lochboisdale Hotel paved, he said, with sea trout, but discovered that the fishing was booked up for that and for the following season. "It is a place I have no wish to go back to," he wrote loftily. "The fishing seemed almost a business there. It was too well organized. Still, if you want to be sure of catching masses of fine sea trout, that's the place." Well, Farson's book came out more than three decades ago, something I should have taken into consideration. As he promised, it had certainly been difficult to book a week's fishing, but the big sea trout were there no longer, or very few of them. Nobody had fouled the water or netted the fish: they had been driven out-by salmon.
Not literally. Big sea-run brown trout are the more pugnacious species, and the South Uist salmon run small, averaging seven or eight pounds. The latter, traditionally, had been outnumbered by sea trout in the lochs by about 5 to 1, but in the late 1960s the pattern changed and the ratio was reversed. What happened was that the salmon started to run later in the summer than the sea trout. As they moved up into the same hill streams to spawn, they plowed through the redds the sea trout had made, sluicing their fertilized ova downstream. So now, instead of having the finest sea-run browns in Scotland, South Uist has a run of modest-sized salmon. When there is a run at all.
Williams and I, the doctor, the navy commander, the two cattle dealers and the Church of Scotland minister, who formed a fishing party at the Lochboisdale Hotel, reckoned any run would be worth waiting for. The fish, we'd been told, moved from the Atlantic into a handful of small shallow lochs. There they rested in the lochs until the fall. All those weeks they watched flies, a thousand Goat's Toes, swim past their noses until they became the most sophisticated fish in Scotland. You couldn't approach them on salmon tackle. You needed a No. 6 line, size 10 or even size 12 flies and a 3X leader. They were well-rested fish, too, not like spring salmon that had just fought their way up 50 miles of river. On what was virtually trout tackle they were a formidable angling prospect. For a try at them, through the best part of a bad week, we had put up with the rigors of both the Clan MacDonald and the island of South Uist.
South Uist dangles, like some kind of green afterthought, almost at the end of the island chain of the Outer Hebrides. Northward, islands like Lewis and Harris have all the trappings of the romantic Highlands—mountains, eagles and heather. South Uist has bogland, one significant hill, some wet, defeated-looking sheep and the MacDonalds. The worst of it all, I reckoned, was Donal—and his obsession with the Goat's Toe. For four successive days Williams and I had flogged the entirely unresponsive waters of Lochs Roag and Fada, the School-house Loch and the Mill Loch. Nothing, and according to Donal it was simply because we lacked Goat's Toes. None of the guests had actually seen such a fly. The last had been cracked off or snagged under a stone weeks before we arrived, and we couldn't even tie one because Donal was vague about the dressing. ("A bit of red wool. A bit of peacock in it somewhere.") The game book in the hotel lobby indeed recorded that until the last one was lost around mid-August almost every fish that season had fallen to the mysterious killer. Since then catches had dwindled. In other parts of the world barroom chat revolves around money or sex. At Lochboisdale, we talked about the Goat's Toe. That was while we were still talking.
It didn't take us long to discover that the Goat's Toe was a crude alibi. The truth was that four of the lochs—Roag, Fada, Schoolhouse and Mill—had hardly produced a fish all season. Nearly all the salmon had come from Lochs Kildonan and Bharp. Theoretically this meant that during a week's fishing—i.e., six days, since it is illegal, because of some Sabbatarian hangover, to catch a Scottish salmon on a Sunday—you could expect four bad days and two good ones. Possibly. There were plenty of fish in Kildonan, but you needed precisely the correct weather—a moderate blow from the west or southwest. Anything else, and the fish wouldn't move. Anything stronger, and the sand from the bottom would be stirred up, making it too cloudy to fish. On the other hand, for rocky Loch Bharp, you needed a flailing westerly gale.
Naturally the guests fished the lochs in rotation, Williams and I sharing a boat. And the weather, for those who had risen to the top of the rotation and fished the two hot lochs, had been hopeless. Outside the hotel on a long pole was a weather vane, appropriately a wrought-iron sea trout, and all week it had stayed still or creaked uncertainly to light airs from the north as the sun blazed down. Nightly the guests gathered in front of the television for the weather forecast and nightly it promised more of the same conditions. Surface politeness was maintained, but the early camaraderie was soon eroded. Williams and I, with our days on the two favored lochs coming at the end of the week, began to find ourselves alone after dinner except when one of the others was foolish enough to proposition us about changing our schedule.
