Fishing The Fly Scotland Forum

Hamish Young

Gerald, Dad and Uncle Ray on Loch Morar

Get a drink - this is a long one.

This story starts with a ‘phone call from a family friend named Gerald in early 2023. Gerald has been a good friend to our family and perhaps some of you who read this story will have a friend who is a bit like Gerald; someone you really enjoy catching up with and wish that you did so more often, but somehow seldom do. Gerald fits in this category, I really do enjoy speaking with him and I should have been in more regular contact with him for years.

Anyway, this true story is a bit about memories of days gone by, a bit about friends and family but is mostly about a wooden clinker-built fishing dinghy called Uncle Ray. Incidentally, anyone with a good memory of late ‘80s acid house music might recall ‘A guy Called Gerald’ and his track Voodoo Ray. It’s an earworm for me every time the subject of Gerald or Uncle Ray pops up. Sometimes I really wish it weren’t.

Instead of starting this story at what is really the end (with a phone call) I should possibly try and make a start somewhere near the beginning, and the beginning is Gerald who owns a very fine clinker-built fishing dinghy called ‘Uncle Ray’. I first met Gerald in the mid-1980s when I was in my early teens growing up on Ardnamurchan. It was through fishing and the formation of an angling club that first brought Gerald my dad and I together. Geralds home water was Loch Morar, but he became a frequent and welcome visitor with dad and I on Loch Shiel. Gerald was a very keen and knowledgeable fly fisher, with an outlook and philosophy about a day afloat that was very, very different to my fathers and for a teenager, this different approach was indeed a good thing.

When Gerald first invited dad and I to come out with him on Loch Morar for a day’s fishing I would have been 14 or 15, that day has stuck with me over the nearly 40 seasons that have since passed. If the truth is told that day is rather more seasons ago than I am entirely comfortable with! A large part of the story of Uncle Ray is my experience with the boat and that first day on Loch Morar. The day started at home in Acharacle, which is at the bottom end of Loch Shiel and the opposite end from Glenfinnan and the ‘Harry Potter’ viaduct. Dad drove us up to Geralds where we decamped from his rather beat-up Mazda pickup into Geralds much tidier and cleaner Land Rover. From his home overlooking Loch Nam Uamh, Gerald followed the ‘Road to the Isles’ heading for Loch Morar. I remember the journey up to Morar in that Land Rover clearly, our rods secured in the vice like grip of old-school Wheatley rod carriers attached to the roof gutters with flies bouncing on the leaders (we called them casts back then) in the breeze. The journey along the old single-track road from near Lochailort to Morar was considerably more of an adventure then which was long before the ‘new road’ to Mallaig was built. I remember my dad’s visible discomfort as we progressed – he never was a good passenger.
Crossing the old road bridge over the River Morar, we turned right and followed the rivers north bank before the scenery opened out to show us Loch Morar for the first time. We passed many boats pulled to the shore or on moorings, some well used, some not and others lying around that had been ‘retired’ many seasons before and simply left to the elements and nature to reclaim. As we rounded a corner Uncle Ray sat afloat on the loch on a mooring looking ship-shape and Bristol fashion, every bit the monarch of the loch, and somehow very ‘Gerald’. It was a super day for loch fishing with enough of a wind to keep the midgies at bay and provide a nice steady ripple on the water. An occasional trout showed as we got ready.

