Saturated by months of rain, every knee-high tussock onthe Isle of Mull gurgled with a thousand tiny rivulets, and every rockylochside path through the rhododendron thickets chattered inches-deep like aliving stream. Mares’ tails billowed white from every crag, pouring overprecipitous shelves of volcanic rock and crashing in heavy veils across thebracken and myrtle, while hanging bogs and hillsides belched water into riversthat overtopped their low autumn meanders with startling, sterile clarity,rushing unfishably to the sea.
When high tides hit the storm beach a hundred yards infront of our rented cottage, spray whipped off the breakers and lashed the tinywindows like buckshot. Feral sheep and a herd of half-tame fallow deer coweredin the shelter of the kitchen wall; stalking parties from the big housesquelched past in Argocats, and I quickly learned that the only reasonable wayof getting to the high trout lochs (Loch Buie in second picture) was to follow the muddy matting of grassand peat temporarily squashed flat by those unstoppable amphibiouseight-wheelers.
A couple of days before returning from Mull to themainland, we nursed our own car back up 15 miles of single-track road to find agarage in the nearest village and get a slow puncture repaired. While we waitedin the yard, surrounded by Salen’s full spectrum of customised working vehicles– coastguard four-by-fours, a mobile artist’s studio complete with easel atexactly the right angle to catch the view from a full-panel picture window – ahelicopter buzzed back and forth across the leaden sky, shuttling vats ofChristmas salmon to the processing plant from the fish farm on the other sideof the island.
But tempting as it might have been to take the romanticvisitor’s view of a coastal community blending sustainable aquaculture andaerospace 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,” severallocals told me. “One of our guests took a big salmon at the mouth of the burnby the castle a few seasons back, but there haven’t been many fish all the wayup the west coast rivers since then.” According to some estimates, farmedsalmon 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 sealice, competing with native fish for food and even compromising their geneticintegrity on the spawning beds.
On several other afternoons, I ventured out into theragged remnants of Hurricane Isaac to search the bay for fantasy sea-trout,pollock or bass.
Past ages of glaciation, global warming and cooling haveleft much of the island ringed with raised beaches – buffers of granite andbasalt, split and weathered into angular casting platforms, poised between thetides. Under the high water mark, the rocks were crusted with amber-yellowlimpets that perfectly matched the colour of my fly line. I braced my boots inrocky clefts while dropping tempting clouser minnows over the dark edge of thedrop-off, and kept an intelligence-gathering eye on a flight of gannets far outin the bay. Once or twice a bird would peel out of formation, plunging into therollers to send up a waterspout visible half a mile away, but they neverstayed long, and the big bass shoals seemed to have gone elsewhere. Finally atiny, overambitious coalfish (third picture) came roaring up from the depths, flashing the flybefore inhaling it on the second pass.
The little pollock’s flanks gleamed with the stormy yellowof the kelp and limpets as I slid the solitary fish back into his deep-waterlair. One was enough. I clipped the lure off the tippet, and stood up into theraw power of the gale (my switch rod on the rocks in first picture).
However edge-of-the-world these islands feel, they’reright on the front line of the environmental movement: persuading theaquaculture industry to farm its salmon securely on land is just as importantas removing dams in the Pacific Northwest, dragging shopping trolleys out ofurban rivers, scrutinising insanely subsidised and harmful micro-hydropowerschemes, or taking court cases to Europe to help chalk streams start flowingfreely again. And soundtracked for a week by the elemental music of fallingwater, this sense of environmental interconnectedness felt like a live,immediate and even dangerous thing.