A very unique environment: cold and turbid waters with few elusive species amidst the dense forest of kelp. However, precisely because of this, it is deeply fascinating for those who love solitary places and Nordic landscapes, where every dive can hold surprises and new adventures
by Alberto Martignani
It cannot be said that Scotland is a suitable environment for underwater fishing, otherwise, it wouldn't explain why the practitioners are so few in the former realm of Mary Stuart, unlike other equally northern countries like England, Ireland, and Norway, where it is gradually gaining popularity. But since these coasts have intrigued me for years, I decided to treat myself to a vacation in these parts and bring my gear along to try my luck.
The plan was to spend a couple of days in Edinburgh, then travel 170 kilometers south to visit the ancient structures of Hadrian's Wall and the museums in the area. Finally, I headed northeast to reach the coast of the Scottish Borders, near Eyemouth. This stretch of coast is about twenty kilometers long, high and rugged, hardly accessible from land, nestled in an otherwise flat and sandy coastline with estuaries and tidal islands, continuously reshaped by the high tides characteristic of these latitudes. As I studied the satellite map, I spotted the possibility of reaching some potentially favorable spots from land in Eyemouth, which is why I chose this location as a logistical base for a short stay.
Arriving on a warm mid-July afternoon, I immediately found the best spot to descend and, wearing my 7-millimeter wetsuit, I dived shortly after high tide, submerging into a small point and some rock boulders covered with dense brown kelp. The current was mild, and by chance, the adjacent point was teeming with schools of "sand-eels," as they call them here. I noticed a group of small pollacks (a type of haddock) taking turns attacking the baitfish from below. Among them appeared one of considerable size, and although it sensed the threat and tried to escape, I managed to catch it with a precise and lucky shot from behind.
Continuing the dive to the right, towards other points and bays, I didn't encounter any more baitfish or predators. Even diving to depths of 12 to 14 meters, where the kelp gave way to a mix of flat rocks, sand, and pebbles, in the hope of finding some succulent flatfish, I saw nothing except large whitish crabs and small lobsters, which I spared.
However, as I returned to the starting point, I conducted a similar dive to where I caught the first fish, and another, almost the same size, appeared within a useful distance.
An unbearable current
The hope generated by this first dive of easily catching fish was quickly frustrated the next day, along with the hope of exploring other points along the coast. Firstly, driving along the various coastal locations from the northernmost St. Abbs to the southern Burnmouth revealed the complete absence of convenient access points to interesting spots. Moreover, when I returned in the afternoon to the same spot as the day before (now the only feasible option), a small cove just to the right of the Eyemouth harbor area, I was immediately caught in a strong current. This made it clear that I couldn't venture far from the entry point, or else I risked being dragged south into a cliff area from which I wouldn't be able to escape. The different tide conditions (approaching high tide) and the increasing tidal range (around 4 to 6 meters in this area) likely influenced this.
I tried to slide along the kelp and conduct a dive, then struggled to make my way back into a cove in the rocky coastline sheltered from the current. It was a tiring exercise that I continued for over an hour, but with no results.
The following morning, with no alternatives, I returned to the same spot, but during an earlier stage of the tide, hoping for a weaker current. Indeed, the flow was slightly less intense, allowing me to explore some rocky rises covered in kelp about a hundred meters from the shore.
The water temperature didn't exceed 13 degrees Celsius, but thanks to the generous wetsuit thickness and the continuous movement required for this particular fishing situation, I didn't risk feeling cold.
To maintain my position and facilitate ventilation, I could use some ropes that seemed to detach from dead bodies, possibly left by local shellfish fishermen. Although I witnessed some lively and scenic passages of pollacks, no sizable fish showed up, and the outcome of the dive was sadly the same as the day before.
An imposing presence
And there I was, in the afternoon of the following day, deciding to try to break the stalemate that had arisen by changing my strategy. In front of the bay of Eyemouth, there emerges a small archipelago of islets called Hurkur Rocks, of which, at the height of high tide, only a couple of peak rocks are visible, while during low tide, they are surrounded by an extensive and intricate rise. Descending into the water from a cliff a few dozen meters to the left of the entry point I had used so far, I would find myself in a good position to reach them, weathering the current. After the fishing session, I could also use the same potential current to make it easier to return to a concrete jetty to the right, which I had successfully used to climb back up on previous fishing trips.
The strategy worked, and in about ten minutes, I covered the approximately 250 meters needed to reach the islets, helped by the current, which was considerably less intense during the ebb tide. However, just before reaching the destination, the sight of a large triangular head observing me at the water's surface put me on edge. At the first dive, I caught a pollack of moderate size. I prudently avoided hanging it on my back but attached it to the line of the buoy instead. Not even 10 seconds passed before a strong jerk on the line confirmed that I was not the only one in the water nearby. A seal of at least two hundred kilograms had bitten into the poor fish and was attempting to snatch it from the line. I took my camera out of the gun and filmed the scene for a long time, as the seal, despite repeated attempts, couldn't get hold of the fish.
Moved by pity since the haddock was now in a sorry state, I unhooked it from the nylon and let it glide to the bottom. The seal immediately targeted it and, almost delicately, took it and swam away, presumably to savor it at its leisure. Needless to say, I couldn't fish anymore. The animal, after devouring its prey and realizing that it was dealing with another fellow being, who was reasonably friendly towards it, wouldn't leave me alone. It appeared in front of me during every dive, and while I was at the surface, it would swim right under my fins, letting me caress it and nibbling them, like an affectionate kitten.
I had to resign myself to half an hour of cuddling, after which I surfaced, with the large pinniped continuing to follow me up to about ten meters from the exit point.