As he pulled Uncle Ray to the shore from its mooring, it became clear that Gerald had a very particular way of going about things which was very different to what I knew from fishing with Dad. As we loaded the boat for the day, Gerald asked if we were going to fish dry fly as we had set up with floating lines, whereas he had a slow sinking line on and that is what he had always fished wet fly with. At that point in time, I had never considered doing anything other than what my father did; a floating line was used for everything! I did not even own a sinking line and to have even owned such a thing would doubtless have been some sort of heresy in my dad’s eyes! Even before we went afloat, this was already an education. I was listening and watching intently. This was different.
We pushed off from the shore. I was allowed on the oars, and it turned out that Uncle Ray was a pleasure to row and cut through the water with ease. Gerald fired up the outboard, turned us eastward and we headed up the loch. Passing the Morar islands, Uncle Ray fairly clipped through the water. Compared to most of the loch boats I was used to Uncle Ray was slightly narrower in the beam, the elegant lines and narrow beam ensured that progress was surprisingly rapid. With the islands behind us, larger waves from a now stronger westerly wind chased us down the main body of the loch.
We cut across towards the southern shoreline making for the bays where the River Meoble brings the waters from Loch Beoraid down to Loch Morar. Here Gerald explained his fishing plan where each of us would do an hour on the oars, then swap. One hour exactly mind you, no more no less, and no matter where we were in the drift. As I happened to be sat on the middle thwart I took the first stint on the oars, with Dad in the bow and Gerald in the stern telling me how far off to keep us as we fished along the shoreline towards the river mouth. The sun was breaking through the clouds, and we were quickly amongst willing trout. A super day of fishing followed, Gerald told stories of seasons past, adventures with his father and gave us suggestions on how to fish the loch. He also occasionally reminded me that casting a fly rod was less about power (I did manage to rock the boat a tad) and more about technique than the brute force and ignorance I was using. Our day took us all the way up to Kinlochmorar, the easternmost end of Loch Morar, which is truly one of the most stunning and eerily quiet places I’ve fished.

The day went by, many trout were caught, the wind picked up, the waves grew larger, and the sun started to drop lower in the western sky, so we turned for home. Uncle Ray seemed immune to the large waves and powered us back cutting through them with ease. The spray from those waves seemed to be bursting over my Dad when I turned to see how he was. He was sat in the bow grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat, puffing away on a cigar that he was valiantly trying to shelter from the spray whilst also trying to hold a conversation with Gerald at the other end of the boat.

That was the first day on Loch Morar with Gerald and Uncle Ray. Over the next 5 years or so I had many happy days afloat, sometimes with Dad and sometimes without. I always looked forward to those days on Morar with Gerald onboard Uncle Ray. There are any many treasured memories from those days, such as the day I caught my first Morar trout over 2lbs from the Swordale shoreline on a Black Pennel. I can still clearly remember that trout rolling over the fly I had tied just the night before. I learnt a lot from Gerald about fishing, about the loch and about Uncle Ray.

This story is really supposed to be about Uncle Ray, which is a unique craft and its story is an interesting one. Named after a family friend of Gerald’s, Uncle Ray was commissioned from ‘old’ John Henderson the boat builder in Mallaig, it is entirely possible that Uncle Ray was the very last clinker boat he built. How Uncle Ray came to be built is really a big part of Gerald’s story. Gerald’s father used to travel from England to the Highlands for a holiday every year, and to fish Loch Morar in particular. As a lad, Gerald was not permitted to accompany his father fishing, and certainly not on his annual trip to the Highlands, until he was able to repeatedly land a fly on a small plate at about 30’. When he could do that, he was allowed to accompany his father on adventures to the Highlands. Gerald fished with his father for many years and when on Loch Morar they always fished from a dinghy called ‘Dahlia’. Many years later, when he moved to the Highlands, Gerald sought out the very dinghy he and his father had fished from, and Uncle Ray was commissioned from John Henderson on that design. ‘Dahlia’ was also a sailing dinghy which possibly explains the sleek lines and narrower beam of Uncle Ray compared to many other clinker rowing boats and fishing dinghies. When building the dinghy John Henderson recommended to Gerald that he add a plank over the original design to raise the gunnel height for a fishing dinghy and, after some months, Uncle Ray was built.
For some forty years since, Uncle Ray has been launched at the beginning of every season on Loch Morar, the only water the boat has ever really known, and then safely recovered at seasons end. In keeping with that ‘ship shape and Bristol fashion’ approach Uncle Ray has been maintained and cared for meticulously and like no other dinghy that I know of.
But in 2023 Uncle Ray did not see the waters of Loch Morar. During a phone call in the early weeks of 2023 (which is really where this story started) Gerald told me that he had taken the decision that now he is in his eighties he is no longer fit enough to go afloat and fish; and certainly not alone. There was a clear tone of disappointment, emotion, and reluctant acceptance that was clear to hear in Geralds voice as he told me of his decision and asked if I knew of anyone who might want to buy Uncle Ray. I said I would ask around whilst at the same time thinking ‘me, me, me!’. But the truth is that whilst I do live and fish in the Highlands, I no longer live by the side of a loch, nor do I have anywhere to keep Uncle Ray. So, beyond an emotional attachment, I have no need to own Uncle Ray. Alas, none of my friends who could actually use such a craft want the trouble of a clinker-built boat.

