Rory Knight Bruce revels in the reflective tranquillity of salmon fishing in Scotland
THERE can be few more gentle prospects in Scotland than looking across the waters of the Tweed at Kelso to the low, shimmering crenellations of Floors Castle beyond. During the 19th century, C.J. Apperley, in Nimrod’s Hunting Tours , called the river the Rex fluviorum, and H.V. Morton in InSearch of Scotland , that masterpiece of travel writing, described the small town, with its square, churches and shops, as being of French appearance’’, which it is.
Neither, however, experienced, as I did, the pinnacle of a fisherman’s career: to be given a day alone on the Upper Floors Beat, which is owned by the Duke of Roxburghe and lies a glorious 2.5km of double banks beneath his ducal seat. Silence and serenity engulf a fisherman here, where to cast chest-deep within the flowing waters of the Tweed is heaven.
The preferred months are October and November (on account of the large number of salmon), when fishermen congregate to try their hand and patience along the length of the Tweed, from its small beginnings near Moffat to the wide port bar of Berwick-Upon-Tweed. But the Upper Floors Beat, which can be taken by four rods each day, or the Junction Pool, nearer the town (owned by House of Hardy), should be the dream and destination of every true riparian.
Such opportunities are limited and, to be in with a chance at Floors on any of their beats, it is necessary to stay at the Roxburghe Hotel, 3km out of Kelso, owned by the estate. This is no hardship as the gracious establishment, with its library, award-winning chef Keith Short (haggis bread a specialty), airy bedrooms and lawns, inspires tranquillity.
George Mack, the general manager, has been here for almost 20 years. He presides over a rhythm among all staff that is attentive, unobtrusive and thoughtful. Sportsmen, families or couples celebrating a special occasion would be equally at home here. It was a welcome sight to see guests elegantly changed for dinner, women in pearls and men in cashmere sweaters.
There is also an 18-hole championship golf course under professional Craig Montgomerie. He joined me with my guest, noted Scottish golfer, artist and cartoonist Hugh Dodd, for the front four holes on the first day of my two-day stay. Both our games benefited from his encouraging and clear advice. Dodd, who has a 16 handicap and lives on the golf course at North Berwick in the former home of early professional golfer Ben Sayers, pronounced this a very good inland course, with long holes and a spectacular landscape.
I could not recommend enough an hour (or a day, if you are feeling flush) with Montgomerie because, even in our short time with him, our games as players improved with his knowledge. In the end, neither of us were a disgrace to our game or the course, enjoying a fine camaraderie and some excellent shots.
So it was with the fishing, where to be put under the supervision of Upper Floors Beat ghillie Colin Bell and his assistant Richard Donovan is to learn from their experience of the river gained from many years. I fished from the bank and a boat and, most exhilarating of all, by wading far out into the Tweed.
From Bell I learned of his love of Lindisfarne, the Christian island not a half-hour away on the Northumbrian coast, and tales of the many fishermen who have returned year after year, several in their 70s, to this majestic river.
There is a stone fisherman’s hut and often, later in the season, guests are welcomed with a log fire in the morning and have a barbecue lunch. The woods above the river sound with pheasants, and the river is so undisturbed that otters and deer are frequently seen.
Beyond are the Eildon Hills, the 45m Waterloo monument at Ancrum and Smailholm Tower. The last is one of the many reminders that this was once the terrain of cattle raiders or reevers, but this fertile land is now presided over by settled estates and working farms.
I did not catch my fish and therefore was denied the honour of placing my name in the game book beneath the Duke of Roxburghe and his daughter, both of whom had caught fish three days earlier. But I caught my breath from the pace of life.
I left the river with feelings of wonder and humility, rested and sorry for the wrongs of the world, some of which have been my own. For just one day, they stayed on the riverbank. The Spectator www.roxburghe.net www.tweedsidetackle.co.uk www.fishtweed.com
Rod awakening: From left, a fisherman tests his skill and patience on the tranquil River Tweed; an angler casts for prized Scottish salmon; the Tweed snakes past Floors Castle at Kelso