Tales from the salmon netting on the River Spey in the north east of Scotland

1. The First Shot

March 3rd, 2008 by John Bennett
 1. The First Shot: Play Now

The old railway viaduct rises like the back of some great antediluvian beast out of the willows and alders growing along the broad shingle banks near the estuary of the River Spey. Now carrying only pedestrian traffic on a narrow wooden walkway, the imposing iron arch is a remnant of the GNSR Garmouth to Tochieneal line that ran along the north east coast of Scotland until, like so many of the country’s branch railways, it was decommissioned in the 1960s.
The salmon fishers’ bothy that sat in the shadow of the eastern end of the viaduct was, by contrast, an unremarkable structure: little more than a large shed with cresoted wooden walls and a bitumen felt roof from which stuck a metal stove pipe topped by a conical tin cowl. The interior of the bothy was similarly prosaic: in the centre of the packed earth floor stood a pot bellied stove surrounded by a motley collection of battered armchairs liberated from the nearby dump.
That year, the first day of the summer salmon netting season was warm and sunny, and the air around the viaduct was full of the sweet scent of the whins and the faint trilling of unseen larks high above.
Sandy Geddes, skipper of the summer crew, leant against the side of the bothy, filled his pipe with a pinch of Rattray’s High Society ready-rubbed tobacco and cast his eye over the new recruits standing by the net box. Sandy was a stocky, well-built man with clear blue eyes, a thinning crop of fair hair and a weathered face criss-crossed by a network of small red broken veins which betrayed the fact that he had spent the last forty years working on the salmon fishery at the mouth of the River Spey. Next to him, his first mate, Robbie, six foot six and almost as broad as he was tall, ran one of his massive hands through his spiky black hair.
“Is it jist me, or div the summer crews get werse and werse ivry year?” asked Robbie, turning to Sandy, who was using his thumb to tamp down his pipe tobacoo.
“I mean, look at that een there; the een wi the lang hair hauf wy doon his back and thon denim jaiket wi aa the patches on it.”
“I suppose that’s the fashion these days,” said Sandy, searching in his pocket for the Zippo lighter his niece had given him for his fiftieth birthday.
“Aye, but fit kind o fashion is it that maks ye look like a quiney?”
“Aye weel Robbie, you’re asking the wrang boy; I wouldna hae a clue.”
“I mean, fa dee they get them fae?” asked Robbie.
“Well that een wi the lang hair, he’s Dorothy’s loon.”
“Nivir,” exclaimed Robbie in astonishment, “Dorothy Lumsden? Fae Nether Dallachy?”
“The same,” said Sandy, lighting his pipe.
“Fit mist she think, wi him roamin aroon looking like at,” said Robbie shaking his head.
“I would have thocht she wis quite proud o him; he’s at the University in Aberdeen.”
“And thon ither boy, wi the spikey hair and the ripped sark, fa’s he?”
“Dee ye mind Beel Struan, worked for the Electricity board? Went doon te England aboot ten year ago?”
“No, but I kent his faither, auld Beel.”
“Aye, weel, that’s young Beel’s loon, he’s up for the summer. He’s at the University in Aberdeen as weel.”
“Dee they aa gan tae the University these days?” asked Robbie. Sandy exhaled a large puff of smoke.
“I nivir understood fit the point o that wis,” continued Robbie, “we baith left the school at the age of fourteen and it nivir deen us ony herm.”
“Aye, weel, it’s changing times, Robbie, changing times.”
“Should there nae be anither een though?” asked Robbie, looking perplexed, “I mean, there’s us twa fae the permanent crew, and then the regulars, Jake and Black Alec, thon twa gowks oer by the net box…but that still means we’re a man doon.”
Sandy took another long, considered puff of his pipe, but before he could answer, a tractor appeared on the track which lead from the road to the bothy. The tractor, an old Fordson Super Major leprous with rust, was towing a trailer carrying a coble – the large, flat-bottomed rowing boats used in the salmon fishery; at the wheel of the tractor was Brian, temporary skipper of the permanent crew.
“Well, there’s the answer to yer question,” said Sandy, pointing at the tractor with the stem of his pipe.
“Fit, Brian?” said Robbie, looking confused, “but he’s skipping the permanent crew.”
“No, nae Brain; look at the back o the bogey.” As the tractor swung up onto the grass by the bothy Robbie spotted the passenger – a fat, moon-faced boy of about 17 – sitting on the back of the trailer with his hand in a bag of pickled onion Monster Munch.
“Oh no, it’s nae is it?” said Robbie, unwilling to believe his own eyes. Sandy nodded his head.
“Nae the Puddock.”
“Aye weel, it’s fa ye kaen, nae fit ye kaen that coonts in this life,” said Sandy philosophically.

