A Trip to The Poet’s Favourite Loch

My passion for Czech writing took me to Prague very soon after the velvet revolution, in those heady days before McDonalds and British stag parties took hold. I felt no increased connection with the works of Klíma, Škvorecký and Kundera when I got there though, just as walking the streets of Edinburgh fails to evoke a clearer image of Jean Brodie or Mark Renton. 

The best writing needs no site visit to back it up.

So I thought I had exhausted any interest I had in literary pilgrimages, until I heard about the link between a “secret loch” and two of my favourite writers.

Shortly before the great Norman MacCaig died, Andrew Greig asked him where his favourite place in the whole world was.  MacCaig, who divided his life between Edinburgh and Assynt in the far North-west replied that it was a remote hill loch. It had been many years since Norman had been fit enough to visit the place, and he asked Andrew to go for him and catch a wild brown trout. He did not however give very precise directions to the secret place. The resulting expedition Greig made with two friends in pursuit of Lochan a Choire Ghuirm and its trout, is the topic of his wonderful book, At the Loch of the Green Corrie.

The story is draped in musings and recollections of friends and friendships lost, love, work, art, breakdowns, family, politics and history. It goes beyond being simply a good book to being something that might be described as an achievement. It’s the sort of book that when you pass the halfway point makes you begin grieving for the thought of it ending. Greig captures a certain part of the Scottish psyche - torn just like MacCaig's life between urban and urbane Edinburgh - home of the enlightenment; and the Highlands - imbued with the sad romance of the Gael.

Now I fish. I fish in Assynt in fact, but I had never encountered Norman’s loch before. It is only one of several hundred in the area after all, but once I heard about the connection with my writing heroes I had to pay a visit. It didn’t hurt that the place has a reputation for very large wild brown trout.

To quote Trout Fishing in Assynt, a book by Norman’s friend Cathel MacLeod: “Most of the fish exceed one and a half pounds in weight but each season trout in the 3- 5 lb class are caught. The fish do not give themselves up easily. Patience and stealth are required to capture an inhabitant from here and blank days are common enough.”

Leaving the car in a layby between Loch Assynt and Kylesku I headed into the hills. Reaching the loch some hours later I was surprised to find a seated couple staring at it. 

You hardly ever bump into anyone in these hills. I was a wee bit annoyed they were there if truth be told. I think they were annoyed I was there too, but I stopped for a chat. The man told me he had seen splashes over the far side.

“Good to know,” I said. “So do you fish yourself?”

“No, we are here because we are fans of poetry.”

It was an odd thing to say I thought. Like a wee test to see if I knew. 

“Ah, MacCaig,” I said, never liking to fail a test if I can help it.

We talked about the Greig book, which they said they hadn’t read yet, but I get the impression it’s only through that book that MacCaig’s love of the loch has become known. 

We discussed the dangers of the publicity - the three of us there because of it of course. 

And here’s me adding to it. 

Ach well.

I left them to enjoy the place but couldn’t help thinking: you really need to fish to get it. Otherwise it is just a bleak looking corrie with a lot of scree. I can imagine fans of other poets visiting some hotel room where great sex inspired a masterpiece in verse. There would be no point looking in wonder at the woodchip years later would there? 

“It is the dry fly that seems to attract these great fish more than anything else, so cast it, leave it, and see what happens,” says Cathel MacLeod.

I set up my rod and worked my way round the inner part of the corrie, keeping behind rocks where possible.  

The poetry fans were long gone and I was three quarters of the way round the loch when I heard it. There was a splash like someone had lobbed a housebrick. I looked round just in time to see the water closing over it like applause.

There was no two ways about it. This was a very big fish.

Now it so happens that the place this fish rose appears in the photo on the front cover of Andrew Greig’s book – between the small island in the middle and the bank to the right.

The water on the day was largely calm as it is in the picture. How was I going to cast in such clear water without spooking the fish? 

In a flat calm the fish sees everything - fly, line and no doubt rod and the numpty holding it. The angler’s hope is that a bit of ripple will cut down the fish’s view, hopefully to just the fly. You always want them to see the fly.

A wee ripple was appearing here and there across the loch from time to time. I decided to position myself within casting distance of where the fish had shown itself. I would put my line out elsewhere with my fly nicely cocked, then wait for the wind and ripple to arrive for a cast at the target spot. 

You’ve probably guessed already. I got a take as the line idled away from the main event. I never saw signs of that big rising fish again but I did get a terrific tussle, including three jumps, from the fish in my photograph.

In the water it looked silver like a seatrout, but once on the bank it had a green sheen to it, just like the floor of the loch. After taking that quick photo I put the fish back unharmed, and unweighed. That’s twelve inches from the butt of the rod to the end of the handle in the picture. It’s a fat fish. Will somebody give me a pound and a half?

It was a perfect moment, but it wasn’t literary. It was an angling one. I felt no closer to Norman or Andrew. But I do still feel tremendous satisfaction in that fish, because Andrew Greig wrote a whole book about fishing this loch and Aly Bain made a TV documentary with Billy Connolly about it. None of them caught a single trout in the process. 

So you’ll not grudge me a blog post in celebration of my Green Corrie troot. Now is a good time to catch one. By all means go yourself, but while it was Norman’s favourite loch it isn’t mine.

That would be Lochan Bealach Cornaidh, a few miles away. I prefer the woodchip there.

How about you? Does visiting a location increase your appreciation of a story set there?

George Anderson

George Anderson received a New Writers Award in 2008.

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