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

5. The Spent Hens

March 18th, 2008 by John Bennett
 5. The Spent Hens: Play Now

Sandy Geddes, the skipper of the summer crew, pulled the collar of his donkey jacket up around his ears and stepped out of the bothy door into the bitter, blustery wind. To the north, over the leaden sea, towering storm clouds, known thereabouts as the Banff bailiffs as they kept the deep sea boats in port and their crews’ pockets empty, piled up on the horizon. Sandy shuddered in the cold and retreated back into the bothy.
“Fit’s it look like?” asked Jake.
“We’ll dee ae mair shot in aboot twenty minutes and then cry it a day,” said Sandy stepping over to the pot-bellied stove which stood in the middle of the bothy, “it looks like it’s g’tae be guy roch later on.”
As Sandy warmed the backs of his legs the talk in the bothy turned to money; more specifically, the money Robbie had made selling his Skoda the week before.
“Sandy, fit wid ye dee wi the three hunner pound Robbie jist made?” asked Black Alec.
“I’d pit it in the bank,” said Sandy who was by nature risk averse.
“Fit aboot premium bonds?” asked the Puddock.
“Premium bonds,” snorted Black Alec. “You’d jist spend it on Caramel Logs,” he continued uncharitably.
“You could throw a big party,” said Gonzo. Robbie shook his head.
“I wis thinking o buying a Mark II Escort.”
“Och, ye canna get a daecent een fur fit ye’ve got,” said Black Alec, “ye’d need anither three hunner fur that.” Robbie nodded his head.
“Aye, yer nae wrang,” he said, looking thoughtful.
“You’re so fill o it Alec; fit wid ye dee?” asked Jake.
“I’d invest it,” said Black Alec sagely.
“Fit in?”
“Spent hens.”
“Spent hens?” said Robbie, “fit are they?”
“Battery hen’s fit’s deen wi laying, I can get them fur twenty pince a bird and sell em fur a poon.”
“That sounds a wee bitty chancey te me,” said Robbie sceptically.
“Mebbe Robbie, but sometimes ye’ve got te speculate te accumulate,” said Black Alec.
“Aye, a man wi money nivir lacks fur advice,” said Sandy as he turned round to face the stove and warm his hands.
“Fit aboot you Stingman. Fit wid you dee?” said Robbie to the Stingman who was sitting on the nets in the corner of the bothy trying to make some early headway with the coming year’s reading list.
“Sorry, what was that?” asked the Stingman.
“Fit wid ye spend Robbie’s three hunner pound on.”
“I’d pay off my overdraft,” said the Stingman looking back down at his book.
“Fit’s that yer reading?” asked Black Alec.
The Stingman held up his copy of The Canterbury Tales to show him the cover.
“Fit’s The Canterbury Tales fan it’s at hame?” asked Black Alec, squinting as he read the title. The Stingman sighed.
“It’s a set of stories told by a group of pilgrims on their way from London to Canterbury Cathedral in the 14th century.”
“Is that fit they teach ye at the University?” asked Black Alec. The Stingman nodded.
“So, let me get this straight, you’re English, but ye’ve come up te a Scottish University te study English. That’s Irish, if you ask me.”
“Och, wheest wull ye Alex,” said Sandy coming to the Stingman’s defence, “he bides in England, but he wis born up here and his femily hiv bid up here as far back as yours or mine. He’s a Moray loon.”
“And even if I am English what difference does that make?” said the Stingman, angered by the steady drip of anti-English sentiment he’d had to endure since he moved north of the border, “if you judge me by where I come from, instead of who I am as a person, then you’re a racist.”
“Aye weel, I still dinna see fit the point is o’ studying nuvels and poems,” said Black Alec unhappily. The Stingman shook his head but said nothing; even though he wasn’t entirely sure what the point of studying literature was himself, it wasn’t something he was about to debate with Black Alec.
“Are ye g’te read us a wee bitty then,” said Jake. The Stingman shook his head.
“No, I couldn’t.” The rest of the salmon fishers rallied behind Jake.
“Come on Stingman, gie’s a couple o lines.”
The Stingman looked dubious but turned back to the beginning of the poem.
“O.K, this one’s the Reeve’s tale.”
“Fit’s a Reeve?” asked Robbie.
“It’s like an estate manager.”
“Like the Gaffer?”
“Maybe more like the Factor,” said the Stingman as he looked back down at his book before clearing his throat and launching into his best Middle English.

“At Trumpyngtoun, nat fer fro Cantebrigge,
Ther gooth a brook, and oer that a brigge,
Upon the whiche brook ther stant a melle;
And this is verray sooth that I yow telle.”

“That’s the wy they speak o’er in Turra,” said Robbie, looking astonished, “I swear tae God, it’s like my cousin fae Auchterless is in the room wi us the noo.” Sandy held his finger up to his lips and looked at Robbie, then back at the Stingman.
“Oh, aye sorry, go on,” said Robbie apologetically. The Stingman started again.

