Scotland is one of the worlds leading destinations for salmon fishing. Its long history has led to a culture stretching far beyond simply fishing for and catching salmon. The people involved (Ghillies), often 2nd, 3rd or even 4th generation, can be both interesting, funny and extremely passionate about, their river, community and salmon fishing. Characters in every sense of the word, their remit, irrespective of the number of fish available on any given year (because this has always fluctuated) is to ensure those visiting enjoy and get the most from their stay in Scotland. Their “pride” comes from the fact that, traditionally, the “Ghillie”was the 16th Century, Clan Chiefs right hand man, his most trusted servant; a roll somewhat hijacked by “Estate Factors” (managers or agents), leading to years of distrust between ghillies, their friends in the community, and the factor.
However, this deep routed mistrust of the Factor can lead to some really funny stories, with “factors” often the butt of many stories and jokes told in the fishing hut or stalking
Bothy, especially when accompanied by a dram or two!
One such story was told by an old Friend of mine and one time head Keeper on the Dallas Estate in Morayshire, Angus Mackinnon. At the time he was long since retired, but even after 20 years of retirement and at the grand old age of 89, when it came to stories, Angus would always be the centre of attention. Well dressed in his immaculate tweed suit, plus fours and always a tie, Angus, was sitting in the fishing hut drinking a cup of tea, surrounded by a group of anglers, all drinking whisky. He was asked by one, “Angus”! “What the secret of your long life”? His answer turned my head and made me laugh. “Well, it certainly didn't come from pouring any of that poison down my throat”! He had the attention of the small fishing crowd. Another, a shooting man asked – Angus; In your opinion, “What's the worst sort of vermin to have on a Grousemoor”? He thought for a second or two, looked at the man, and with a wicked but wry smile, “That'll be Hoodie Crows,,, he paused, and “Factors”! “But not necessarily in that order”! The whole hut was shaking with laughter. In one sentence he had summed up the relationship between keepers, ghillies, estate employees and locals toward Factors!
Of course not all factors should be tarred with this brush. I do remember one Ghillie praising his factor for arranging to have toilets installed next to the fishing hut. “It's taken 29 years, but finally we have toilets”! We’ll have to wait till next year for the seat, but hae, Rome wizzna built in a day!
Prior to this, should the call of nature required to be answered, visiting woman anglers had to bare all to the wind. Not good, when the only bush to hide behind was in a field who's only inhabitant was a 2 tonne, quite frisky Aberdeen Angus Bull. To quote one very well heeled lady “It certainly brought a new meaning to having eyes in the back of ones head”! In the days before the toilet I remember a good few arriving back at the fishing hut in various stage of undress and quite flushed themselves.
The Characters are not all ghillies and Factors. A great many fishermen themselves become the centre of conversation between Ghillies and other fishermen, as salmon fishing is a game of individual theory, something that leads to much conversation in the pub or amongst friends. Should we stock or not is now both topical and typical, creating hours of polarised discussion, something that decision makers simply love.
In the old days, when fish were much more plentiful than today, the Ghillie could litterly go out and catch a fish at will. A friend and hero in the eyes of many visiting anglers, an almost god like fish catching story teller who's stories of wonderful fishing, fun and fish catching became more exaggerated and believable as the amount of whisky consumed increased.
The names of those Characters have, and will continue to grace Speyside, and I'm sure other rivers for years to come. Their stories have been told again and again, turning those guys into living, or, in some cases, sadly, deceased legends.
The expectation of the visitor coming to the Spey for the first time is to find - A beautiful Fly Fishing River with salmon, traditionally dressed, friendly and knowledgable ghillies, a well managed fishery, good fishing infrastructure (Hotels, B&Bs and self catering accommodating), good food and restaurants, distilleries with good guides and varied wildlife. Visitors coming with an open mind, will not be disappointed, as all of those things, and so much more, make the Spey one of the most desirable Salmon fishing destinations in the world, a fun place to visit with, at times, decent numbers of salmon to be caught. Like anything else, knowing where and when to fish the Spey is extremely important. Although like other rivers in Scotland, the Spey has a fairly long season and I’m sure in some numbers, fish will enter the river every month of the year, if the angler is coming in search of a fresh salmon, and this is their main goal, then they must do their homework on where and when to fish.
One thing anyone visiting a salmon fishery should remember is, no matter where in the world this is, no two years are ever the same. Ultimately abundance or otherwise is determined by weather and food in both their river of origin and the sea. A poor season can often followed by a good one, so anglers expectations should be realistic. Whilst we can guarantee is all of the above, the numbers of fish returning are, quite literally, blowing n the wind!