The navy commander, for instance, must have considered us very naive. "Might take a tramp over the moors tomorrow," he said to us, smiling toothily and falsely. "Carry a trout rod with me. Leaves Kildonan free, of course. If you fellows would like to fish it...?" His smile faded in the face of Williams' steady glower.
Social life, no matter what the state of fishing, would have been severely curtailed by Miss Morag, an enemy of drink who presided over the cocktail bar except during her unexplained, 20-minute absences superbly timed to coincide with the moment when you were gathering your thoughts to order a fresh drink. When you did get one, it was accompanied by a look of such distaste that after a couple of attempts most of us frequented the seedy public bar at the back of the hotel, where it was possible to watch Donal laying the foundations of next day's appalling hangover. You could also watch the early television forecast there. This was where the evening of Day Four found Williams and me, waiting to hear our fate, for the following morning we were to fish Kildonan. There was not likely to be any change, the man said. A light northerly airstream would cover Scotland. The temperature would be above average. The sighs of relief from the two cattle dealers, whose chance was yet to come, were all too audible. We left without offering them a drink.
I didn't bother to go into breakfast until nine next morning. Williams was spooning moodily at his porridge. "Another beautiful day!" said the tiny waitress brightly. Williams snarled something happily inaudible. From the dining room window of the Lochboisdale Hotel it's not possible to see the iron trout, but all of the little rock-girt harbor is in view. Gray Atlantic seals bobbed in and out of the water and a couple of lobster boats rubbed themselves against the wooden pier, a pleasing sight to anyone less jaded than Williams and I. We scarcely noticed it; on this particular morning, I must have been staring at it for a good 10 minutes before I was aware of a difference on the face of the water.
All week it had been oily, with no more ripple than could be raised by a seal's cough. Now it had changed. The surface blurred over. Small wavelets began to slap white at the bottom of the rocks and the sunlight in the dining room faded as if somebody had turned down a rheostat. And the wavelets were running from the southwest. I stood up and grasped Williams by the arm. "Look at it," I said. We both stared like children watching the first snow of the winter and praying that it wouldn't stop. Then we went outside.
The iron trout had moved. It indicated southwest. Bundles of gray cumulus clouds were building up over the Atlantic. The commander, the doctor, the cattle dealers and the minister followed us out, watched silently for a moment and wont in again. Except the minister. He said, feelingly, "Aren't you the lucky ones?" and then, doubtless recalling the 10th Commandment, the one about covetousness, gave us a bless-you-my-children smile and a backslap. We stacked our tackle into the car, afraid to make each other any promises, and drove up the road to collect Donal.
He was waiting on the corner, and he looked awful, his face more fragmented than ever, his eyes like coals of fire. He got into the car, moaning softly, and my heart sank. We had this miraculous God-given day, but we were in the hands of Donal. We drove to Kildonan in near silence: to ask Donal what he thought of our chances might be too much for him, I thought, but when we'd arrived and were setting up the fly rods he said, "It is a verra great shame that you have no Goat's Toes. You might have caught a fish today." He lowered his eyelids in response to some inner secret pain and shuffled off to the boat.
I tied on a Connemara Black, size 10. A dark fly for a dark day. There was 90% cloud cover now and the wave on Kildonan was exactly as we had been told it should be, lively but not big enough to stir up the bottom sand. Donal brought the boat around. "I'm taking you to the House of Commons first," he said.
We knew enough about Kildonan to be aware of what that meant. The loch was small, and there were just two good fishing areas in it, both on the eastern side, both shallow stony bays with clumps of reed stretching out from the shore. The House of Commons was the first, so-called because it held just ordinary-sized fish. But the House of Lords, ah, yes, the House of Lords! That was where the giant sea trout lived. Donal's plan, as he unfolded it to us now, was to fish the House of Commons first, saving the House of Lords until after lunch.
So we sneaked up on the House of Commons, Donal keeping the boat beam-on to the wind and holding her so that we could fish out the casts slowly. On the second drift, about the fourth cast, the light southwesterly wind theory was vindicated. The Connemara Black dropped into a swirl of whiskey-colored water behind a boulder no more than six feet from the shore and was comprehensively engulfed. There was the moment of brick-wall resistance you always get when you hook a salmon, then a bright eight-pounder was pitching itself out of the yellow foam and Donal, his eyes popping, was hauling on the oars to give me water room away from shore in which to play the fish.
