Saturated by months of rain, every knee-high tussock on the Isle of Mull gurgled with a thousand tiny rivulets, and every rocky lochside path through the rhododendron thickets chattered inches-deep like a living stream. Mares’ tails billowed white from every crag, pouring over precipitous shelves of volcanic rock and crashing in heavy veils across the bracken and myrtle, while hanging bogs and hillsides belched water into rivers that overtopped their low autumn meanders with startling, sterile clarity, rushing unfishably to the sea.
When high tides hit the storm beach a hundred yards in front of our rented cottage, spray whipped off the breakers and lashed the tiny windows like buckshot. Feral sheep and a herd of half-tame fallow deer cowered in the shelter of the kitchen wall; stalking parties from the big house squelched past in Argocats, and I quickly learned that the only reasonable way of getting to the high trout lochs (Loch Buie in second picture) was to follow the muddy matting of grass and peat temporarily squashed flat by those unstoppable amphibious eight-wheelers.
A couple of days before returning from Mull to the mainland, we nursed our own car back up 15 miles of single-track road to find a garage in the nearest village and get a slow puncture repaired. While we waited in the yard, surrounded by Salen’s full spectrum of customised working vehicles – coastguard four-by-fours, a mobile artist’s studio complete with easel at exactly the right angle to catch the view from a full-panel picture window – a helicopter buzzed back and forth across the leaden sky, shuttling vats of Christmas salmon to the processing plant from the fish farm on the other side of the island.
But tempting as it might have been to take the romantic visitor’s view of a coastal community blending sustainable aquaculture and aerospace technology on the hardscrabble fringe of a vast continent, I still couldn’t catch a sea-trout all week…
“We’ve seen very few migratory fish this year,” several locals told me. “One of our guests took a big salmon at the mouth of the burn by the castle a few seasons back, but there haven’t been many fish all the way up the west coast rivers since then.” According to some estimates, farmed salmon on Scotland’s west coast now outnumber their wild cousins by 700 to one: thousands escape from the cages every year, swamping the ecosystem with sea lice, competing with native fish for food and even compromising their genetic integrity on the spawning beds.
On several other afternoons, I ventured out into the ragged remnants of Hurricane Isaac to search the bay for fantasy sea-trout, pollock or bass.
Past ages of glaciation, global warming and cooling have left much of the island ringed with raised beaches – buffers of granite and basalt, split and weathered into angular casting platforms, poised between the tides. Under the high water mark, the rocks were crusted with amber-yellow limpets that perfectly matched the colour of my fly line. I braced my boots in rocky clefts while dropping tempting clouser minnows over the dark edge of the drop-off, and kept an intelligence-gathering eye on a flight of gannets far out in the bay. Once or twice a bird would peel out of formation, plunging into the rollers to send up a waterspout visible half a mile away, but they never stayed long, and the big bass shoals seemed to have gone elsewhere. Finally a tiny, overambitious coalfish (third picture) came roaring up from the depths, flashing the fly before inhaling it on the second pass.
The little pollock’s flanks gleamed with the stormy yellow of the kelp and limpets as I slid the solitary fish back into his deep-water lair. One was enough. I clipped the lure off the tippet, and stood up into the raw power of the gale (my switch rod on the rocks in first picture).
However edge-of-the-world these islands feel, they’re right on the front line of the environmental movement: persuading the aquaculture industry to farm its salmon securely on land is just as important as removing dams in the Pacific Northwest, dragging shopping trolleys out of urban rivers, scrutinising insanely subsidised and harmful micro-hydropower schemes, or taking court cases to Europe to help chalk streams start flowing freely again. And soundtracked for a week by the elemental music of falling water, this sense of environmental interconnectedness felt like a live, immediate and even dangerous thing.