Man’s Best Friend

I can’t remember not having a dog, always one and sometimes two, and always Golden Retrievers. They were decent, friendly, biddable creatures and wonderful companions. Training them was easy because they were endlessly anxious to please and to learn. They were trustworthy and well-behaved under all circumstances and loved the water. However, this was never a problem when fishing. The trout didn’t seem to mind. One of my dogs, Breac, the Gaelic name for trout, used to swim parallel to me when I bank-fished and I have caught trout casting a fly almost in front of his nose.

Then I got involved with Heathcliff, a thug of a Yorkshire terrier and one of the worst angling mistakes that I have ever made. I fished with him for 13 years. Where I went, he went. Or rather, wherever his mistress, my wife Ann, went, I followed them both. Heathcliff featured large in my piscatorial affairs, more often than not in derogatory terms – ‘dogoratory’ might be more appropriate. He mightily enlivened the days we spent together amidst moorland and mountains and not always for entirely laudable reasons; the least of which was his tendency to chase anything that moved and his feigned deafness when I attempted to call him to heel. But he was a character, for all his faults, and Ann loved him dearly.

His Sunday name was ‘Cantalon Aristocrat’ and he was born in Edinburgh on 16 October 1983. When I first met him I was looking for an additional companion, other than myself, for my wife. Don’t ask me why we men do such things, these matters are complicated enough as it is. His breeder had shown me a litter of puppies and for some reason I hesitated. The breeder then opened a door and stood back. Heathcliff bustled in, gloriously black and gold, his tiny white teeth glinting, looking for trouble. He rushed at my feet, lay on his back, legs kicking, and began chewing the hell out of my left shin. I jumped about a bit, shaking my trouser leg, but to no avail. A few moments later he and I were in the car heading for the north of Scotland.

I had the good fortune to marry a Yorkshire lass, a devoted Bronte fan, hence ‘Cantalon Aristocrat’s’ family name, Heathcliff. Ann is also a keen hill walker and angler and far more competent in both matters than I will ever be. Thus Heathcliff landed on his feet. Not for him the silk cushion and fashionable red bow. He was destined for higher things: Stac Polly (2009ft),  Canisp (2779ft), Hope (3040ft), Loyal (2504ft), Klibreck (3154ft), Stack (2364ft), Mhor (2,034ft) and Hecla (1,988ft) in South Uist, Baosbheinn (2896ft) and Beinn an Eoin (2801ft) in the Flowerdale Forest and miles of intermediate moorland and urban sniffs in-between.

Our first fishing expedition was to Lochain Doimhian near Scourie in north­west Sutherland; a soggy, vigorous, eight-mile round trip and hard going for a much larger dog, let alone for a modest Yorkshire terrier. Heathcliff was six months old at the time and he ended the walk, shivering, tucked into the poachers-pocket of my jacket. The principal reason for his state was due to an altercation he had had with a mallard. He rose the bird, which was tending a family of chicks, as we passed by the ‘Murder Loch’. The mother flapped off water-wards, pretending a broken wing, whilst the chicks hid in the heather. Heathcliff followed mum, into the loch. A moment later he was drifting out to the middle, drowning. My son, Blair, stripped off and waded to the rescue.

On our return home, Ann set about making Heathcliff a waterproof fishing jacket, to ward off the cold, complete with landing-net ring and wool fly patch. I never saw him use the patch; he was made of sterner stuff and adopted a more direct approach to retrieve trout: he used his teeth. Like most anglers Heathcliff enjoyed meeting like-minded people, particularly if they happened to be female and on heat. His ability to scent the possibility of an intimate, special, relationship was legendary. My ability to find him once he had set off in pursuit of conjugal bliss was less so; although I freely admit that I lost pounds of unnecessary flab in the process. I have also lost count of the number of times when I have had to explain, red-faced with embarrassment: “He is a Yorkshire terrier, I’m sorry, it’s just the way they are.”

You get to know someone well, really well, when you go fishing with them; even better when you sleep with them every night for 13 years. But what’s a little midnight grooming between friends, only a minor deflection from a good night’s sleep and of small consequence. So what if your fishing companion regularly bites the hand that feeds him, or any other portion of your body that his teeth can reach? After all, we live in a democracy, do we not? Friendship and constancy are far more important than intransigent favours and, after all, everyone has their little foibles.

Heathcliff died in Assynt not long after climbing Sutherland’s great Ben and I miss his little foibles more than I ever imagined possible; his fixed, hideous grin as I landed a trout that he instantly grabbed and buried, far from my ken. I miss his presence, neatly equidistant between my heel and the heel of his mistress as we descended from some God-forsaken height. Fishing will never be the same. Until November, that is, when Hareton, Heathcliff’s grand­nephew, arrives. I will take him to where Heathcliff lies and explain the rules: no yapping, no running away, no gratuitous screwing and, most important of all, no stealing your master’s fish, got it? Hope springs eternal.

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