Norrie T Macdonald: From the first vibration from fish to fingers, I was hooked!

The 19th Hole, Norrie T Macdonald

It can take you a long time (58 years) to find out the difference between Pollachius Pollachius and Pollachius Virens.

Well, in name certainly.

I always knew that Troglodytes Troglodytes was a (Eurasian) Wren, but only because I thought it was impressively funny at the age of eleven.

I could pretend that the Latin derivation of animal names was a subject of interest to make me sound remotely educated, but it would be a scandalous lie.

The fact that a cuddy/coaley/saithe is different from a pollock/lythe comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has held a fishing rod as a kid around these shores, but you need to graduate from one to the other.

Portvoller Bay

Everything starts with the hunt for some cuddies.

But only after a bit of pottering around in the rock pools and growing a little bit in confidence with all things ‘sea’.

Our shore playground on a sunny day was the ‘geo’ at Shinigeadh. When the tide was out, it was a grey-sanded, multi-rockpooled, playground.

The entire village could be found there on a summer’s weekend (well, Saturday) when it appeared that everything celestial had aligned just perfectly.

Hang on, rose-tinted glasses being fetched.

We changed into our trunks behind towels held up by impatient fathers, determined themselves to let the sun shine, however briefly, on pale skin that hid, perennially, under jumpers and boiler-suits, the uniform of the tweed-mill and croft.

Our young horizons were beginning to broaden and, like every islander before us, the sea needed to be properly introduced.

These were the halcyon, formative, summer days of my youth and I was a veritable Jacques Cousteau in black, knee-length, wellies.

A summer’s day at Shinigeadh

We overturned large pebbles and boulders in the pools, discovering quickly the habits of their occupants and that the miniature world, whilst of huge interest and education, was but a microcosm of what lay beyond the surf crashing not too far away with its warning roar.

It was a gentle build up to boldness.

We were relatively safe and required little, or no, supervision: the worst that could happen to us was a graze from a slip on the rocks, or a nip from a, larger than was wise to attempt to corner, portainn (shore crab).

We learned which fish were ‘horned’ or awkward to handle and delighted ourselves when we managed to capture one in our hands.

Everything was done with your pals.

Some of us were more adept than others at this new ‘sport’; a lack of fear, and possibly consequences, proving hugely advantageous when it came to the ‘hunt’.

We broke open winkles and limpets on the rocks and threw them, defenceless, into the bigger pools and waited and watched.

Ready for the shore

We experimented and we learned.

We filled jars and tin cans, wandered home with our capture, and learned the difference between salt and seawater when it came to aquatic life.

Usually several days later from the smell in the shed.

At the time it seemed like simply harmless fun, but it was just what generations previous had done before us, and it was preparing us for the serious business ahead.

The menfolk of the village all had a bamboo pole which they used to fish ‘properly’ with. The trick was to keep it wet so it wouldn’t get brittle and crack, hence the best place for hiding, and protecting, it was usually in the waterone.

You might have had some guttering, we had several waterones.

The post office at Knock was the place from which to procure such an item and, yes, they did them in miniature sizes too.

I watched in awe as my father rigged my first ‘bamboo’.

Half-way up the pole he tightly bound one end of the length of tarred sisal twine that he had precisely cut just below a protruding culm (the thick bits that characterise growth….yes, I found a new website…..and it sells poles!).

The twine was then wound around the narrowing bamboo to the fragile tip.

The tip needed to be light and flexible, for casting and for ‘feel’, but strong enough not to break under the weight of anything with scales or fins.

He then expertly tied off a secure fastening at this apex, leaving a working portion of twine which was brought back down the pole and loosely bound.

We were, I was told in Gaelic, ‘good to go’.

‘Look after it !’, I was warned.

Of course we weren’t allowed, immediately, to go to ‘the rocks’ on our own: there had to be some kind of schooling before we were let loose where the big fish swam and if you fell in you’d almost certainly drown.

These were the early seventies in Lewis, and the only things that knew how to swim were the creatures that you so desperately wanted to catch.

We were taken, yet again, to Shinigeadh where, when the tide was full, we had our very own ‘training pond’, full of cuddies, desperate to hit the frying pan.

The bodach had attached a hook to the end of the twine with about a yard of monofilament and had spent low tide filling a bag with some bàirnich (limpets), which I’m pretty sure we referred to as maoraich (shellfish).

The walk down to the geo, proudly behind my father and uncle (he was the real expert), rod over my shoulder, made me proud as punch.

In hindsight, yes; it was a graduation.

Naturally it was a beautiful summer’s evening (I’ve still got the pink lenses on), the sun was behind us and, despite the bay being filled with grey sand, the sea seemed blue-transparent and I swear I can remember seeing the fish shoaling and darting about, ready to tease us with nibbles and tugs, each one magnified to the size of something huge.

Possibly a mackerel?

Plucking a limpet from the bag, my father swiftly extracted it from the shell with a squeeze of the thumb.

He tore off the working anatomy, the gastronomic bits of the gastropoda, and popped the rest into his mouth and chewed.

Not for long; just enough to soften the muscular foot of the newly despatched mollusc so that it could easily be stuck onto the end of my waiting hook.

It was the one ‘trick’ that I was never to repeat.

I was told about the dangers of fishing too close together (tangles), the dangers of standing too close together (a loss of balance by one can take you both in), the dangers of waving a rod around (flying hooks are to be avoided), the dangers of getting too close to the sea (a sudden, unexpected, wave surge can surely haul you in).

There were dangers from wet rocks (obvious), danger from extracting a fish, no matter the size, from a hook when it was thrashing around, determined to return to terra-fliuch (a barbed piece of steel through the skin was something to be avoided at all costs), and danger, generally, from not paying full attention, at all times, to what was going on around me.

Maybe not all at the same time, but, as the night progressed, and my schoolboy enthusiasm spectacularly combined with my schoolboy errors to make repetition often and necessary, I quickly realised that to mistake ‘playing’ with ‘fishing’ could have serious consequences indeed.

I was, however, undoubtedly ’hooked’.

From the moment that first vibration was transmitted from fish to fingers.

I’ve often wondered about heredity and whether or not certain traits get handed down from previous generations.

I’m certain that in many cases they do.

But we all, certainly most boys of my generation, grew up with the hand-me-down skills of our fathers and grandfathers.

I never met my father’s father, the original ‘Tomsh’.

He died before I was born.

As a long-line fisherman working out of Portnaguran, his was very definitely not the easiest of lives.

The original ‘Tomsh’ pictured by James McGeough

The photographer James McGeogh, a former Glasgow policeman, married the daughter of his next-door-neighbour.

He is well known for his stunning photographs of the guga hunters of Ness.

He found time as well to capture many other images of ‘50s Lewis, including one of my grandfather in his working gear.

‘Tomsh’ here was the same age in it as I am now.

Check out the missing digits on his left hand.

Not that I would have ever dared to answer my father back, or not pay attention to his instructions at the rocks: but looking at that picture of his father, I’m pretty sure I know why the message stuck.

We all had to start somewhere.

I think I managed around a half-dozen cuddies that night.

Though I had to get someone more experienced (less terrified) to get these huge fish off my hook.