The fishermen are awake before we are. Perhaps they never went to bed. When we cross the bridge at half past nine they are already milling around and full of energy. In the car park every vehicle has a fishing rod attached to the bonnet, or poking from a rolled-down window. The river is ‘opened’ today, as it is every January, with a ceremony just outside Timespan’s building. This means the salmon fishing season begins. We wonder if this is made to coincide with the full moon.
The children from Helmsdale Primary School join the crowd soon after we get there. There are about thirty children in the school, which is large compared to some schools in Sutherland, Ruth explains. One school nearby has only six pupils, another only three.
The ceremony kicks off with the Sutherland School’s Pipe Band. A short speech is given before a lone piper follows a local notable down to the riverbank. The piper plays with gusto (surely scaring the fish away), while the first cast is made. The line floats in the current for a few seconds before the fisherman begins winding it back. Looking over his shoulder he announces, “that’s it,” and within minutes the village is empty. The green-clad crowd have all scattered, each to his or her respective beat.
We decide it is time we took a look inside the ice house. First we purchase a thermos flask, a corkscrew (for our own use!) a torch, and another bright light from the hardware shop. A key is then fetched from Timespan to unlock the rusty padlock on the gate in front of the ice house. The green door beyond it is invitingly ajar.
The ice house, used in days-gone-by to preserve herring and the salmon catch, is built into a hill behind the river. It was constructed in 1824. The face of the building is flat, with a circular shape to the top, and the sides curl round at the front. The pattern of the stonework, large blocks flanked by vertical lines of smaller bricks, reminds me of a computer game involving ladders, but I can’t remember the name. Chris tells me it is Manic Minor.
To the side of the door there is a small, square window, boarded, and grass covers the roof which is twenty to thirty feet above us. A little path leads from the gate to the door, and to the right of the path there is a rabbit, recently deceased. It lies on its side in a position that suggests a leap, and its ear is still pink, its fur wet with rain. We look to the top of the ice house, a cliff face to a rabbit, and wonder if it was suicide. I am reminded of a place in Canada where the foothills of the Rocky Mountains begin to rise from the prairie. The grisly name of this spot, which I had to Google, is Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Here the Blackfoot tribe of Native American Indians skilfully drove herds of buffalo to their deaths, the men covering themselves with skins so they could live amongst the animals for weeks before tricking them, running them over a steep cliff. There was no waste. Every part of the buffalo was used. Skins made blankets, clothing and tents. Flesh was eaten. Bones made tools. Even the nose was put to use – Blackfoot children chewed it like bubblegum.
I look back at the unfortunate Helmsdale rabbit. Perhaps it was not suicide after all, but the work of some very cunning foxes.
Inside, the ice house is damp and dripping. Its conical structure seems to go up forever and the acoustics are fantastic. We hum notes in harmony and Chris sweeps his torch over the walls. Wet stones glitter silver like the salmon they once stored. Chris wonders what the walls contain and if samples could be sent to the city for analysis.
I leave Chris singing and musing and I walk back to Timespan to visit their archives. An hour passes as I get absorbed in a very detailed description of ‘salmonidae’ in British Freshwater Fishes, by The Rev. W. Houghton M.A. F.L.S. The large, brown book has gold lettering on the cover and a picture of a bearded man cradling a large catch. In each corner of the book there is a swirled design incorporating three fishes, and inside there are beautiful coloured plates of fish. The chapter on salmon begins thus:
“Dr Gunther has well remarked that ‘the Salmonidae’ and the vast literature on this family offer so many and so great difficulties to the ichthyologist, that as much patience and time are required for the investigation of a single species as in other fishes for that of a whole family.”
I have yet to look up the word ‘Ichthyologist’, a word that surely must be fishy, but that I can’t help but read as ‘someone who studies itches’. In a slightly less baffling paragraph the book lists a wonderful array of alternative names for the salmon. My favourites are ‘pink’, ‘samlet’, ‘brandling’, ‘fingerling’ ‘black-tip’, ‘hepper’, ‘jenkins’ and ‘baggit’.
It is three hours before a hungry, red-cheeked Chris returns from the ice house. We chat to Ruth a little more and learn about her work. It is as gruelling as it sounds, but there is also something I find really appealing about it. She is making a sort of wooden cocoon and plans to carry it on her back like a snail from one side of Sutherland to the other, using it as a boat where necessary, and sleeping in it at night, curled up tight. I wonder how she will keep warm.
We go back to the flat. Chris shows me his notebook, where he has made sketches of early ideas for the space. We are both excited by the acoustic potential, but he also has in mind a large sculpture of a fisherman’s fly in beautiful colours, and has taken some haunting pictures by torchlight which reveal unusual shapes and glimmers in the walls.
We think about presenting something from the salmon’s perspective. I wonder what goes through a salmon’s mind. I remember my first swimming lessons and how the water, once I was completely submerged, made me so conscious of my own outline; everything else disappeared. Perhaps a salmon has the same experience? I go back to British Freshwater Fishes, and learn that salmon have four kinds of fins and something called pyloric appendages, as well as a snout. I tell Chris about the book and he likes the following poem by Roman writer Ausonius. It is presented in Latin and in two very different translations, the first, more literal one by the author.
“Nor will I pass over thee, O Salmon,
Blushing with thy red flesh,
the roving strokes of whose broad tail
are born from the middle of the stream to the top of the water,
at such time as the hidden lash betrays itself on the calm surface.
Thou, clothed in scaly armour, slippery as to thy fore part,
and able to constitute a remove for a most excellent dinner,
dost bear keeping fresh for a long time;
thou art conspicuous with they spotted head;
thy full paunch trembles,
and thy belly overflows with abdominal fat.”
“Nor I thy scarlet belly will omit,
O Salmon, whose broad tail with whisking strokes,
Bears tehe up from the bottom of the stream
Quick to the surface: and the secret lash
Below, betrays thee in the placid deep.
Arm’d in thy flaky mail, thy glossy snout
Slippery escapes the fisher’s fingers; else
Thau makest a feast for nicest-judging palates;
And yet long uncorrupted thou remainest:
With spotted head remarked, and wavy spread
Of paunch immense o’erflowing wide with fat.”
Anonymous (Brit. Zool. iii. P. 383-4, ed. 1812.)
By evening we are both exhausted. After a dinner of mince, tatties, broccoli, carrots and sprouts, we cross the road to The Bridge Hotel, where the owners have very kindly agreed we can use the internet. We collapse into very comfortable sofas and order beer, coffee and home made biscuits. While we get tapping on our laptops, the fishermen gather to drink and celebrate.
The first salmon of the season has been caught, and we’re told it is indeed, immense.