“A millere was ther dwellynge many a day.
As any pecok he was proud and gay.
Pipen he koude and fisshe, and nettes beete
And turne coppes, and wel wrastle and sheete;”

“Noo, I didna quite get that bit…” said Robbie shaking his head, “but then I dinna really understan ma cousin hauf the time.”
“Weel, for a start, he said the miller wis gay, jist like you Robbie,” said the Puddock, ducking out of the way as Robbie tried to grab him. When they’d settled down again the Stingman explained:
“It says that the miller could play the bagpipes and fish and mend nets…he liked a drink and he could wrestle and shoot.”
“That’s the kind o boy we need in the summer crew,” said Jake, “he plays the pipes, Alec, even though he’s English.” Black Alec looked unimpressed.
“I dinna understand fit the point o’ studying nuvels is,” he said again, causing the Stingman to point out that irrespective of whether Black Alec saw the point or not, he was funding the Stingman’s grant, and therefore study of literature with his taxes. A revelation which caused much consternation among the summer crew who were only calmed when Sandy forced them out into the biting north easterly for the last shot of the day.


The next day Robbie and Black Alec walked into the bothy with broad smiles on their faces.
“Fit are you pair looking so smug aboot?” asked the Puddock.
“Me and Alec, we’ve jist bocht fifteen hunner spent hens.”
“Really,” said Sandy sceptically, “fit are ye g’tae dee wi them?”
“We’re keeping them on Jake’s ferm, ‘til we sell them.”
“Is that richt?” asked Sandy, turning to Jake.
“Aye,” said Jake, who ran a small croft in Clochan which he worked alongside his job on the summer crew, “they’re rentin een o ma steadings.”
“Fan ah’ve selt them, I’ll easy hae enough for a daecent Mark II Escort,” said Robbie cheerfully.
However, Robbie was not so enthusiastic when the hens were delivered to Jake’s two days later. Old battery hens are a pitiful sight: featherless, debeaked and distressed, many have broken bones and few can stand properly. The bottom of the trailer was littered with birds which had died on the short journey from the battery farm just outside Elgin.
“Are you sure this is O.K.?” asked Robbie, who was at heart an animal lover and quite upset by the sight of the suffering birds.
“Aye, dinna fash yersel,” said Black Alec, kicking one of the dead birds off the trailer, “I factored in fur a few deid eens.”
For the next three days Robbie cycled up to Jake’s farm every morning to feed the birds. It troubled him every time he saw them huddled in the corner of the small barn, and he began to wish that he’d taken Sandy, the Puddock’s or even Gonzo’s investment advice. Robbie’s dark mood was deepened when the advert went in the Northern Scot that Friday, as by the Saturday evening they had sold a mere ten birds.
“I canna believe I listened tae Alec,” said Robbie to himself, as he tried to work out how much he might lose if the birds kept selling at the same rate.
The next day, as the summer crew stood round the netbox getting ready for the first shot of the day, Robbie and Black Alec tried to persuade Jake to lower the rent on the barn. Jake refused.
“Sorry boys, but business is business, yer aridy getting a highly preferable rate.”
“I dinna kaen fit we’re g’te dee,” moaned Black Alec, who had also invested some money from his post office savings account in the venture, “we could lose aathin.”
“I might be able to help you,” said the Stingman.
“Fit wy?” asked Black Alec suspiciously.
“Alec, calm doon, listen te the boy, he’s trying te help ye…” said Jake.
“So fit is it ye think ye can dee?” asked Robbie.
“Well, look at your advert for a start,” said the Stingman, “what does it say?”
“Spent hens. Call Robbie. Bogmoor 284.”
“So fit’s awrang wi that?” said Black Alec to the Stingman.
“Well, ‘spent hens’, for a start that’s not an appealing concept. You’ll sell nothing if you keep on calling them that.”
“So fit wid you say?” The Stingman thought for a moment.
“Prime roasters…casserole chickens…something like that, and the name, I would change the Call Robbie and Bogmoor bit as well, to something like Call Speymouth Quality Foods. It sounds more professional.” Black Alec looked sceptical. “That’s oer lang, we pye by the character for that advert, that’s g’te cost us a fortune.”
“Maybe Alec, but sometimes you’ve got to speculate to accumulate,” replied the Stingman.


That Saturday the phone never stopped ringing, with ‘Prime Roasters’ and ‘Casserole Chickens’ literally flying out of the door. The next Monday, Robbie and Black Alec were delighted. “Aye weel,” conceded Black Alec, “mebbe there is some yees in studying nuvels.” The Stingman felt more equivocal about the use of his literary talents for the sale of spent hens, however, he was pleased to get Black Alec off his back.
Robbie and Black Alec were less pleased, when, four weeks later, they discovered that the poor start and a higher than expected mortality rate had diminished their profits by such a degree that neither man made more than a few pounds for all their effort. The only member of the summer crew who was truly happy with the affair of the spent hens was Jake who had rented Robbie and Black Alec the barn.

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