Late-summer sport on the Isle of Jura
Robert Tennant recalls a particularly magical day on the Isle of Jura when his lucky stars aligned to provide him with a smorgasboard of exhilarating sport and fine fayre for the open fire.
Dawn slowly dissolved the secrecy of night. The ravishing beauty of Jura was suffused in pastel colours and hung with a low mist. By the time breakfast was done, not even a suspicion of cloud marred the azure sky and the sea brooded in silence, its surface like marble. It was the day many had patiently waited for.
I had made a plan, should such weather arrive, to put to sea early from my summer home at the Ardfin boathouse. Firstly to tend my creels, before attempting to shoot a grouse on the hill. Lastly, at high water, I would try to land a sea trout.
I cast off the mooring lines and headed southeast in my 18ft boat. My black labrador Lily took her usual lookout in the bow, quivering in anticipation at the day’s prospects. Eider duck crooned in lazy groups on the glassy water and a black-backed gull called from an isolated rock, ending its lament with a surly cackle. We motored into the flood tide. The water was crystal clear and shimmered with countless shoals of sand eels, which flashed past us on both sides. Lily regarded me with reproach when she realised that I had no intention of pursuing them.
We cleared the channel between the boathouse and Castle Island, then turned east towards Brosdale, the most southerly of Jura’s offshore islands. I noticed seabird activity several hundred yards out from this island and eased the boat onto the plane. Three minutes later we had covered the intervening mile and I cut the engine at the edge of the area where sand eels were boiling onto the surface.
The noise of the frenzy was deafening. Gulls and gannets plunged onto prey, Arctic skuas pursued any gull carrying fish, and a colony of cormorants were busy diving. I reached for my rod and cast a spoon into the boiling water. A moment later I had a fish on and wasted no time in bringing it alongside, then into the landing net. I repeated this process as quickly as possible, aware that the mayhem would not persist for long. When five mackerel were in the bucket the rise suddenly ceased, the birds drifted away and calm was restored.
We turned our attention to the fish. I dispatched and washed them as Lily watched with approval, for she was as fond of barbequed mackerel as I am. ‘How could such an abundant creature be so beautiful?’ I thought, as I regarded the iridescent projectiles whose backs were barred with the colours of malachite and lapis lazuli. I watched as the colours faded, like a rainbow in a drying sky.
As we needed supper and creel bait, I cut out the back or top half of each fillet. These are boneless and therefore delicious, but must be kept fresh on ice. The rest of the fish would do fine for bait.
My four lobster creels were positioned around Brosdale Island, while to the east a further four creels were fishing for prawns at a greater depth. I decided to check the former first for brown crabs and possibly a lobster.
We glided up to the first buoy, situated in a small bay on the southern end of Brosdale. I picked it up and started to haul. The first 25m of rope was slack as the depth was but 5m, then I felt the weight of the creel and soon after saw it in miniature beneath me.
There is always a thrill at this point as any number of different creatures could be inside the trap. Conger eel, octopus, dogfish and the highly venomous weaver fish have had to be extracted from the creels in the past. Lily peered into the water at the approaching trap, her tail slowly wagging as the bulb of her nose twitched. “Aha, we’ve got him.” I told her with delight. Two days previously, I had been optimistic of finding a lobster here. As I hauled the heavy creel onto the gunwale a good-sized specimen had indeed taken up residence within.
I positioned a large bucket, partially filled with seawater, beneath the gunwale, then placed the lobster into the water. Happily it was not a female carrying roe. Lily sniffed at it from a safe distance, remembering the painful occasion when a brown crab had fastened onto her backside. At first the lobster thrashed its tail, sending water over us, then settled down to blow bubbles. I added a mackerel to the creel’s bait bag, moved a hundred yards northwest and lowered it back into the water.
The next three creels yielded a huge brown crab, nothing at all and finally a frightened juvenile octopus. This I extracted with difficulty and released back to the sea. Hard work now beckoned off the eastern shore of Brosdale. The prawn creels were linked in pairs, set at a depth of 40m on 50m ropes. Seaweed often fouled one or both of the creels, which made for a heavy lift. The catch, however, was consistently good and after my labours we regarded the large prawn bucket, brimming with langoustine or Dublin Bay prawns. We then made haste for the boathouse in order to cook the catch.
I boiled the lobster and crab for 25 and 20 minutes respectively, the prawns for five; then set about preparing a fire next to the pier. This I would light upon our return in the evening, in order to barbeque the mackerel fillets.
