Caught by the River

A Loch Full of Herring

4th April 2021

Richard Fleming returns to the loch to set a herring net.

Latheronwheel, by Nick Holmes

There would be ice on the loch maybe, and stags roaring up in Coire nan Laoch. Findlay might persuade Eddie Lub an Eòrna to give him a lift along the lochside. ‘They say the herring were playing in the Camas Dhu last night’, Findlay might say. The herring, coming into the loch to breed, might, like the phosphorescence, be here one night and gone the next. ‘Will we try a net? he’d say. Findlay had a physique you’d often see in the West of Ireland and the Western Highlands in those days. He was tall and rangy and looked as if he couldn’t fill his clothes properly. He was old enough not always to notice if he had a drip on his nose, and he lived in the old family home by the lochside with his brother. He was open and hospitable, and if you were there at tea-time he’d clear a space to put you a fresh sheet of the Daily Record on the table. He’d made a start at teaching my dog Gaelic, too. I knew I liked him a lot even then, but now it feels as if maybe I loved him, in a way, though I have only recently started to admit that kind of thing.

When the English gave the lairds the chance to live by English laws and English fashions, the highlanders had three alternatives: to emigrate, to look after the sheep and deer on the lands emptied of people in the highland clearances, or to try to find food and shelter along the coastline. Eddie’s people had lived in the glen, where there had been clachans full of the McRae’s when Boswell and Johnson passed by in 1773.  Eddie’s home at Lub an Eòrna had been a place, judging by the name, where it was possible to grow a crop of barley, and the family had stayed when everyone else had left because they made themselves useful to whoever owned the estate. When I knew him his house alongside General Wade’s military road, a road built the better to rule the Highlands, had been demolished to make way for the tourist road that had a whole wide glen to run through, and he had moved down the lochside to become Findlay’s neighbour. Findlay’s people must have been from well inland, judging by his surname, and had ended on the coast, subsisting on shellfish. Luckily there came a boom in herring fishing, and herring ran through Findlay’s life as sheep ran through Eddie’s. He built his own boat before he was twenty. He would tell me of the days when herring were so plentiful his grandfather could catch them from the shore with a blanket, and ‘you could walk across Loch Hourn on the decks of the herring boats’. 

I thought  that autumn evening we were just going to go fishing, but now I see we were catching at something else.  Just before dark Findlay and Eddie came up the loch in Findlay’s wooden launch with a couple of herring nets, and I rowed over in the curach with my nets to meet them in the Camas Dhu. There was much discussion about how and where to set the nets, about the tides and the depths and the currents. Maybe this was  a re-enactment of the skills that had always been part of the fishing, like Findlay’s stories of hanging a weight from a piano wire to feel for the shoals below as the fish strummed the wire in the dark. In the end we left the nets, anchored, set and fishing, where I think Findlay had planned to set them all along. In the morning we’d be back to see what we had caught. As I rowed home in the dark I could hear the porpoises snorting all around me, so near that their fishy breath-spray drifted across the boat. They would have followed the herring up the loch, a good sign for the night’s fishing. I stopped at my set-net at the point and gave it a jerk to see if there were any sea-trout in it, and the phosphorescence lit it from end to end.

In the morning there was thin ice on the loch, and when we started to lift the end of the first net we could see there were too many herring in the nets for us to take out in the launch.  Herring in a drift net freshly caught are iridescent, beautiful as salmon, slim and lithe. Maybe part of the excitement was the beauty of each fish, or maybe it was the glimpse of what lay beneath the waters, most of which was usually only hinted at by the surface wash of salmon swims, or by the gulls chasing the fry being chased by mackerel shoals.  The small herring would have slipped through our meshes, and the bigger ones would have bounced off meshes too small to gill them. What we had caught was just a glimpse of a huge shoal that had met there last night to mate not as individuals but communally, charging the waters of the Camas Dhu with a promiscuous fog of eggs and sperm. 

We took the nets to the pier and shook the herring out, and I was sent to the fish merchant twenty miles away to get some fish boxes and proper fish-preserving salt. Then we met up in the bar. We stood there side by side, men who had been doing something important, re-enacting the creation myth or suchlike. And when we left, on the carpet by the bar, were three rings of herring scales that had dried and fallen off our oilskins as we talked.

‘Will you come with us tonight?’, said Eddie. 

They came back that night in Eddie’s van, and we set off through the darkness with me and the fish and the salt in the back, Eddie and Findlay talking in their quiet Gaelic in the front. It was just like being kidnapped in the films. I have no idea where we went, but every stop was at a quiet cottage up some glen, home of an old couple or a lonely widower maybe who took a portion of herring and a portion of salt. They wanted to make salt herring, the staple food of their childhoods. That’s why I’d had to get the salt. 

In every house there was a dram , and lively gaelic craic and laughter. These weren’t people who got many visitors.. These were all people living in lonely places, accustomed, like the Blasket islanders ashore in Dingle, to make the most of the occasion. Findlay would try to explain the punch-lines for me, but he could not keep up, and there was a dram at the next house, and memories of the end of that night are blurred. 

Even at the time I knew that I was fortunate to be included in this rite. Maybe they enlisted me because I had a boat and nets. Maybe that marked me out as someone with a respect for things that Findlay and Eddie valued, whether that was the fishing in itself or fishing as a keystone activity in their history and culture. I’d like to think they liked me as much as I liked them, but whatever the truth of that it feels now as if to have been included was much more than fishing. It was simply witnessing them being the last of the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders in their home place, taking gifts of fish and salt to everyone of their generation in the glens.

I don’t think anyone there has Gaelic now. Findlay used to tell me the Gaelic names of all the features we passed as we sailed along the coast in his launch, explaining how they got their names. There was mythology, fairy tales and real verifiable history embedded in these place names. Men like Findlay lived in a landscape that recorded the history and language of their people. When the culture of the English took over the lands of the highlanders, and made a tartan mockery of their culture, and uprooted and dispossessed them and replaced them with sheep, and oppressed their language out of them and made their place names meaningless to them, this was just routine cultural and linguistic genocide that could have been happening anywhere in the empire. Maybe the English feared the subversive possibilities of language, like those tourists who even now with quite unconscious narcissism assume that Welsh-speakers are talking about them. And who am I to judge Findlay’s and Eddie’s vanishing language and culture to be any better than that of the English second-homers who bought their houses? But I know who I’d rather go fishing herring with, given the chance again. And why, in the graveyard at Leacachan with all the other Gaelic speakers of the district, are their tombstones carved in English?


You can read a previous piece by Richard, on fishing for salmon, here. You can also follow him on Substack.

Nick Holmes is a photographer based on Mull. His colour photographs are the selective results of an ongoing exploration of the ephemeral interface between water, air, light, rock/sand. His most recent solo exhibition was ‘Water & Light’ at The Bear Steps Gallery, Shrewsbury, and his most recent residency ‘Isabella Bird: A Lady’s Life in The Rockies, Revisited’, in the Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.