Obituary: Bruce Sandison, angler

Bruce Sandison for Obit supplied by publisher Black & White
Bruce Sandison for Obit supplied by publisher Black & White
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Bruce Sandison, angler, author and campaigner. Born: Edinburgh, 26 September 1938. Died: Tongue, Sutherland, 30 October 2016, aged 78

Bruce Sandison was an iconic figure in the world of Scottish angling. As a writer, he covered the subject authoritatively for four decades in a variety of books, magazines and local and national newspapers. This included his time as “Old Trout”, the fishing industry correspondent for Private Eye, and, for 20 years, as a columnist for this newspaper. As a committed campaigner, he brought issues surrounding fish farming and its environmental impact to national attention. As a fisherman, he was a familiar presence around the rivers and lochs of Scotland.

A prolific author, the most famous title he published was the regularly updated Rivers and Lochs of Scotland: The Angler’s Complete Guide, an “angler’s bible” which listed and described more than 5,000 freshwater fishing locations across the country. Other titles included 1993’s The Hillwalker’s Guide to Scotland; the illuminating memoirs Lies, Damned Lies & Anglers, Sandison’s Scotland and Secret Lochs & Special Places; and Tales of the Loch, the published version of his BBC Radio Scotland/Radio 4 series on the history of iconic fishing and hill-walking locations.

Bruce’s entry into activism came during the 1980s, when he took an active part in the successful campaign to stop the reforestation of Caithness and Sutherland’s Flow Country with trees which were damaging to the local ecology, largely paid for by investors seeking the associated tax breaks. His great campaign, though, was against the salmon farming industry and the effects he felt it had upon both the environment and the wild fish populations in Scottish rivers, particularly upon trout.

He set up the Salmon Farm Protest Group (SFPG) and the Salmon Farm Monitor to challenge the industry, employing methods ranging from supermarket door protests (environmental factors aside, he simply didn’t believe farmed fish was very good quality) to Freedom of Information requests, including one to the Scottish Information Commissioner in 2006 which revealed details of salmon farm escapes. He used his platforms to pursue government and industry, and to inform the public.

Yet he was never shrill in his campaigning; rather thoughtful and well-prepared, a tall, gentle man whose passion for his subject was obvious to all who knew him. K.I.S.S. – “Keep It Short and Simple” – was the ex-Army man’s motto. “Whatever hurts Scotland’s environment hurts us all,” he said. “In our brief stewardship of this irreplaceable treasure let us strive to protect its integrity. When we are gone let there be no sign of our passing other than the kindly imprint of our care. This is our duty to future generations. There is no room for compromise.”

Bruce MacGregor Sandison was born in Edinburgh on 26 September 1938 to John (also known as Jack) MacGregor Sandison, who worked for Shell-Mex/BP, and Jemma Annie MacKenzie Telford. He had an older brother named Ian and a younger brother named Fergus, and attended the city’s old Royal High School, where he was junior swimming champion. He fell in love with angling when he fished the Water of Leith around Canonmills with his brothers as a young man, and later graduated to the Tweed at Innerleithen, where he fished with a permit for trout. His first job was at the stove and appliance-makers Smith & Wellstood, near Edinburgh Playhouse, until he enrolled in the Army at the age of 18, rather than being called up for National Service.

He was commissioned into the Royal Army Service Corps at the same time as his brother Ian, who was awarded the Silver Sword for best officer cadet, and served in Aden (now Yemen) before returning to Edinburgh. His next job was with Crudens and then Taylor-Woodrow, developing land for new housing.

He met dental surgeon and graduate of the Edinburgh Dental School Dorothy-Ann, known to friends and family just as Ann, on a blind date at the club which is now Maybury Casino, and the couple were married on 14 April 1961 at a registry office in the centre of the city.

In 1964 they moved to the north-east of England – where he fished the River South Tyne – and they remained there until 1975, when they moved to Wick in Caithness. There, he worked for local agricultural suppliers and contractors until 1982, when writing became his full-time career.

Although his family are unclear about precisely what his first writing credit was, they remember it was a satirical piece for Punch magazine.

His expertise in his chosen field was put to good use in the following years, as his writing appeared in not only The Scotsman and Private Eye, but also newspapers and magazines including Trout & Salmon, Fly Fishing & Fly Tying, the Aberdeen Press & Journal, the Herald, the John O’Groats Journal, the Sunday Times (Scotland), the Telegraph, the Independent, the Scottish Daily Mail, the Sunday Mail, the Inverness Courier, The Field, Scottish Field and the Scots Magazine.

Awards he won include the Highlands & Islands Media group Feature Writer of the Year, the UK Angling Writers Association’s Angling Writer of the Year and Scottish Angling Writer of the Year.

In 1992 Bruce, Ann and their family moved to Hysbackie, Tongue, where they woke every day to a wonderful view of Ben Loyal; around the same time they also spent a couple of memorable summers hosting guests at a remote lodge near the town of Chaiten, south of Santiago in Chile. Bruce was a passionate listener to classical music and a member of Wick Arts Club, helping to bring the Medici String Quartet to the town to play.

His family remember a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Scotland who always fished with a split-cane rod and loved walking to remote lochs; often with Ann, who is also passionate about walking and fishing. Each wedding anniversary, the couple would walk to a very remote loch and often stay overnight in a bothy.

Bruce Sandison is survived by his wife Ann, their children Blair, Lewis-Ann, Charles (an artist based in Finland, who won the Bram Stoker Award at Glasgow School of Art and has had work shown in the Musee D’Orsay and the Royal Academy) and Jean, as well as ten grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.