Destination Reports

Hidden Gems of Scotland

Max Salzburg August 14, 2023

Hidden Gems of Scotland

For a great many two-handed anglers, there comes a time in their angling journey when they want to experience the history and beginnings of the sport. The roots of Spey casting can be traced back to the 1800s when anglers in Scotland began using two-handed rods to cast across large, fast-moving rivers with woody brush along the banks. The technique allowed anglers to cast farther while keeping their back cast from getting hung up in the bushes. The casting style took off among salmon anglers who used the technique to fish for Atlantic salmon on the River Spey and other Scottish rivers. For me, I have wanted to step down into some of fly fishing’s most hallowed rivers for as long as I have been Spey casting and swing fishing. It was a dream come true for me to get to fish some of Scotland’s finest waters and meet some of her finest anglers.

For this adventure, I was lucky to have the founder and managing director of Alba Game Fishing as my private guide. I have worked with Stewart for almost five years, but due to timing and the pandemic I had never met him in person and shaken his hand. I can tell you this, without a doubt, Stewart Collingswood is one of the kindest, most sincere people I have ever met, as well as one of the finest anglers I have had the privilege of fishing with. At Fly Water Travel, our Scotland trips are some of the highest-rated trips in our catalog and we often have guests return from their "once-in-a-lifetime" trips to Scotland, and immediately re-book for the following year! After meeting Stewart, seeing his program, and learning just how dialed he is, it is easy to see why.

Where did you go and how did you get there? 

I visited the remarkable country of Scotland. To get there I flew to Edinburgh (EDI) where I was picked up by a professional driver. I spent one day exploring Edinburgh before departing the city for the highlands with Stewart Collingswood of Alba Game Fishing.

Where did you fish?

I fished the Rivers Tay, Ness, Spey, and Deveron. An advantage to fishing with Stewart is his vast and extensive network of fishing locales and ghillies. Stewart only works with the best ghillies in the industry and getting to meet them, talk with them and learn from them was one of the highlights of the trip. I was lucky to get to experience-

The River Tay, Newtyle Beat with Ghillie David Gardner

The River Ness, Dochfour Beat with Ghillie Cameron Chapman 

The River Spey, Tulchan Estate A Beat with Ghillie John Anderson

The River Spey, Pitchroy Beat with Ghillie Jim Lowe

How was fishing?

The salmon fishing was tough. The rivers in Scotland were historically low and there were not many salmon running in the rivers. There were reports of fish in the mouths of the rivers waiting for a bump in water levels to begin the run up the river. The trout fishing, however was very good. Some days while fishing for salmon, we would take a break and fish for trout, where we would quickly catch a half dozen wild brown trout in the 15- to 17-inch class.

My first Scottish fishing experience was on the Newtyle Beat of the River Tay with Stewart and David Gardner. David motored us upriver in a small boat to a pool called “The Cottar” not far from the hut. David had an anchor on a long rope, and we anchored up at the top of the run; after a few casts, he would let out a length of rope to move the boat down the run. We spent an hour or so casting back at the bank from the middle of the river. I had never Spey cast from a boat before, and after getting the hang of it, it worked well, and we covered the water efficiently. David is a patient, relaxed and funny man who takes his job seriously and has a wealth of knowledge about the River Tay. It was a great introduction to Scottish fishing to be in a boat with him while he told stories of fish and the anglers that fish for them.

From the River Tay, Stewart and I drove to the Avochie Estate on the River Deveron and the Chalmers Cottage which would act as our basecamp for the next two nights. The River Deveron is what appears to be a lovely small trout river but after talking to Stewart I learned that the heaviest fly-caught salmon in Scotland's history was landed by Mrs. Clementia “Tiny” Morison in the Deveron in 1921. The salmon was 61-pounds and caught on a 1.25” Brown Wing Killer fly. We spent our evenings after dinner fishing the House Pool and other remarkable pools on the estate, where we would catch lots of handsome wild brown trout in the 12- to 18-inch class.

The water was low all over Scotland, and on day two, we changed up the plan a little. We decided that because Loch Ness is over 700-feet deep there would be water in the Ness and we might have a shot at hooking a salmon. I am glad we made that choice because I got to spend time with Ghillie Cameron “Cammy” Chapman. Cammy is a retired police officer and his passion for fishing and enthusiasm for the sport is infectious. He is a happy man whose thunderous laugh puts guests at ease and makes them feel welcome to experience his small portion of the amazing River Ness. While Cammy has a passion for the salmon that run the river, he truly loves the act of angling and being outside. He was excited to hear that we planned to fish for trout while fishing for salmon and was quick with tips on where the salmon and the trout would be in the pools. The man has thousands of stories and is quick with a joke to make his anglers feel comfortable and welcome on the River Ness.

One of the best days of fishing of my life, however, had very little to do with actually casting and fishing. Stewart had arranged for me to fish the amazing A Beat on the Tulchan Estate on the River Spey. The ghillie on the A Beat is a man called John Anderson. John has been the ghillie on the A Beat since 1983. He is a legend not only among the ghillies of Scotland but also in the general angling community of the country. He is also a master Victorian fly tier, and antique bamboo Spey rod caster.

There is an old hut on the A Beat known as the King’s Hut. It doesn’t look like much but it is the hut where kings of Europe took their breaks, it is where Theodore Roosevelt ate his lunch when he fished the Spey, and it is where the history of the river and all the anglers that came before you stare you in the face. Years ago, John fixed up the hut and turned it into a Spey fly and fly tying museum of sorts. The hut is filled with antique tackle and Spey flies, but it is also home to some of the most beautiful and intricate salmon flies tied by some of the finest fly tiers from around the world, all of which have been sent to John as gifts. It is a special place and unlike anything I have ever encountered in our sport.

