I must admit to having reservations when I was asked if I’d like to read ‘Speyside Memories: Boyhood and Beyond on River and Hill’ and ‘A Speyside Odyssey: A Natural History of The Atlantic Salmon’ but I was most pleasantly surprised and found both books very engaging. Many thanks to Alison Williams for the review copies. They are both beautifully presented.
‘Speyside Memories’ is filled with wonderful watercolours and cartoons by the author, along with descriptions of colourful, quirky local characters whose idiosyncrasies provided much fun for the youngsters—gamekeeper Eck Elder was one such.
The kenspeckle Eck Elder, an archetypal Scottish gamekeeper who might be spied covering ground on East Cromdale shortly after first light, was another source of mild ridicule. Eck was from the borders and retained the strong accent of his youth. His complaint, ‘flaks as big as pat lids’ (flakes as big as pot lids) in deploring a severe snow storm was but one of his colourful pronouncements that invited imitation.
‘Speyside Memories’ is a collection of well written and descriptive short anecdotes of Dr Matheson’s life, from his boyhood during WWII, through to adulthood as a consultant surgeon and skilful fisherman, and ranging from humorous to moving. The author’s love of the area is apparent throughout and the incredibly picturesque landscape is depicted wonderfully in words and images.
In upper Banffshire the rowans were red and the late harvest had been gathered in. Stubble fields lay bare and three well-built rucks stood proud like burly sentinels in the small corn yard. Which tells that this tale is from the past. It comes from a time when I was but a boy, not yet conscious of man’s inhumanity to man and hardly aware of the devastating blitzkrieg that was sweeping through Europe.
One of my favourite stories is that of ‘A Pearl from Head of Wood,’ the name given to the neck of the long Wood Pool, which, judging by the watercolour painted by the author, would be an idyllic place to spend some time. Forty years ago pearlers were active in the area and when a perfect freshwater pearl was found and brought to Dr Matheson’s attention, the fact it was found in Head of Wood gave it extra significance. These days freshwater mussels are a legally protected species. A lovely story of how the pearl, made into a ring, finally found a home.
Another favourite is ‘A Man From Skye’ which concerns Dr Matheson’s paternal grandfather’s unusual life. He left the island aged thirteen for the mainland where he became a shepherd, eventually marrying and fathering thirteen children. On the occasion of his grandfather’s death Dr Matheson, then aged ten, and his family travelled by horse and sledge through the night during severe winter weather, there being no other form of transport available due to the deep snow.
‘A Speyside Odyssey’ includes much more than the life cycle of the Atlantic salmon, although that is fascinating in itself. The journey the salmon must go through is hazardous in the extreme, taking them through the small streams that flow eventually into the river Spey, leading them on to the ocean where they feast on the abundance of available food, gathering strength for the long and risky journey back to where they began in order to spawn. Dr Matheson has an obvious regard for the tenacity of the fish, along with the natural world in its entirety.
‘A Speyside Odyssey’ (with a foreword from Prince Charles) is filled with gorgeous illustrations of the flora and fauna, in addition to much of the natural history of the area—details of the landscape through the seasons, the birds, animals and wild flowers and, as with the previous book, all beautifully described in words and images. Both books are easy, captivating reads.
When the day broke the pool was quiet but for the occasional splashy flop of a kelt. At the neck of the pool a dipper perched, pertly bobbing and intermittently diving, using its wings as oars in its submerged insect gathering. The light blanket of mist shrouding the distant hilltops would curl away in the warmth of what promised to be a fine spring day. A light downstream wind gently ruffled the surface of the water.