In years gone by the shores of Loch Ochgall had been populated by three rather grand Victorian lodges that, after years of economic downturn, had been rented out to keen anglers and their not so keen families. It was a wild and inhospitable part of the Highlands, and out of season its population consisted of a handful of hardy crofters, often seen frowning into the wind or poking a shepherds crook into the peaty ground in a morose fashion. Of course this only increased the desirability of the fishing lodges, and since the crofters relied heavily on reselling supermarket produce to home county housewives to supplement their meagre margins, it would not be unfair to say that to a certain extent they played the character that was expected of them.
There had of course been periods of scarcity. The popularity of their Loch had not always been so strong, and to an extent neither had the idea of holidays in Scotland. During these periods, when not preventing the omnipresent sheep from committing imaginative suicide, they engaged in a craft much younger than animal husbandry, and fortunately much more profitable: distilling.
A British government imposing a nationwide lockdown will, in most cases, have the desired effect. The people of these islands are fundamentally opposed to tyranny, but they are also opposed to rule breaking. Sporting spirit can mean different things to different people, and it was one Englishman, John Hook, who now arrived at the Loch to find it completely devoid of other tourists, his desire for outdoor game having driven him, quite literally, overnight from Gloucestershire.
He could not rent any of the lodges or their cottages, and when he went and looked in at the farms he found them curiously quiet – no eggs for this breakfast. He parked up on the verge by a small conifer plantation and set up his one man tent a little into the trees to allow him some privacy. Despite his long journey John was not tired, and he set about collecting his equipment. A combined game and tackle bag with his father’s initials cut into the leather strap, a new rod, courtesy of his now ex wife, in its protective tube. He threw these over one shoulder and threw his shoulders as he walked until they sat comfortably.
It was not a long walk down to the pebbly shore of the loch, which at this particular point had some current as the water flowed in from the frigid mountain stream which bounced and ran down the crooked path it had cut for itself from some unseen source. He sat for a time a little away from the shore, bag on his lap, and assembled his rod, attaching the reel, which was much better than the rod, and running the line through the eyelets until he had enough length. Then, with the same low head and careful eyes as a master forger, he selected a suitable fly and commenced with tying it on. Other men his age took delight in painting minute model soldiers, toiling over them with extreme patience, taking pleasure in the detail. So too did John work on his fly.
It was almost getting dark when he finished. A small marmite sandwich at lunch had been all the sustenance he had required that day as he cast up and down the bank, not rushing, but with definite purpose that lent a certain air of professional dignity as he worked. The result at the end was three brown trout caught and one fly lost to the waters. He had returned the first and third trout, being rather small, but the third had been a satisfying battle that seemed to him to have lasted much longer than the minute and a half it took for him to sweep his net beneath the writhing fish. It was as John cooked the trout on his travel stove, having gutted it by the bank, that he realised he had still not seen a single person that day. Indeed the only movement at all had been a flat bed earlier in the afternoon making steady progress up a farm track that rose into the hills behind the loch in the same direction as the small feeder stream. It seemed odd to him, even given the current nonsense, but he did not mind. John was at this point in his life much happier alone than in the company of others, the loss of his parents followed by his wife’s departure having forced the growth of an outer shell developed to deter and repel social interactions.
John slept well that night and did not notice the native inhabitants entering their homes at a later hour, returning from their mysterious task and bidding one another a swift good night, knowing they had a long day ahead of them.
John awoke late. His phone had died in the night and no alarm had bothered him. By the time he had changed and readied himself his watch read half past ten. The breeze that had on the previous day swept down the valley was now gone, and the midges, until this point barely noticeable, were with every minute building their strength and numbers. By the time John was on his second cast of the day he was being overwhelmed by their irritating dive bombing. Looking up to the hill he saw the tops of the timber line swaying slightly, and knew immediately that if he was to fish today it must be up on that higher ground in the breeze.