I was somewhat nervous to meet John. Every ghillie and guide we had met along the way told us how special he was and what an absolute legend he was in Scottish fly fishing. When we pulled up to the new hut John had put the fire on because it had been a chilly night, the air smelled of wood smoke and I laid my eyes on the top pools of the A Beat. It was perfect. All the large rocks and the shelves of rocks just looked like a place a salmon would be holding. The wading lines looked easy and straightforward with a gravel bottom, just absolutely perfect for Spey casting and swing fishing. The banks were green and manicured but still wild enough to look like you were the first person ever to fish this water. As other anglers crowded around John to hear his advice for the run, I stood back and got wadered up with Stewart. John walked over to introduce himself and asked if I wanted a coffee. I accepted and he said “Let me get these fellows sorted and I will be right over.” He went back to the hut and explained to the other guests how to fish their morning water and as they scurried off to their assigned pools, he went into the hut to make my coffee. I felt awkward accepting a coffee from the man, but when he brought it over, he began to chat with us. He had a relaxing, calm vibe about him, like someone that loves what they do and has done it for a very long time, a true expert who has nothing to prove and no one to impress. Stewart had heard that he was thinking about retiring, and John laughed and said no, that he is having too much fun to retire. He laid out how to fish my assigned pool and let us know that he would be down before lunch to rotate us to our second pool. Stewart and I walked down to the pool across the river from the King’s Hut; I took a deep breath, looked around, and stepped down into one of the most hallowed pieces of water in the sport that I love.

My cast seemed to have a little extra pep that session, and every step down in the run just seemed magical. I was there, at that moment in time, doing what I love, seeing cool things with interesting people, and at that moment, I just wanted to be present and try to make time slow down. Time never slows down for me on the river and before I knew it, we had worked the run and John was coming down the bank for my rotation. We asked him if he would take us to the King’s Hut and he said that he would after lunch when he gets all the anglers into their afternoon pools. I fished the top pool and it was just as amazing as my first pool and in what seemed like a blink of an eye, it was time for lunch.

After lunch, John took us by truck to the other side of the river. Normally he would row us across the river in a small boat, but with the low water, it was easier to drive. When we got to the hut he opened the door and he said, “It is just metal and feathers. It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t know the stories.” For the next hour or so, John explained what everything was. The antique 8-inch Spey flies, his first rod that was handed down to him, the amazing flies tied with exotic feathers and fur by some of the world’s best fly tiers, the classic and modern patterns. One thing that really struck me is that John will take a classic large Spey fly and reproduce it on a modern hook in a more modern “fishing size” but he will painstakingly reproduce every aspect of the tie. It was one of the most interesting and special moments in my angling journey.

We went back across the river and realized that we had spent most of my afternoon session in the hut. We needed to visit another beat on the Spey to meet another ghillie and learn about the different estates. As I took my waders off and we were about to leave I walked over to the river and took one last deep breath and looked around one last time. That moment is seared into my memory, and I expect that it will be for the rest of my life.

From the Tulchan Estate, we drove down the road about 15-minutes until we reached the Pitchroy Beat on the Ballindalloch Highland Estate, where we met Ghillie Jim Lowe. The Ballindalloch Castle Beat is one of the most famous beats on the River Spey. Where the River Avon meets the River Spey is known as the Junction Pool. It is arguably the best-known pool on the River Spey and anglers have fished it for hundreds of years. Just below the Castle Beat is the amazing Pitchroy Beat. The Pitchroy Beat does not get the acclaim of the Castle Beat, but it is a beautiful stretch of river and an incredible piece of salmon and seatrout water. We met Jim and chatted for a while before he took me out and explained the beat. The Pitchroy Beat is and long beat where the water flows at just the right speed with very nice, easy wading. I want to return to fish with Jim. He had an ease about him, and when he picked up my 8-weight, 13-foot, Sage X Spey and casually cast it most of the way across the river, I knew he was a very serious angler.

My day on the River Spey was one of the most interesting days of fishing (although I only fished for a few hours) of my life and a day that I will remember for the rest of my life.

How did you fish?

When fishing for salmon I two-handed Spey cast and fished the swing while working my way down through runs or pools. After fishing for salmon, we would often break out Stewart’s euro-nymphing rig and fish for trout in the same pools. I am not great at euro-nymphing but Stewart was able to help me get dialed and before long I was having bumps and catching trout every few casts. When I got tired of high sticking, we would also fish a 9-foot, 3-weight Sage LL.

Where did you stay? 

In Edinburgh I stayed at the luxury Apex Grassmarket Hotel in the historic Grassmarket Square in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. From there I stayed at the amazing Chalmers Cottage on the Avochie Estate.  All the accommodations that Alba Game Fishing uses has been carefully vetted by Stewart to make sure that they live up to his high standards.

What equipment did you use and how did it perform?

When I fished for salmon, I used an 8-weight Sage X Spey 8130 with a RIO Scandi 525-grain shooting head.  When we fished for trout, we used a 3-weight Sage ESN 3106 and a 4-weight Sage Trout LL 486.

All the gear performed great. The X Spey had the backbone to turn the fly over put it where I wanted while punching through the wind when necessary. The ESN rod had the touch and responsiveness to feel every part of the drift. The LL is an amazing dry fly and light nymph rod that casts delicately and lands flies gently.

Hidden Gems of Scotland

Experience the warmth and hospitality of the Scottish people, see the country’s most historic and beautiful places, and sample a number of the country’s premier fisheries along the way.