The Puddock, or Neil MacKenzie to give him his proper name, was the son of Sampy McKenzie who was, in turn, the man in overall charge of the salmon fishery; the man they all knew as the Gaffer. Consequently the Puddock was himself well known to the permanent employees. In fact he had briefly worked on the salmon fishing earlier that year, before coming down with a particularly nasty case of gastroenteritis, after a visit to the Bombay Duck Indian restaurant in Buckie. However, during his short spell on the crew he had made quite an impression, and it was generally agreed that he was almost certainly the laziest and most useless person to work on the salmon fishing in the two hundred years of its recorded history. As Robbie said, exaggerating only slightly, “the only times his hands left his pooches wis fan he wis pitting food in his moo.”
After the Puddock had struggled off the trailer, Brian backed it down the broad shingle bank – which the locals call the scap – and into the water where Robbie and he floated the coble off. After tying up the boat, Sandy, Robbie and Brian convened around the door of the bothy.
“So Sandy, is it a bet yer efter?” said Brian clapping his hands together and looking over at the Puddock who had, to the astonishment of the two students, just managed to put three whole, intact Wagon Wheels in his mouth simultaneously.
“Aye weel, I suppose so,” said Sandy, without much enthusiasm.
“Och, ye might as weel gie me the money noo,” said Brian, rubbing his hands together.
“Mind, ye lost last year…” said Sandy remembering the case of whisky the summer crew had won from the permanent crew the year before, having caught fifteen boxes of fish more than them over the course of the summer.
“Aye, ye’ve got an awfa short memory,” said Robbie.
“Aye and ye’ve got the Puddock,” replied Brian.

Robbie and Brian did not get on, partly because Robbie was still smarting that he had not been made skipper of the permanent crew when Sandy temporarily vacated the job to take charge of the inexperienced summer crew. After all, Brian had been on the fishing for only three years, and, unlike Robbie, had little idea of where the fish lay or when it was best to shoot the river. However, Brian was related by marriage to the Gaffer and, as Sandy had already noted, the salmon fishing was not a strict meritocracy, but to be fair to Robbie, envy wasn’t the only reason for his dislike; most of the other salmon fishers couldn’t stand Brian either, for he was one of those men who had been everywhere and done everything and, if you were in his company, you only had to mention the fact that you’d had a tin of pineapple rings for your supper and he would be off on some anecdote about “the time fan we wis unloading a cargo of steel in Honolulu…” because Brian had, before joining the salmon fishery, spent fifteen years in the merchant navy. Tales of far of lands, told occasionally, with a dash of self deprecation, can enliven a long shift, however, it can be wearing being stuck in a bothy on a cold, sleety night in April listening to the tale of the Bangkok ladyboy for the fifteenth time.
“There’s nae wy we’re losing tae him,” said Robbie, sparks of anger leaping in his eyes as the tractor disappeared through the trees behind the bothy.
“Aye weel then, in that case ye’d best get thon twa new boys sorted oot,” said Sandy, “oh and by the by, the Puddocks on an oar wi you.”
“Fit,” said Robbie incredulously, “but I thocht that we’d pit the Puddock on the sting…”
“Aye weel, that’s fit I wid hiv deen, but the Gaffer wants him toughened up.” Robbie shook his head, “It’s g’te be a lang summer,” he said, half to himself.


