Caught by the River


2nd February 2012

An extract from Jon Berry’s new book A Train To Catch:

If one journey typified the travels of adventurous Victorians, it was the grand tour of Scotland. These were not the third-class day trips enjoyed by ordinary Thamesmen, but extended excursions for the moneyed gentleman hunter. Shotguns, servants and rod boxes with Pall Mall addresses would be loaded on to the north-bound trains, with stags and salmon waiting dutifully at the end of the line.

That is how I have always imagined it, anyway, and the literature of the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries suggests there was some truth in this. The writings of T. H. White, Frederick Aflalo, Captain Albert F. L. Bacon and countless others record an age of endless salmon and wild moors, peat-fired lodges and wisened ghillies in kilts, and a world of rigid class distinction where everything – including the salmon – had its rightful place. The Grand Tour was as much a part of a wealthy gentleman’s life as his London club, his alma mater or his mistress.

A century ago, seven different rail companies puffed and bellowed in to Scotland, and local branch lines often provided stations within walking distance of favoured salmon pools, lochs and lodges. For the Victorian angler with sufficient funds, it could be easy. Today, the Anglo-Scottish border is crossed only by the East and West Coast lines, and the network beyond Inverness is fragmented at best. Ticket prices can be outrageous for those who cannot book months in advance, and the reality is that it is cheaper to travel from England to France for its gigantic carp and catfish than it is to take a train to Scotland and try to search out one of its dwindling stocks of salmon.

Bloated Gallic cyprinids were not part of angling’s golden age, however, and therefore have no place in this story, and so I booked a return ticket to Perth. I’ve long regarded this delightful town on the banks of the Tay as the gateway to the highlands, though locals would suggest the real mountains begin farther north.

My plan from there was loose at best – it was the beginning of August, and I knew from previous experience that the grilse might just be running up the Cromarty Firth, past the Black Isle and in to the Averon. This, as always, would depend upon whether there was any water in the river, and I wouldn’t know that until I got there. If the water was low and the salmon were in the estuary, there were trout in Sutherland that I knew I could catch, mackerel off the pier at Ullapool, a ferox-fishing ghillie on Loch Ness I had long wanted to meet and a deep limestone loch full of ghosts in the far north at Cape Wrath. My car was back in Wiltshire with a flat battery and perforated exhaust, and so the entire tour would rely upon trains, buses and the kindness of others. To complicate matters, Vic had decided to come with me to take photographs and see what all the fuss was about. We had two weeks in front of us, and only the vaguest of itineraries – up the East Coast and back down the West, with two travel rods and a rucksack full of flies and spinners. There would be no servants to carry the equipment, no loch-side stations and only an outside chance of a wisened old man in a kilt to net our fish. This was a Grand Tour, proletarian-style.

The east-coast line to Inverness is one of my favourites. The mountains grow and darken once Perth is left behind; low-lying farming land gives way to the slate grey vista of the sheep crofter, and the old iron rails, which have carried fishermen in to the north for over a century, cross countless burns and rivers. I travelled this line many times as a boy, always on the night sleeper from London with brother and I squeezed in to a single bunk, and was in my ‘thirties before I did so in daylight. It is a journey which, for me, encapsulates all that is Scottish and special. Only the Kyle of Lochalsh line, which crosses the Highlands from East to West, rivals it.

The construction of the east-coast line was late by the standards of railway mania, but it still met with considerable opposition. In 1892, the introduction to The Wild Sports and Natural History of the Highlands had the following to say: The railways driven far into wastes of trackless bog and heather, now admit countless tourists to the most retired districts. Their taste for shooting and fishing, and the charm of a freer life than can be found in the great cities, have planted castles and shooting lodges all over Scotland. But it has pressed with great severity upon all wild life especially birds and beasts like the osprey, kite and pine marten, that are rapidly approaching extinction.

The ecological impact of the railways in remoter regions was something that I rarely considered during my journeys, though I probably should have done. The benefits of the railways, for me, always outweighed the losses. Trains democratised travel in an age when the poor got a rough deal in all other aspects of everyday life, they brought fresh food to regions that had previously gone without , they mobilised a workforce and enabled the creation of a football league. Trains opened up an island to its inhabitants, and only rarely did I consider the cost. The castles and shooting lodges which once outraged locals are now part of Scotland’s romance, and any environmental consequences have long since been surpassed by the effects of motorways, North Sea oil-drilling, air travel and an endless stream of 4x4s along the A9. If Victorian railway mania carved up the British countryside, subsequent generations have managed to screw it up beyond all recognition. It’s no defence, but it is the truth.

If the landscape had been ruined, it didn’t appear so from our carriage. Vic was entranced, and so was I. The rivers held water but didn’t look especially high, and we saw anglers everywhere – in the Garry and Tummel at Pitlochry, in the Spey at Kingussie, and on streams and burns whose names we didn’t know. Vic pointed out that none of them appeared to be reeling in any fish, and so I explained that this was Scotland, and that they were fishing for salmon and that sometimes these salmon weren’t in the river, and when they were in the river they weren’t really supposed to feed. ‘I see’, she said. ‘So why exactly are we here?’

A Train To Catch is published by the Medlar Press.