Voices from the Past…

anthonyglasgowblogThe regular reader of my articles will find it no surprise that I like to read about fishing. I have a particular fondness for old fishing books from the late nineteenth to mid 20th Century period. A gentler time perhaps (certainly for the class of individual free to indulge a love of fishing on the many private estates of the time!) and certainly a slower paced one, where man seemed to work more in tune with nature than we do now. It is interesting, of course, to note that these ancient writers also chronicled a similar view of their previous generations. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose …

I am an infrequent but frustrated collector of such books, and I was very recently and very kindly given a lovely 1943 volume of ‘How to Catch Trout’ by a friend and colleague. I don’t think Paul realised that I have such a love of books from this time, but he certainly picked the right genre if only by generous accident. My long suffering wife tells me that I write with a very old fashioned style and vocabulary; some other commentators too have noted my use of rather archaic language – I was commended by Paul for using such an expression as ‘sallied forth…’ in a previous article about fishing Pitcarmick Loch. Not quite a contemporary phrase apparently.

In truth, whether or not my writing is intentionally out of touch or not, I do love the way angling writers of the early 20th Century used language to describe their love of this common passion. I noted in my appreciation for the way in which Edward Charlton wrote about Ferox fishing in 1873 that, no matter the date when he penned his words, he was still expressing the same enjoyment that I, many years later, get from the same pursuit. For me, the main selling point of any work on angling, be it ancient or modern, is that it conveys an enthusiasm for both fishing and the places we fish.

One of my favourite works is ‘Loch Trout’ by Colonel H A Oatts published in 1958. Not only is it a superb and engaging read, it has the added attraction of some lovely black and white photographs of the Colonel boat fishing various highland lochs. I must add now that my better half is not so enamoured as each plate shows the Colonel enjoying his leisurely sport whilst his poor wife sits at the oars! In this regard, plate IX is superb and my words can not do justice to the dated ‘relationship’ it encapsulates. I do not recommend that you show such photos to your good lady whilst suggesting that they demonstrate how a loving wife should still behave these days…relations may become frosty.

The Colonel relaxing on the loch – from ‘Loch Trout’

The Colonel relaxing on the loch – from ‘Loch Trout’

No such worries with ‘Wade the River, Drift the Loch’ compiled in 1948 by Mr R Macdonald Robertson which as the inner sleeve states combines the merits of two different types of books; the instructional and the reminiscent. From the Editor’s preface, which quotes Sir Herbert Maxwell “The charm of scenery is the chief  accessory to the angler’s enjoyment” this dated tomb still manages to serve up a wonderful menu of angling anecdotes from yesteryear plus some more wonderful black and white plates. My particular favourite shows an intrepid, earnest-faced  soul in tweed and kilt ensemble (perhaps Mr Macdonald Robertson himself) perched high on a rock surveying a distant loch through a telescope with the caption ‘Detecting a rise on a Highland Loch’ – they don’t make ’em like that anymore! Having experienced the midges of the Highlands for many years, I have immense respect for anyone willing to endure their attentions dressed in a kilt. Perhaps I miss-read his earnest expression and it was more one of torment…


The book provides a sad reminder however of how much of our fishing is but a shadow of its former glory, in particular that of the West-Coast. The Chapter on Loch Maree in Wester Ross –  ‘the finest loch fishing in Scotland’ according to the sign that used to sit in the Loch Maree Hotel – could no longer be seen as anything other than ironic despite its continued scenic splendour.

My love of old angling books goes all the way back to school where I have to confess I was put in a moral quandary. There was a certain ancient tomb ‘Battles with Giant Fish’ which was clearly a niche interest as I was the only pupil to ever sign it out. It told the story of  a certain Mr Mitchell-Hedges’ expedition on his rather grand yacht from Jamaica to Panama, where as well as doing dubious amounts of collecting of specimens ‘for scientific purposes’ he and his friends spent many hours fishing for big sharks, tarpon, giant saw-fish and all manner of exotic species. He was accompanied by Lady M. Richmond Brown who seemed to enjoy the blood-thirsty pursuits and chronicled their exploits in the many photographs of Mitchell-Hedges’ captured leviathans. Great stuff for a 15-year old who loved fishing and adventure!

My moral quandary was that I often thought about simply keeping it as I was clearly the only reader – but I am proud to say that good prevailed over evil and I returned it. However, sad was the day when I found out it had been thrown out by the librarian doubtless because of its lack of general popularity! I’m not sure what moral this story has, but I don’t feel better for not having it on my bookcase to enjoy of a winter’s evening in front of a log fire with a dram to hand.

If you have never taken the time to read and hear the wisdom of our angling forebears (flawed as some of it most definitely was – take the chapter on the benefits of fish-farming in highland lochs in ‘Wade the River, Drift the Loch’!), then I can only recommend that you do. If you pick the right books they will not only amuse and inform you, but they might also inspire you to value our native fishing all the more as you will see the dangers in allowing a steady decline of the value of game fishing to our Country.

Nostalgia, they say, is not what it used to be.

Anthony Glasgow

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