A fishermen’s watering hole in Kelso

KELSO. Two fishermen are having a mournful conversation. ''There's no water,'' says one. I look up from my book, for in the bar where we are all sitting it is impossible not to eavesdrop, and stare out of the window. There, where the Tweed and the Teviot meet, there seems plenty of water to me.

They are using the hyperbole of fishermen. What they mean, of course, is that there is not enough water. There’s hardly been a drop of rain these last weeks and the rivers are lower for this time of year than anyone can remember.

For this exceptionally pleasant town and its friendly people, that is really bad news. People come from all over the place, but particularly from England, to fish the Tweed. They cheerfully accept failure; their conviviality of an evening, the glow they have from a day in the fresh air, are consolations. But their patience cannot infinitely accommodate a prolonged shortage of water and fish.

A retired naval officer is having a few ”tots” at the bar.

He got up that morning at 4am to drive up from Nottingham. He fished the river all the day. He had a ”glorious” time, he says, even though a snell wind has been blowing from the east. He caught a fish but he thought it was a kelt (a fish that has spawned and is returning to the sea) and put it back.

It seems to be an extraordinary fact that modern science, for all its sometimes overweening confidence, cannot entirely explain the life-cycle of the salmon. It is spawned in gravel and amid burns that run through upland bogs. After a time it goes to sea to feed and grow strong. If it survives the predations of man it returns to its natal stream to spawn once more. It has no choice; it must return.

Once in fresh water it does not feed. It appears to take the lure out of sheer irritation or aggression. They say catching a salmon on the fly is a matter of luck, in that it depends on whether you sufficiently annoy the fish. But an experienced fisherman has a better chance, for if he knows where a fish is lying he can infuriate it by the accuracy of repeated casts.

In this comfortable and convivial fishing hotel I am an eccentric. (So too, I discover, is the barman, though for a different reason. He fishes for trout but is a heretic in these parts because he plays football and supports Rangers.) I have come here to get on with a book I rashly promised to write on the theme of Scotland since the war. In my head it feels as if I am down a coalmine, hacking away at the seams of our recent history; but in a physical sense no mine was as pleasant as this.

From time to time I poke my head above ground. From Rennie’s graceful but narrow bridge, completed in 1804 and damaged in January when a fire-engine crashed through the parapet at the cost of the driver’s life, I watch a group of fishermen absorbed in their curious art, a little upstream at what I think is the Junction Pool — the junction being the confluence of Tweed and Teviot — although I lay no claim to fishing lore.

A path takes me along the Teviot, a name overshadowed by that of the Tweed but a very beautiful river in its own right. I seem to remember an old saw which said that ”more bairns are drowned in Teviot than Tweed”. Today my footsteps disturb a pike lurking beneath the bank. Its back breaks the surface and there is a glimpse of snout as it swims powerfully away into the middle of the stream.

Around are the noises of the countryside, which seem so much louder than those of the town because they breach a silence: the rasping drone of a saw, the barking of a dog, a distant hum from the main road, the outraged cry of birds.

From the road you get a good view, across the Tweed, of Vanbrugh’s magnificent Floors Castle, seat of the Duke of Roxburghe. In the town itself the ruins of the abbey church, one of those beautiful but melancholy Border relics of troubled times, gives a settled feeling of antiquity. Spring flowers grow in the well-tended gardens of the war memorial. There is a sense almost of being in a time-warp, of having wandered into an older and more courteous age.

People smile and nod in the street or as they cross the gracious square. In one shop the proprietor, when asked if he has a small screwdriver, says: ”To buy or to borrow?” As an incorrigible journalist I collect useless information. The man in the shoe shop tells me that the people in Kelso have bigger feet than their neighbours in Galashiels and Hawick, no doubt because of an agrarian rather than an industrial past.

This morning a chill strong wind has driven the clouds away and the sun is bright but, as a local informs me during my morning stroll, ”this is no heat wave”. The porter brings me my tea as I begin my shift down the mine and says it will be unpleasantly cold on the river today.

The convivial and philosophical fishermen will persevere none the less. From time to time I shall stare out of the window and watch them at their work. I shall envy them its soothing simplicity. Trying to make sense of modern Scotland seems a little more difficult even than catching a salmon on a cold March day when there is ”no water”.