It was now afternoon, time to ready gear and set off on the next leg of our expedition. Lily had passed the time amongst the reeds of the boathouse green, checking which birds had been in the vicinity. When she saw me load a gun into the boat she wasted no time in joining me.
We headed north up the Sound of Islay, bound for a burn-mouth some 2 miles distant. Our course carried us past boulder-strewn shores, white sandy beaches and the mouths of caves, where rock doves nested and stags came to die. Past burns that crashed over rock faces and cut gorges through the hill as they tumbled to the sea. Past raised beaches and the numberless folds, crests, gullies, columns and wild pastures that make up the Island. Jura’s highest mountain, Beinn an Oir or Mountain of Gold, stood ever watchful, high above.
We nosed in to the shore some 70 yards short of the burn-mouth. Sea trout are wary and I did not want to disturb them when we returned from the hill. It was not long past low-water so I deployed my sliding mooring, which enabled me to pull the boat out into deeper water after disembarking on the shore. I tied off the tail of the mooring line onto a large rock and we crossed the beach and headed uphill.
My side-by-side 20 bore was under my arm. I had five cartridges in my pocket, enough to put one or two grouse onto the table. I reminded Lily to stay close, as her enthusiasm at the beginning of a walk could overwhelm her. Brow succeeded brow, while the great aerial thrust of the mountains seemed to remain fixed in the distance. I kept a close watch on Lily’s tail as she worked in front, an energetic wagging was a sure sign of game. She did show interest in a couple of places where grouse had recently been, but found no birds.
After more than an hour of gradual climbing we came to a shoulder in the hill, above which the slope steepened and the ground became rocky. Turning toward the sea I settled onto a heathery bank to admire the view. Looking back towards the boat, which was barely visible in the lower distance, the soft flowing outline of the intervening hills appeared to have the texture of brown and yellow velvet.
While Lily was busy attempting to catch a fly, I turned my attention to the high ground behind us. There is an elemental purity in the sun-shafted light that paints the high tops. Up there ashen pastures of dappled rocks are riven by bleached screes, before the affront of precipices where ravens tumble and eagles plane. Up there we trespass through the domain of clouds, the haunt of thunder and hail; where we are in no doubt of our insignificance... yet are immeasurably uplifted.
Lily snapped at the air and swallowed noisily, bringing me out of my reverie and back to the task in hand.
We then performed a lengthy skirting manoeuvre around the moors. This eventually brought us to the back of Beinn na Doire Lethe, affectionately known as Ben-der-lay, a hill overlooking the Sound of Islay. On several occasions Lily became excitable, but we flushed no grouse, only a pair of hill teal off a tiny flash of water. The sun was low in the sky and I reluctantly set a course straight up and over the hill, toward the boat.
We were now walking into the low sun, and shortly after crossing the summit Lily flushed a solitary old cock grouse. He exploded out of the thick heather, cackling in alarm and whirred upward and away and into the sun. Just as he reached this apparent salvation and disappeared, I mounted my gun and pulled the back trigger. The grouse re-appeared, falling like a stone and vanished into the cover. A few moments later Lily’s triumphant face rose from the heather some 35 yards in front, the prized gamebird in her mouth.
We reached the shore in high spirits and gathered the boat in. Having lifted the mooring as quietly as possible and moved closer to the burn by means of the oars, I silently anchored in shallow water. An orange pyrotechnic display had commenced in the western sky and the tide was high.
I tied on a small Devon Minnow, as it never snagged the abundant weed, then cast at some likely spots around the burn-mouth. On my third attempt a fish seized the lure and streaked away towards deep water. The rod was alive and vibrating at such a frequency that it could only be a sea trout. My heart almost stopped when it hurled itself out of its element, furiously shaking it’s head and rattling the lure. Thankfully the hook held, and after allowing the fish to play out, I drew the silvered lilac fish into the landing net. It tipped the scales at just over 3lb.
After satisfying herself that the feisty sea trout had been subdued, Lily withdrew to the bow and lay down next to the grouse. The now fiery-red horizon gradually changed to purple as its edge engulfed the sun, giving the water the appearance of lavender-tinted glass. I hauled anchor and manned the oars to fetch deeper water, then set a course for home.
It was not long, thanks to a fair tide, before I glided up to the boathouse pier in the fading light, content in the knowledge that shellfish, sea trout and grouse would feature on the menu for the next few days.
Having secured the boat, I lit the fire. Soon tall flames licked at the sky en-haloed by a thousand sparks, which streaked heavenward to mingle with the stars.