Book review: Illuminated by Water, by Malachy Tallack

This very readable reflection on the joys of fishing will have readers looking in the cupboard under the stairs for long discarded tackle, writes Allan Massie

Malachy Tallack PIC: Craig Colahan
Malachy Tallack PIC: Craig Colahan

When John Buchan’s Glasgow grocer, Dickson McCunn, was setting out on his walking tour in the first chapter of Huntingtower and considering which book to take, he settled on The Compleat Angler by Isaak Walton.

He had never fished in his life but “it seemed to fit his mood. It was old and curious and learned and fragrant with the youth of things.” At the age of 13, though scarcely an angler myself, I bought the book, thinking if it pleased Buchan it might please me. Now I am pleased to find it praised by Malachy Tallack, a most knowledgeable and committed, even addicted fisherman.

He tells us that Walton, writing in the mid-17th century, believed that angling was a virtuous activity “the most honest, ingenuous, quiet and harmless art”, one which “promoted good virtues among its practitioners”. It was no wonder that Jesus picked fishermen as his first apostles.

Most Popular

    Illuminated by Water, by Malachy Tallack

    Tallack is a Shetlander who has loved angling since he was a boy and has fished all over the world, and the highest praise I can give this book is to say that it sits comfortably and deservedly along side The Compleat Angler on the shelf. One might add that Buchan would surely have loved it, for the finest chapter of his poaching novel, John Macnab, is the description of Edward Leithen catching his illicit salmon.

    Tallack is, of course, good on the salmon, the King of Fish in our waters, “enigmatic, unpredictable and extremely strong” – so much so that I have never hooked one myself, except once when trolling from a boat on Loch Awe (it escaped.)

    Tallack, however, is “not quite as awed by salmon as some anglers seem to be.” For him, the trout, and especially the brown trout, is “unsurpassable, beautiful beyond compare”, its only rival the char, a small fish of the salmon family found in mountain lochs, lakes and rivers.

    Fly-fishing is a great art or craft. Tallack writes at length on the tying and choice of flies. Some anglers will swear by familiar flies; others will experiment wildly, tying sometimes bizarre concoctions of their own. There’s a lot of good advice about flies and fly-tying here, but very often it is sheer luck that any particular fly will attract a fish. And why not? After all, many of us first fished with a worm impaled on a hook.

    Many fishers are a bit snobbish, especially, I think, here in Scotland where rivers and streams mostly run fast and promise us trout and salmon. So there is a tendency to feel superior to anglers who sit on a stool on the banks of slow-moving English rivers and canals hoping to hook bottom-feeding coarse fish. Tallack has no time for this snobbery – nor indeed had Walton – but coarse fishing was for a long time primarily a working-class sport, the only kind available to many.

    In Scotland, trout streams anyway have often been more widely accessible, and many burghs had long-established fishing rights, with tickets permitting you to fish in burgh waters being quite cheaply available. Moreover, for centuries poaching was viewed as a sort of right, no matter what riparian landowners might suppose.

    This is a rich and enchanting book, also at times a sad one. Near the end Tallack writes “Fishing is a way of reminding myself that the world is still beautiful. It is a way of confronting myself – and comforting myself – with that fact. But to stand beside water today is to be confronted by loss, by the ways in which we have made and are making, the world uglier.”

    True and sad. So Tallack is not an optimist about the state of the world and its future. Nevertheless, he can still be an optimist about fishing. It still offers hope, renewed every time you take your rod to the water, to “Cast and cast and cast.”

    This book offers delight. It will surely have readers looking in the cupboard under the stairs for long discarded fishing tackle. And it also promises happy memories, happy reflection, just as Walton has offered readers for more than 300 years.

    Illuminated by Water, by Malachy Tallack, Doubleday, 272pp, £16.99.