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The River Tay

Written by Bruce Sandison

sandisonWe slept in the heather beneath an ink-black, star-bright sky. A velvet cloud of pipistrelle bats whisked out into the darkness from nearby ruined croft buildings. A fox barked sharply in the distance. A solemn owl ghosted by on silent wings. Late curlew called hauntingly. Loch water lapped the shores of my dreams and sleep came easy in that warm night.

This resting-place was on the margins of Loch Ordie in Perthshire, high above the River Tay near the old cathedral City of Dunkeld. Our Boy Scout camp was based on the banks of the river at Inver Park and we had set out earlier that morning on an adventure hike into the wilderness crags of Deuchary Hill (1,670ft). In these few hours I fell hopelessly in love with the River Tay.

From its source amongst the thread-fingered busy streams of Ben Lui (3,708ft) by Tyndrum, to the vast expanse of the Firth of Tay, the river runs for a distance of 120 miles. It draws strength from an area of more than 2,800 square miles. Water from the mountains of Breadalbane and Glen Lednock feed mighty Loch Tay. They flow from the ribbon lochs of Laidon, Rannoch and Tummel and Forest of Atholl tributaries to mingle tighter in the sea-salt tide by the Fair City of Perth.

During the Scottish Wars of Independence Clan MacDougall won a victory over Robert Bruce at Dalrigh in the hills above Killin at the west end of Loch Tay. The Clan possesses a magnificent brooch, torn from the plaid of the fleeing King of Scots. In 1529, the Earl of Atholl built a hunting lodge in Glen Tilt for the King James V, when 1,000 men were employed to herd deer down from the corries of Beinn a'Ghlo for His Majesty's pleasure. His daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots was similarly entertained in Glen Tilt in 1564 before she herself became the hunted one.

The most famous 'hunted' ones of the Tay today are, however, its Atlantic salmon. For hundreds of years Salmo salar has provided sustenance and sport for Tay fishermen. John Richardson described the salmon fishings in 1788: "The fishings employ between two and three hundred fishers. Six vessels are employed during the season running to and from London which is the principal market. A considerable part are sent fresh in the spring season, and for the past two years the greatest proportion of the fresh salmon has been packed in ice."

Salmon were also abundant in 1922 when Miss Georgina Ballantine caught her famous, record-breaking fish, a salmon weighing 64lb. Over the years the story of its capture has often been disputed; some claim Georgina was not holding the rod when the great fish took; that her father, who was with her at the time, was a gillie who worked on the estate. The truth of the matter is somewhat different.

Her father, James Ballantine was a local businessman, parish Register and an expert angler. He was the last lessee of the Boat of Caputh beat on the river and had been born in a house on the banks of the Boat Pool, from which the huge salmon was taken. James and his daughter and spent the day trolling the pool using preserved dace as bait. They had already landed several large salmon and their catch for the day was in the order of 140lb.

Georgina was small in stature, barely over 5ft tall, and was already showing the signs of the severe arthritis which she increasingly suffered from following her duties a nurse during most of the 1914 – 1918. Their boatman had gone home, but Georgina’s father decided to fish down the pool one last time, with Georgina holding the heavy greenheart rod. The fish took from behind the Bargee stone which lies near the top of the pool and was successfully landed after a great struggle.

The salmon was displayed in the window of PD Malloch's shop in Perth and Georgina stood at the back of the crowd who had gathered to admire it. Two elderly men were particularly overawed by the size of the salmon and Georgian heard them talking: "One said to the other, "A woman? Nae woman ever took a fish like that oot of the water, mon. I would need a horse, a block and tackle, tae tak a fish like that oot. A woman - that's a lee anyway." I had a quiet chuckle up my sleeve and ran to catch the bus," she said.

The Tay has always been famous for the quality and size of its salmon and more than 20 fish weighing over 50lb in weight have been taken from the river. A salmon of 71lb was recorded as being hooked and played, but not landed, in 1868 by Dr Browne, Bishop of Bristol. He was fishing near the mouth of the River Earn, a tributary of the Tay that flows into the Firth of Tay from the south, but after a battle lasting 10 hours the fish broke free.

When the grey finger of dawn inched its way into my sleeping bag, I awoke to find mist shimmering over the calm waters of Loch Ordie. Around me in the heather lay my companions, one by one stirring to greet the coming day. We clattered about, washing in the loch, making breakfast. It was sad to leave, to tramp back down the hill to civilisation. But as we cleared the lower forest the River Tay lay before me like a silver thread, and I felt as though I had returned home.

Bruce Sandison is a writer and journalist and author of nine books, including the definite anglers' guide, 'The Rivers and Lochs of Scotland' which is being revised and updated prior to republishing.
He contributed to 'Trout & Salmon' for 25 years and was angling correspondent for 'The Scotsman' for 20 years. Sandison writes for the magazine 'Fly Fishing and Fly Tying' and provides a weekly angling column in the 'Aberdeen Press & Journal'.

His work, on angling, Scottish history and environmental subjects, has appeared in most UK national papers, including 'The Sunday Times', 'The Telegraph', 'The Daily Mail', 'The Herald', 'Private Eye', 'The Field' and in a number of USA publications.

Sandison has worked extensively on BBC Radio. His series 'Tales of the Loch' ran for 5 years on Radio Scotland and was also broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and on BBC World Service. His series, 'The Sporting Gentleman's Gentleman' and his programme 'The River of a Thousand Tears', about Strathnaver, established his reputation as a broadcaster.

Sandison has had extensive coverage on television. He wrote and presented two series for the BBC TV Landward programme and has given a number of interviews over the years on factory-forestry, peat extraction, wild fish conservation and fish farming.

Sandison is founding chairman of 'The Salmon Farm Protest Group', an organisation that campaigns for the removal of fish farms from Scottish coastal and freshwater lochs where disease and pollution from these farms is driving wild salmonid populations to extinction.

Bruce Sandison
won 'Feature Writer of the Year' in the Highlands and Islands Press Awards in 2000 and in 2002, and was highly commended in 2005. Bruce lives near Tongue in Sutherland with his wife Ann.

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