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Tales Of A River Tay Legend

By 3rd December 2022

As we fast approach the River Tay's 2023 opening day here's a fantastic story involving my late mentor & great friend Willie Laird which always comes to mind at this time of year. Don't fall off your chair laughing when you read this one!

A Real River Tay Opening Day

In previous decades the 15th of January River Tay opening days were more than what you'll experience on the vast majority of Tay beats these days although there are always exceptions who still know how to hold a party! When I was young the opening day fishing was over by lunchtime as usually half a dozen fine Spring salmon were landed on each beat before lunch and the afternoon fishing session abandoned which was probably best as the salmon would have scattered anyway from the echo of 'clinking' glasses!

Labrador Swimming Lessons

These River Tay opening day lunches were brilliant occasions as all of the fishing guest's wives would have cooked up something fantastic for the men coming in off the river at 1pm. The selection of food & alcohol on offer in a Tay fishing hut with the smell of wood burning, the hiss from the old gas lamps and the amazing riverbank banter was simply unbeatable. It was the 16th of January during the early 70's following one such opening day party where my late colleague decided he would teach his loyal team of labrador dogs how to swim the Tay! 

Follow Me Across The Tay

Willie told me that he'd been down at the hut the day after a huge opening day party and after tidying up the hut and bagging all the empties he was still feeling a bit shaky. The Tay was running big and there was a fresh covering of snow on the riverbanks. He said he just took the notion to show his loyalty to his labradors who had followed him across the Tay on hundreds of occasions when Willie was in the boat and he thought it was time to show the dogs he was just as good as them at swimming the mighty Tay!

Naked In The River Tay Snow

Being a River Tay ghillie and understanding the currents he walked up a hundred yards upstream of his fishing hut and stripped off naked, looked at his dogs and shouted 'come on' as he plunged into the icy Tay! I recall him telling me that he was instantly sober and within a few minutes he realised he was in serious trouble and literally 'fighting for his life' out in the middle of the Tay a few hundred yards downstream of his entry point. He eventually managed to haul himself out of the river on the other bank although well downstream of where he was hoping to be and in a state of hypothermic shock and total exhaustion. Needless to say his dogs were still on the far bank and had chosen not to follow him!

How To Recross The River Tay

The situation now turned into even more panic as Willie realised that all of his clothes were on the other side of the river. There was no way he was going to attempt a re-crossing which would definitely have killed him so the only thing he could do was break into a jog to try to heat himself up a bit and head off a mile or so upstream to Dunkeld Bridge to get back onto the Birnam side of the Tay again. Because he was completely naked he found an old sack on the riverbank to cover himself with as he crossed the bridge at Dunkeld to avoid being arrested!

Old Tay Ghillies Were As Hard As Nails

As a boy I recall being out in the boat on the Tay with Willie through the early Spring months in freezing air conditions which were often assisted by a biting North wind. I'd be sitting on the boat seat freezing with as many layers of clothing on as I could walk up right with. Willie would be at the stern with a light open neck shirt and regular tweed jacket completely oblivious and resilient to the freezing conditions. Probably if he had not been as hardy that attempted labrador River Tay swimming lesson would most definitely have killed him!