This was a wild one, bright and fresh run into the loch. The old rule says it should take a minute to the pound to land a salmon, but this one took three times as long. By then we were out in the middle of the loch and the fish had nearly killed itself before Donal put the landing net under it, and the same was true of Donal himself. There is an honorable custom in Scotland, though, that the whiskey is passed round when a salmon is killed. We toasted it in turn, and Williams and I looked away politely as Donal uptilted the flask, not wanting to appear curious about the length of his swallow. The reward was just enough. "Verra weel!" Donal shouted. "We'll go back for another. Have you any Connemara Blacks at all?" he demanded of Williams, who was already tying one on.
Within minutes he was into a fish the twin of mine, but it jumped a couple of times and threw the hook; we'd been told that because of small flies the percentage of South Uist fish that become unstuck is high. But this was going to be a good morning. Ten minutes later Williams got another chance and a salmon only a little smaller was soon alongside mine in the stern of the boat. And there was still the House of Lords to come.
We should have headed there straight away instead of going ashore for lunch. We'd have got an hour at least among the aristocratic sea trout. But, as the minister might have said to us consolingly, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." No sooner had we brushed off the crumbs and screwed up the flask than the wind got up hard, whistling in from the Atlantic and kicking up whitecaps. A new man now, Donal pulled into the teeth of it, but by the time we crossed the loch the discoloration was already obvious in the water. "The man who is fishing Loch Bharp this afternoon," said Donal meaningfully, "will need to have plenty of whiskey with him." Not to keep out the cold, naturally, but to toast the many fish that would be coming aboard. I'd forgotten that it was the doctor's day on Bharp. Maybe, after all, Williams and I would not be the only ones to use the weighing scales and then bend modestly over the game book to make out entries. With that thought in mind both of us flogged the water harder than ever, even though it had taken on a pale yellow muddiness and Donal had lapsed into sardonic silence after suggesting several times that we go home. He was right, of course. We had to admit that in the end. We left off fishing early and headed back to Lochboisdale.
But at least we could bloody the scales, although, being the first back to the hotel, we had no audience. I weighed the fish, then opened the game book and wrote the date and the weather conditions, then "Gammon and Williams. 2 salmon. 8 lbs. and 7 lbs. Fly: Goat's Toe." Williams nodded approvingly. He saw the tactics: First fluster the opposition—where had we got our Goat's Toes?—then make it feel at a severe disadvantage by subtly confirming their already strong belief that it was no use trying anything else. It's a cruel business, hotel salmon fishing in Scotland.
In spite of Miss Morag, who turned up the Gaelic folk music program on her transistor as soon as we walked in, we took up our position in the cocktail bar. It might be inhospitable, but it gave us a fine view of the hotel entrance. If the doctor came in staggering under a load of fish we would have a little time to prepare ourselves. Meantime, one by one the others arrived, passed the cocktail bar and disappeared to their rooms. Nothing to fear there. The commander, indeed, seemed to be muttering to himself as he stumped through the door. It was almost dark before we heard the doctor's car.
He parked with the car facing us, and he and his wife spent an eternity around back, rummaging in the trunk; all we could see was a side view of the rear end of his tweed trousers as he maneuvered to lift some heavy object. A big canvas bag with six, seven, maybe eight salmon in it I guessed fearfully.
But no. The sky seemed to lighten. He emerged burdened with an elaborate picnic basket. His wife carried a movie camera and a couple of camping seats. Truth dawned. Putting too much trust in the weather forecast, he had promised to take his wife on a tour of the island. Remorselessly, she had held him to it. Smiling in a friendly style, Williams and I emerged from the bar to greet them.
Negley Farson, curiously enough, once found himself in our position in a Scottish hotel. (You'll find it in Chapter IV of Going Fishing.) "Dammit all," Farson quotes an envious admiral, "I'm glad to see anyone catch a salmon." Which, as Farson observed, could have been put otherwise. At Lochboisdale that night there was a similar degree of frigidity. the congratulations were somewhat formal. Only the minister, looking like the martyred St. Sebastian in those medieval paintings with the Roman arrows thunking into him, insisted masochistically on a cast-by-cast description of our day. The doctor and his wife didn't seem to be on speaking terms. Straight after dinner she retreated with her knitting into a corner of the lounge. The weather forecast didn't help to lift the temperature, either. It might have been wrong the night before, but there was no way of misinterpreting the deep low that was now drifting between Iceland and Scotland. Tomorrow there was going to be a gale of westerly wind. Bharp was going to be perfect. Williams and I were down for Bharp.