After Robbie had run through the rudiments of netting the river with the students, Jake and Black Alec loaded the net then Sandy instructed all of the summer crew to get in to the boat, with a view to showing the new recruits the ropes on the slower, easier Lower Bridge Pool.
“Sandy,” said Robbie checking the stroke of his oar as the boat reached midstream, “is there nae oer muckle watter in the bilge.”
“Aye, Jake, gie her a wee go wi the bailer,” said Sandy looking down from his position by the net at the back of the boat. Thirty seconds later the rate of ingress had increased dramatically and despite Jake’s best efforts with the bailer, the water was suddenly up to the ankles of the summer crew’s waders.
“Robbie, take her in, take her in,” said Sandy urgently, slipping his pipe into his pocket.
Robbie, straining every muscle in his huge back pulled at his oar, unfortunately the Puddock, who was on the other oar, caught a crab and fell backward into the rapidly filling bilge causing the boat to spin round so the stern was facing down river toward the onrushing rapids at the bottom of the pool. Robbie grabbed the Puddock’s oar and pulled hard toward the bank as the Puddock floundered around in the bilge.
“Hey you wi the short hair, get oot and land the boat,” shouted Sandy, as they drifted over a small spit of shingle running out from the far bank.
The short-haired student, painter in hand, threw himself from the prow of the boat, only barely managing to stay on his feet as the fast running water splashed up dangerously close to the tops of his waders, then turning, he dug his heels into the shingle and held on for dear life as the boat swept on down towards the brae at the bottom of the pool pulling him behind it like a waterskier.
And though his actions weren’t enough to stop the boat entirely, they slowed it enough so that it swung into slacker water giving Jake a chance to jump out and grab one of the rollocks. Robbie followed him and before long the inundated boat had been secured on the scap.
As the Puddock rung his t-shirt out, Robbie came up to the Stingman.
“Aye ye did a good job there, boy,” he said, clapping the short-haired student on the back and severely winding him in the process.


The official enquiry was held that evening in the Gaffer’s office, down by the icehouses at Tugnet. As they were waiting for the Gaffer to call them in, Brian taunted Sandy.
“So you went down wi the boat did ye?” said Brian laughing loudly.
“Verra funny,” said Robbie, “you kaent fit wis gan on, did ye?”
“I kaent nothing aboot it. It was a the Puddock’s fault.”
“That’s rubbish min,” said Robbie towering over Brian.
“Hit me and I’ll get the bobbies on te ye, I’ve got witnesses,” said Brian nervously. Fortunately for Brian, the Gaffer appeared in the door and called them through.
“O.K., so what happened?” he asked, leaning back in his chair and lighting a cigarette.
It didn’t take long for Sandy to explain why the boat had gone down, for the cause was quite clear. A coble needs to stand in the water for a week or so to let the dry clinker planks swell up and form a water-tight seal, which is why all the cobles were purposely “sunk” before use. The coble Brian had delivered to the summer crew was a dry coble and though it had floated fine when it was empty, as soon as the crew embarked, the extra weight, and therefore pressure, opened up the dry clinkers and let the water flood in.
“Brian delivered the wrang coble,” concluded Sandy.
“No, no, no, that’s nae true,” protested Brian.
“Are you saying it was deliberate?” asked the Gaffer, ignoring Brian, “because if you are, Sandy, that’s a serious accusation; we lost a hale day’s catch there.”
“All I’m saying is that it wis definitely a dry boat. And there wis nae wy we could tell until we actually got in. I mean, it could hae been a lot werse: we could easy o couped the boat…then fa kaens fit wid o happened.”
“But it wisna my fault,” said Brian, “it wis the Puddo…it wis young Neil fa telt me fit coble te tak.”
“Is that right?” asked the Gaffer after the Puddock had been called through from next door where he’d been watching Smokey and the Bandit on the video.
“I suppose so Dad, but I forgot fit een you telt me te tak and I didna kaen it wid mak ony difference,” said the Puddock lending much credence to Sandy’s earlier assertion that in this life it’s who you know, not what you know, that counts.

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