Sometimes freedom can be found in surprising places
A text message arrived from my brother, with a card attached. It was a screenshot, a rectangle of land and water, taken from an Ordnance Survey digital chart. The space it covered was not large – just two or three square miles at most – and it was not a place I was familiar with. Or not precisely. Of the dozen or so names that appeared on the map, I recognized only one with certainty: a narrow Atlantic inlet to the north of the image, which located it with some precision. But even without that clue, I would have known it was somewhere in the Shetland Islands, where he lives and where we both grew up. Just the appearance of the words, the juxtaposition of Norse and English names: it could hardly have been anywhere else.
Protruding from one side of this image was a small road, a track, which died out into the space between the sea and a steep hill. To the south and west of there, a hundred and fifty yards up the hill, were four small lakes, scattered unevenly. Planted in one was a purple flag, a numerical X to mark the spot.
I have been fishing in Shetland for thirty years now, on and off, and had never heard of any of these lochs. Not once. Their names were entirely new to me. To some extent, that’s not so remarkable; there are at least five hundred lakes in the islands, and I have only visited a fraction of them. But I spent a lot of time looking at maps, and a lot of time listening to fishermen tell stories; and for all these years I had neither noticed nor heard of these lochs.
What was particularly surprising, then, was the message behind the purple flag. He told me that this loch contained a treasure. The night before, my brother was staying in the area for the weekend with his family. On a whim, once the kids were in bed, he had taken his fly rod and climbed the hill, and thrown in the first water he found. Judging by the enthusiastic text messages I received that night and the next morning – after he got up at 5am to go back a second time – this was a place I would really had to know. There were big fish feeding in the margins, he said, navigating through rocky, shallow water. He couldn’t get them taken. Not this time. But they were there, so he would come back.
Growing up in Shetland, fishing meant freedom. This meant being able to walk around and explore and stop at any lake you wanted and cast a fly. This meant a choice of waters that would take years, if not decades, to run out. Of these five hundred lochs in the islands – almost all of which contain trout – the vast majority are open to members of the local fishing club. I only know of three or four, in fact, that are not.
This is how most of the fishing in my life has happened: with the great luxury of whim. I’m driving towards a loch which I last visited five years ago and which, for reasons I cannot explain, has recently bothered me. But at the turn of a bend, on the single-track road that will take me the last kilometers, I see something else. I see a loch, not far from the road. This is a loch I have crossed many times, but never really noticed until now. And now I can’t to help but notice, because the surface is calm and there are fish coming up everywhere. Small fish, maybe, but it’s hard to say. I slow down, park the car next to a gate and get out. I put up the rod, then hop the fence.
To be able to do that, to have such a rich and extensive choice of places to fish, is a rare thing indeed. Rare in the UK, probably rare worldwide. Admittedly, it’s not like that where I live now, in mainland Scotland. Here, almost every piece of water requires another fee, another membership. Some are affordable – and to those I am, of necessity, drawn. Others are much less so. Then there are the private clubs, or ‘syndicates’, about which there is often no information online. Membership in these tends to be available by invitation only. I have never received such an invitation, and I may never have one. I don’t know the right people and I don’t know where to find them.
Inevitably, then, the freedom I have found in fishing has been reduced since leaving Shetland, and the ability to connect with place in this way has also been limited. Now, the degree of freedom that is available, and where it can be exercised, depends on who I know, and how full my wallet is or not. (Not unusual when it comes to freedom, I suppose.)
There is an irony to this though, an irony that only adds to the frustrations of the fisherman. Because here in Scotland we have a kind of freedom that is both precious and yet too often taken for granted. There is a right to roam in this country, a right to walk and stroll, responsibly, across public and private lands. This is a right that exists elsewhere in Europe — in the Nordic countries, for example — but not in England, and certainly not in the United States.
But this right of wandering coexists with a frankly grotesque distribution of land. Historian Jim Hunter has claimed that Scotland has “the most concentrated, inequitable, least reformed and least democratic system of land ownership in the developed world”. Fewer than five hundred people own half of the country’s private land. Huge estates – many owned by owners who live most of the year elsewhere – are run for the benefit of the very wealthy, who pay excruciating sums of money to holiday in the Highlands, to shoot deer and grouse, catch salmon and sip whisky. .
I can walk through these areas if I want. I can jump up and down and wave my arms at the sight of lords and ladies, shipping moguls and tech billionaires for whom the earth is a playground. That’s not much compensation for the inequalities of the system, but it is still important.
The problem here is essentially the exact opposite of the one facing American anglers today. Here I can walk the banks of virtually any body of water in the country. I can peer into its depths and dip my toes below the surface. If I want, I can swim. But in the vast majority of cases, I can’t cast a fly without paying someone for permission.
In the United States, there is much more water under public ownership, for which each state offers fishing licenses. Furthermore, in many of these states everything water is considered a public good. Fishermen are presumed to have the right to fish there, as long as they can access it. This is where the problem lies. Landowners along this water can and do prevent people from accessing it. Trespass laws are used to keep fishers out and to make money from what is, in theory, a commons.
In Scotland, I can reach the water, but I can’t always fish; in the United States you can fish, but you can’t always reach the water.
For those looking for freedom and escape, there are still options. You can donate money to your hobby, if you have it. You can fly to Florida and catch a tarpon; or better yet, you can take the boat to Shetland. But there are other ways too, and some anglers are now looking for adventure precisely in the places where they would seem least likely to find it.
Matthew Miller, in Fish through the apocalypse, wrote that “in a world where there are almost no unexplored and uninhabited places, perhaps the post-industrial wasteland will become the new frontier. The places where dreamers, outcasts, renegades and low-end utopians will go to escape the conformist world.
For anglers, this new frontier is the antithesis of the places with which our sport has most often been associated: the “wild”, the “remote”, the “unexplored”. Today, if you’re looking for exciting trout fishing, you just might find it closer to home, in towns and villages. The rivers that cross these urban spaces, where they are located because of these rivers – were once dirty. Many were biologically dead. They were covered in concrete, relegated to sewers and culverts. They have been ignored and forgotten. They were treated like sewers. But that is changing.
In an essay documenting his search for trout in London’s half-hidden streams and rivers, writer and conservationist Charles Rangeley-Wilson – a literary descendant of Negley Farson if ever there was one – described his quest as ‘looking for the edge: the edge of destruction, the edge of what holds.’ What he means, I think, is this: fishing has always been a way to join the human world to the non-human world. It’s a way to expand, to reach, to one in the other. To extend this reach, anglers often choose to get in the way of the wild. It is there, in undomesticated places, that we are most aware of that frontier, that edge, where one world melts into another.
The edge Rangeley-Wilson refers to, however, is not to be found by exploring the exterior. Instead, it moves the other way. It is savagery that now stands in our way. Urban river restoration, supported in the UK by organizations like the Wild Trout Trust, is encouraging wildlife, including fish, to return to our towns and cities. This process of return, of recovery, is extremely important. These are places that human beings have poisoned, plundered and defaced, so careless were we about the health of our environment. To see this environment being reclaimed, to see our damage gradually being repaired, to see this “edge of destruction” being pushed tenaciously towards us, is really something.
Anglers are drawn to these recovering waters, as the return of trout seems to prove something to the world. Something good. Something wonderful. Something hopeful. And what could be more liberating, more exhilarating than that?
Excerpted with permission from ILLUMINATED BY WATER by Malachy Tallack. Published by Pegasus Books.