He packed his kit and set off at a good pace, and although as he ascended the slopes his pace slowed, his mood improved from earlier. The doldrums of the bottom of the valley were slipping away and as the wind picked up the midges dropped away. The idea of fishing after a long walk was one he relished. Alone, the loch to himself, never to be bothered by a single person. The farm track he followed might even take his car, he could drive up his kit and camp there. It was as he imagined a new life for himself, one of solitude on top of his mountain, a hermit angler never to return to civilization, that a sound made him stop and turn. The same flat bed he had seen before sped up the track towards him, its rear over crowded with people in a mix of work clothes and highland dress. They cheered and the driver worked his horn as they passed, leaving John indignant in a cloud of dust, his dreams of monastic fishing disappearing from his mind along with hooligan omnibus. John was not one to give up on an idea half finished, and so, with a little less spring in his step, he resumed his climb. He would simply and politely avoid these people.
It was not long before he was half way, and had to step off the road again to let another vehicle pass, this one similarly laden. This was becoming too much, and, taking himself off the road by a few feet, he continued his climb, head down, hat pushed back to protect his neck from the sun that was nearing its zenith. He ignored the other cars passing him with increasing frequency, he even declined two offers to a lift given in the harsh brogue of the hills.
There were several moments on the last stretch of the climb, when John reached a false summit or took a moment to cup the clear water in his hands and throw some on his face and neck, when he steeled himself for what he was to find. Was it just enthusiastic workers? He hoped that it was nothing more than a large shearing session, but with the margins involved in sheep farming, especially in these hills, it was likely something much worse. Finally he came to the summit and stopped to survey the ground. He was above the timber line now and the breeze flowed over him, picking up the heat of the sun and the sweat of the climb, cooling him instantly. The road and the stream were separated now by only a small strip of heather and a pebble bank, before the water expanded its mass into the body of a small loch, less than a quarter the size of the Ochgall below. The road ran to the right, following the steep side of the higher valley until it gently smoothed into a meadow of some size. At one end of the meadow was an old ruined cottage, but this was nearly completely obscured by a sight that repulsed Mr Hook. A crowd was gathered, with tables and awnings set up, their vehicles all parked up and disgorging the contents off into the great party gathered there.
John walked on. He would push past the party and head to the far end of the Loch; that seemed to him the only solution available that did not involve either wading the fast moving stream or turning back after such a long climb. Hoisting his kit back up into a comfortable position his legs carried him forward, appreciating the flatter ground. The breeze carried the sounds of people laughing and the smell of barbeque. It had been some time since John had eaten and his stomach pined; it had been even longer since he had heard the genuine laughter of a crowd, and he felt a strange tug in his chest. With his body assaulting him with a confused soup of animal desires his pace increased without his notice, until he was on the periphery of the gathering.
The party was centred around the ruined cottage that had been decorated with ribbons, and a tarp had been spread across the top to protect what appeared to John to be a large amount of copper and pipes. Beside the cottage, in what would have been a small lean to for storage, was a collection of barrels, one of which was now filling small bottles being handed around. John was just explaining to the large man in a kilt who was offering him a lamb roll that he wasn’t actually part of the celebrations when another man thrust one of the small bottles of whisky into his hands. It had been a long time since Mr Hook had taken spirits of any kind. It was only after the crowd around him had decried his protests with such force and he had remembered his manners that John took a long drought. Cask strength possesses its own magical force, one that warms a man to his core and twists its way into the cracks of the soul.
After this first sip life took a strange turn for Mr Hook. Soon the flurry of an impromptu reeling session, an attempt to partake in some high spirited and hotly contested mini highland games, and what sounded like a score of pipers on the rim of the valley playing ‘Steam Train to Mallaig’, then everything went black. He awoke two days later in his tent, his head pounding and his body aching, but his soul healed and his heart warming to the sounds of the crofters and their families going about their business.
By William Prior