“You need a new fly rod!” Sandy told me bluntly. I lived in Thurso in northern Scotland, fifty years ago, and used an old fly rod, inherited from my grandfather to fish for salmon on the River Thurso. The Thurso River is one of Scotland’s most famed for its salmon angling, revered internationally for quality of its fly fishing. I loved my old, rather shabby fly rod but it did not cast a fly well and was heavy and difficult to use. Sandy was right and I decided to buy a new rod. But a new rod would cost more than I could afford, even the shiny, new glass-fibre one I saw in the local Woolworth’s window. But I really wanted a cane rod. Even though rod-building materials and technology had moved on, I considered that spilt-cane rods had a particular beauty and soft, slow action in casting flies that was superior to those made from more modern materials.
Fly fishing for salmon is an art which requires practiced, honed, sequential movements and timing to repeatedly cast the flies successfully. And a good fishing rod. I knew several of the regular salmon anglers in Thurso which is not a very large town. Most were at least a generation older than me, like Sandy. They were a good source of advice for me on salmon angling. Dan Murray was one such experienced fisherman. Dan owned and operated a lemonade factory in the town and had become friendly with the Queen Mother. I believe his lemonade had received royal patronage and was granted a Royal Warrant. Dan was proud to sport the royal insignia on his factory and letterheads. His royal friend liked to fly fish for salmon on the Thurso River, when she stayed every summer at the nearby Castle of Mey. Dan used to act as a ghillie for her, guiding her to success in catching the elusive fish.
Although in his late seventies and retired, Dan liked to tie flies, as well as to fish, and he made and repaired fly rods for his friends. A couple of decades earlier, Dan had made a handsome, twelve-foot long, split-cane rod that was just the sort of rod I would have loved to own. It was made from glowing, amber-coloured and segmented split bamboo cane, whipped every few inches down its length with bright red and green silk tyings, all lacquered over with a clear varnish. Dan used this rod when he acted as ghillie for the Queen Mother and had instructed his wife that, when he died, and if she could, she should “Put my old rod in my coffin to be buried with me”. Although a practical woman, careful with money and averse to waste, she agreed “Aye, I will, Dan”.
The word got around the Thurso salmon fishing community that I was looking to buy a salmon rod but did not have a lot of money to spend on it. At about that time, Dan died, of natural causes, and the Queen Mother lost her ghillie. Dan’s family and friends got together to plan his funeral which was to be a well-attended event since Dan was very well known locally and in the wider, national salmon angling community.
I was still fishing, unsuccessfully, with my old rod and believed that it would be some years before I could afford to buy a better rod to improve my salmon fishing. But Dan’s wife had heard of my predicament. Sympathetic to my plight, her practical nature asserted itself and she took Dan’s rod from his coffin, just before his burial, and sold it to me for £35.00! Better that old Dan’s rod would continue to catch salmon than be prematurely returned to the earth from which its cane had once sprung, she thought.
I used the rod for another twenty-five years before realising that it had become rather worn and needed a refurbishment. I was working then in the south of England and, rather trustingly, took it to a fishing tackle shop in Kingston-upon-Thames, a shop that had been recommended to me. Another ten busy working years passed without time or opportunity for salmon fishing before I examined the now-refurbished rod more closely. I had just retired and lived again in northern Scotland. I wanted to fly fish for salmon with my old rod again on my local rivers, the Rivers Dee and Don. But the shop in Kingston had not done a good job. My rod looked good superficially, but I realised that the repairs to it had been done cheaply and the workmanship was poor. But who could be trusted to undo this damage and return Dan’s rod to be the efficient and lustrous instrument of yesteryear?
I began to ask around and to search for a trustworthy craftsman who would take on this challenge. I searched the internet and called old contacts. Eventually, these efforts put me in touch with Harry Jamieson who lives in Nethy Bridge on Speyside. I drove west some forty miles over and around the Cairngorms to Speyside and Nethy Bridge to meet Harry and his wife. They showed me around the garden and Harry’s rod workshop at their beautiful old stone cottage set deep in the ancient Abernethy Forest. A burn, a small tributary of the mighty Spey, tumbled around the house. This burn was the mill stream before the old mill was converted to become Harry’s cottage home. He described to me the small salmon, elvers and even lampreys which often swim up the burn following a significant rainfall.
I explained to Harry and his wife the history of my rod and its royal connection. Harry was about to retire as a split-cane rod building specialist who, I found out later, also held a Royal Warrant from Prince Charles, now King Charles III, as rod maker to His Majesty. A large royal crest was mounted on the door of Harry’s workshop which proudly displayed Harry’s royal credentials. All that had been unknown to me before I arrived in Nethy Bridge. I had traced Harry by research on the internet into modern rod building on the websites of well-known fishing tackle retailers. Harry had built rods for several of them over the years, developing a solid international reputation for skilful work. I had simply searched for, and believed I had eventually found, a competent rod builder who might restore my old rod to its former amber glory.
And he did, as his last commission in rod repair. Although in his late seventies and not in the best of health, Harry duly carried out a wonderful restoration of my now once-again handsome salmon rod. Over the course of six months, Harry had worked his magic using hands employed as rod-maker to the King, the grandson of the Queen Mother who, I feel sure, had also held my rod to fish the Thurso River fifty years earlier. My old rod had now completed a circuit of royal salmon fly-fishing association over half a century, and I hope now to use it to catch a salmon later this year on a visit to old friends in Thurso.