As we hoped, it turned out a beautiful morning, rain lashing at the window and the wind howling in across the Atlantic. We were the first down to breakfast, and gobbled it fast and alone. We were into our oilskins and away to fetch Donal before there could be any embarrassing encounter with our fellow guests. Donal himself looked in better shape than he'd been all week. "Have ye got them Connemara Blacks?" he enquired fiercely. "There will be slaughter today. A bloody great slaughter."
Kildonan and the other lochs had been flat, desolate places flush with the boggy moorland. Bharp was a long black cleft in the hillside, the rocks rising high above it and the shore strewn with boulders as big as the boat. The gale was sending breakers crashing onto the stones, and with cold, wet fingers it was hard to tie on the small flies. Once afloat, the first drift made it plain that Donal couldn't manage the boat with the two of us in it. The salmon lay along the lee shore, very close in among the stones, so that the boat had to be kept edging across the wind and held a cast's length out from the boulders. We came ashore, flipped a coin and Williams lost. He said he'd go back for a quiet morning and a hot lunch. Then we'd switch around and he'd fish the afternoon session.
I was into my first salmon before the noise of the car had dwindled, an 11-pounder. In the rest of the morning I encountered four more fish. Two broke off on the strike, snapping the 3X leader as the fly was being retrieved fast. The other two I landed, both 10-pounders.
While the last salmon was being fought the wind shrieked even higher and drove the boat in on the shore, fortunately onto soft bog between the boulders. It was a miracle getting that fish out, and I was glad to see Williams arrive, silhouetted on the hilltop against the storm. There'd been no time or shelter to toast the fish I'd caught. Now we dragged the boat up and ate and drank in the lee of a low stone wall. Then, thankfully, I left Donal and Williams to it.
"Not fishing?" the minister inquired courteously as I sat in front of the fire later that afternoon. He'd come in early, dripping and fishless from Loch Roag. I explained, and confessed my catch which I'd left in the bottom of the boat. "Yes. I see," said the minister. He sought for some more positive cheery words but failed. I mentioned that it was time for me to fetch my friend. "Would you mind," said the minister, "if I came along with you?" I don't think he doubted my word about the salmon. He just craved to be where the action was.
And, theatrically, the moment we walked over the ridge of hill and looked down onto Bharp, we saw Williams' rod bent into a fish. For nearly half an hour we watched him play it in the wind and rain until Donal stood up in the boat and bent over with the net. It was a very red fish, around nine pounds, the fifth boated for the day.
Farson had also had a second day of triumph when he alone brought a salmon into the hotel. "That night," he records, "nobody offered me a drink. The hate had set in."
And, indeed, I thought we might have gone a little too far ourselves. The minister had clearly signed on as one of our party, exclaiming happily as, one by one, we hoisted our fish on the scales. But the commander, the cattle dealers, the doctor, how would they react? Farson, I'm afraid, must have run into a bad crowd. At the Lochboisdale Hotel, once the battle was over, there was a generous acceptance of the result, even when later on I confessed about the Goat's Toe.
In truth, this was much later on, when another victory had been won by the age-old method of strength in numbers. Our fellow anglers, admittedly stunned at first by the sight of five salmon laid out on the marble slab, had rallied, though I can't recall who it was that first suggested that we all go and try one in the cocktail bar. Until then Miss Morag had found it all too easy to put one or two lonely demoralized fishermen to flight. Faced with a crowd she crumbled, though she held out until the singing started. Then she slipped away and one of the bright-eyed girls from the dining room took her place. "Miss Morag didn't feel well," she explained.
It was even later when the four strangers walked into the bar, just off the car ferry. At that point, I recall, Donal himself was leading the singing of Will Ye No' Come Back Again? and Williams was trying to waltz with the doctor's wife. These men were clearly the new fishing intake. I beckoned them over to join our group. "I hope," I said to them, "that you've brought plenty of Goat's Toes with you."