We can probably all recognise that there are certain attachments to things and places that, particularly in our formative years, bring a strong emotional response that stays with us and, as we get older, we look back on with fondness. Part of why I felt the story of Uncle Ray needed to be told is perhaps part of my own story, as there’s an emotional attachment. The days spent on Uncle Ray were truly happy times with my late father and a great family friend. It was time where I think, as an angler, I was encouraged to (and did) look beyond the teachings of my father for the first time. Gerald encouraged me to think for myself and I embraced that fully, but I realised whilst typing these words that I have never properly thanked him. Mind you, on some occasions, I possibly embraced those new things a little too fully for my father’s liking, he very nearly disowned me when I first bought a lead core super-fast sinking fly line from Steve Parton, made a rudder and started experimenting with dirty great tube flies fished ‘Northampton style’ on lochs – it really works for big trout on lochs by the way!

Perhaps I don’t catch up with Gerald or revisit either Morar or Shiel because of the memories I have from those formative teenage years. I want to remember those days and places as they were, not how they are. I have not fished those lochs and rivers for over thirty years. Perhaps one day I will go back for a cast, but putting these memories down in black and white to tell the story of Uncle Ray has made me consider the notion that part of me never really left those waters all those years ago and that part of me is still there drifting on a wave without a care in the world, in the company of friends and family.
I’m sure I have read that strong sentimental value is more often applied to an object as we get older. I’d have to say that has been my experience. With the news that Uncle Ray is to be sold I cannot deny that I associate so many important parts of my earlier days with a rod with that boat. Sentimental? Yes, matched with a tinge of sadness as a chapter in the fishing world known to too few draws to a close. How many fishing boats do you know of with a story like Uncle Rays?
It’s now 2024 and Gerald has not yet found a good home for Uncle Ray. When that new home is found, I hope the new owner continues the story and creates memories with that boat the way Gerald has and that I know I have. I can’t help but be saddened by the thought that somehow Uncle Ray is the last of a breed whose days are now all but numbered, too few people want a clinker-built boat like that which is a great shame. I hope a new home is found. Most of all, I really hope you have enjoyed this story about a chap called Gerald and a truly unique boat named Uncle Ray.
But take my advice those who listen to the music of the 80’s, don’t bother with ‘A guy called Gerald’ and ‘Voodoo Ray’, it’s possible that some things are best left firmly in the past.

Mike Barrio

Re: A boat named Uncle Ray - and a bloke named Gerald.
« Reply #1 on: 26/03/2024 at 15:26 »
What a great story Hamish, I can associate with that in so many ways!

Certainly looks like a cracking boat in the photo  >)

John Wastle

Re: A boat named Uncle Ray - and a bloke named Gerald.
« Reply #2 on: 26/03/2024 at 16:02 »
A great story Hamish and one that brings back memories, as I spent many summer holdays from the age of 12 (late 70s/early 80s) fishing Loch Morar and the surrounding hill lochs. I remember the old road and bouncing up and down it to the loch on the Morar Motors bus. It was still in the days where the Loch would fill with finnock and sea trout at the end of June. I fished it again a few times in the  90s. The sea trout were gone but the brownies were plentiful.

Re: A boat named Uncle Ray - and a bloke named Gerald.
« Reply #3 on: 26/03/2024 at 20:27 »
A brilliant story, I enjoyed it immensely. I grew up in Morar. Sadly did not fly fish in my youth, but have many memorys of fishing the loch, usually light trolling. Last year I caught one of my best fish from Morar on fly from a float tube. A beautiful golden fish of just over two pounds.

Would love to have a boat to fish the loch, but hard to justify the outlay, and I rarely have the time to fish when I do manage to visit family.

Iain Cameron

Re: A boat named Uncle Ray - and a bloke named Gerald.
« Reply #4 on: 27/03/2024 at 07:50 »
That was a lovely read, Hamish, well written.
I chuckled at the “allowed on the oars”… that was the kind of flannel my uncle used on me when he couldn’t be arsed rowing himself…


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