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Tales from the riverbank

Rory Knight Bruce revels in the tranquillity of Kelso

5 March 2008

12:00 AM

5 March 2008

12:00 AM

There can be few more gentle prospects in all Scotland than looking across the waters of the Tweed at Kelso to the low, shimmering crenellations of Floors Castle beyond. In the 19th century C.J. Apperley in Nimrod’s Hunting Tours called the river the ‘Rex fluviorum’, and H.V. Morton in In Search of Scotland, that masterpiece of travel writing, described the small town, with its square, churches and shops, as being of French appearance, which it is.

Neither, however, experienced, as I did, the pinnacle of a fisherman’s career, to be given a day alone on the Upper Floors Beat, owned by the Duke of Roxburghe, which lies a glorious mile and a half of double banks beneath his ducal seat. Silence and serenity engulf the fisherman here, where to cast chest-deep within the flowing waters of the Tweed is very heaven.

The preferred months are October and November (on account of the large number of salmon), when fishermen congregate to try their hand and patience over the whole length of the Tweed, from its small beginnings near Moffat to the wide port bar of Berwick-upon-Tweed. But the Upper Floors Beat, which can be taken by four rods each day, or the Junction Pool, nearer the town (owned by House of Hardy), should be the dream and destination of every true riparian.

Such opportunities are limited, and to be in with a chance at Floors on any of their beats it is necessary to stay at the Roxburghe Hotel, two miles out of Kelso, owned by the estate. This is no hardship as this gracious establishment, with its library, award-winning chef in Keith Short (haggis bread a speciality), airy bedrooms and lawns, inspires tranquillity.

George Mack, the young general manager, has been here for almost 20 years. He presides over a rhythm among all staff that is attentive, unobtrusive and thoughtful. Sportsmen, families or couples celebrating a special occasion would be equally at home here. It was a welcome sight to see guests elegantly changed for dinner, ladies in pearls and men in cashmere sweaters.

There is also an 18-hole championship golf course, under the professional Craig Montgomerie. He joined me with my guest, the noted golfer, artist and cartoonist Hugh Dodd, for the front four holes on the first day of my two-day stay.

Both our games benefited from his encouraging and clear advice. Hugh Dodd, who has a 16 handicap and lives literally on the golf course at North Berwick in the former home of Ben Sayers, pronounced this ‘a very good inland course, with long holes and a spectacular landscape’.

I could not recommend enough an hour (or a day, if you are feeling flush) with Montgomerie because, even in our short time together, both our games as players improved with his knowledge. In the end, neither of us were a disgrace to our game or the course, enjoying a fine camaraderie and some excellent shots.

So it was with the fishing, where to be put under the supervision of Upper Floors Beat ghillie Colin Bell and his assistant Richard Donovan is to learn from their experience of the river gained over many years. I fished from the bank and a boat and, most exhilarating of all, by wading far out into the Tweed.

Again, it was their skill and assistance which made the day. From Colin Bell I learnt of his love of Lindisfarne, the Christian island not half an hour away on the Northumbrian coast, and tales of the many fishermen who have returned year after year, several in their seventies, to this majestic river.

There is a stone-built fisherman’s hut and often, later in the season, guests are welcomed with a log fire in the morning and have a barbeque at lunchtime. The woods above the river chuck with pheasants and the river is so undisturbed that otters and deer are frequently seen.

Beyond are the Eildon Hills, the 150ft Waterloo monument at Ancrum and Smailholm Tower. The last is one of the many reminders that this was once the terrain of cattle raiders or ‘reevers’, but this fertile land is now presided over by settled estates and working farms.

I did not catch my fish, and therefore was denied the honour of placing my name in the game book beneath the Duke of Roxburghe and his daughter, both of whom had caught fish three days earlier. But I caught my breath from the pace of life.

I left the river with feelings of wonder and humility, rested and sorry for the wrongs of the world, some of which have been my own. For just one day, they stayed on the riverbank.

For fishing, golf and shooting
The Roxburghe Hotel, Kelso, Roxburghshire.
Tel: 01573 450331
Contact: George Mack

For all fishing equipment
Tweedside Tackle, 36-38 Bridge Street, Kelso.
Tel: 01573 225306
Contact: Tim Pilcher

For fishing conditions and availability

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