The Secrets of Hurkur Rocks
At this point, I had accepted the fact that fishing, for one reason or another, was not meant to be in these parts, but I decided to enjoy my vacation nevertheless. The area is scenically beautiful and rich in history. I had spent a good part of the day trekking along the dizzying cliffs overlooking the ocean around Eyemouth itself, or at nearby St. Abbs Head. I also visited historic places like Berwick upon Tweed, an ancient Elizabethan fortress, and Lindisfarne, a tidal island hosting an early medieval castle and abbey, still bearing the marks of Viking invasions.
However, in the late afternoon, I kept a couple of hours for myself in the water, still at the Hurkur Rocks, as, seal or no seal, they seemed like the most interesting area.
It was now the penultimate day of my vacation, and once I reached the small archipelago with some trepidation due to the constant current, I looked around for a long time, searching for the familiar, bearded head. Not spotting anything, I started hopefully swimming up and down. I noticed that the current intensified around the islets, splitting the flow into two rivulets so fast that they couldn't be tackled, and preventing reaching the outermost and northernmost tips. It was possible to manage it by moving a few dozen meters offshore, swimming back towards the rocks and, once caught by the current, letting myself go and making two, maybe three glides on the bottom, followed by a dive, which could be completed before exiting the useful area and then having to laboriously ascend. The alternative was to find shelter behind the two larger rock backs, where you could rest and ventilate before starting the game again.
The water appeared murky and dark, thick with planktonic organisms, comb jellies, and jellyfish, including the enormous lion's mane jellyfish, with bodies up to one meter in diameter and long filaments, which were stinging, but not more than those in the Mediterranean.
In addition to the ever-present young haddock, I began to see the large and awkward Atlantic wrasses, some so corpulent that they resembled groupers. Then, during a dive conducted near the southern tip of the largest rock, while I was observing a school of small pollacks, I noticed the presence of a large solitary specimen approaching from behind.
I slowly swung almost 180 degrees and, taking advantage of their not always lightning-fast responsiveness, I managed to impale it. Before I could even take it off the spear, the seal was there, begging for alms. This time, however, I decided to give in to its coaxing, both because it was a beautiful fish, and I wanted to bring it ashore, and because it is known that habituating a wild creature to taking food from human hands is never a good solution, for the safety of both.
I hung the haddock not behind my back but in front of my abdomen, to have better control, and I tried to continue fishing despite the inconvenience caused by the cumbersome mammal, which, as in the previous incident, continued to follow me. I managed to get a clearer idea of the underwater layout of the small archipelago, the currents, and the most interesting points. However, I obviously couldn't make any more catches, and at some point, I let myself go with the current, which, in a few minutes, brought me back to the exit point.
For the last fishing trip of my vacation, I returned to the same islets, without particular aspirations for a catch, as I was almost sure that the seal would be tailing me again today. Instead, the intelligent creature must have realized that it wasn't in its best interest to be at my side all the time. So, after passing in front of me during my first dive, as if to let me know that it was still around, it didn't show up for a while, allowing me nearly an hour of peaceful sea. It was late afternoon, almost at the height of high tide, and the current around the emerging rocks was moving fast.
After a great catch, this time at the base of the larger and southernmost islet, and a subsequent, smaller pollack, I decided to move to the more northern islets, which were submerged or just emerging during this stage of the tide. To do so, however, I had to fight against the buoy and slightly widen my trajectory to avoid being fully exposed to the current.
Kicking vigorously, I reached the predetermined spot and then dove into the current, gliding to the bottom. I was immediately surrounded by a huge school of pollacks, and, again, after some time, a cautious one of good size appeared, which I promptly caught. To remove it from the spear and put it back on the line without being dragged away, I had to position myself with my back against a rock, pressed against it by the current. After reassembling the gun, I began to circle around the same rock to prepare for a new dive. However, while I was sneaking around the rock, a large pollack appeared at mid-water, almost stationary in the current. Instinctively, with the snorkel still above the water, I pressed the trigger and, with a bit of luck, managed to hit it from the surface. At this point, I had four fish on the line, so my seal friend decided that it might be the right moment to show up again. Despite my regret, I would disappoint its expectations for the second time, and she would escort me until the exit, as if saying a symbolic goodbye and "see you later”...
Something to know
Let's start with the premise that "one does not go to Scotland just for fishing." However, as in any country with sea, fish, and no prohibitions or risks, being able to go fishing a few times can be a pleasant addition to the vacation. As mentioned, I chose to spend the first two days in the capital, Edinburgh. A thorough visit would obviously require more time, but spending a couple of days walking around the extensive historical center (Old Town and New Town) that unfolds at the foot of the castle still allows you to enjoy the vintage and relaxed atmosphere of the city and visit its main attractions.
Subsequently, a 170-kilometer journey south by rental car allowed me to reach the English region of Northumberland, spending a couple of days in the village of Bardon Mill, an ideal starting point for hiking along the best-preserved stretch of Hadrian's Wall (highly evocative and scenically stunning) and visiting the most important museums (Roman Army Museum and Vindolanda Fort & Museum).
Finally, to reach Eyemouth, you have to drive another 140 kilometers northeast, returning, although just for a few miles, to Scottish territory (Scottish Borders).
Five or six days are more than enough to cover fishing and explore the area thoroughly. Eyemouth, dominated by the elevated remains of an ancient fort, still retains its original character as a fishing port but also has an important historical past as a center of commercial exchanges (and smuggling activities...) between Scotland and England.
Unmissable excursions include St. Abbs Head (2 or 3 hours of trekking along the edge of a dizzying cliff), Berwick upon Tweed, a town completely surrounded by a powerful and complex fortification dating back to the 16th century, and Lindisfarne, a tidal island connected to the mainland by a passable road only during low tide. It hosts a very large colony of grey seals, as well as the remains of an ancient medieval castle and abbey.