Artists off duty
What do a group of the UK's finest sporting artists do when they're on holiday? They go salmon fishing in Scotland, apparently. Marcus Janssen found out more.
And drinking,” says Rodger McPhail. “The one thing we all have in common is fish – we all drink like fish.” Rodger is referring to a group of well-known sporting artists from around the UK who get together for a week-long sporting sojourn in the Highlands. And although this has only been happening since 2012, the stories are already the stuff of legend.
Like the time when Rodger, Jason Sweeney and Sam MacDonald went snorkelling in the River Carron in Wester Ross. “Rodger came downstairs from his bedroom with his wetsuit on back-to-front,” says Keith Sykes through tears of laughter. “Although we don't actually paint or sculpt while we're on holiday, we do draw a certain amount of inspiration from the things we see. Unfortunately, the sight of Rodger in his wetsuit is one image I can't erase from my memory.”
Organised primarily by Jason and Rodger, the venue is always the same – the spectacular New Kelso Lodge on the River Carron in Wester Ross, owned by Shaun MacDonald, an avid salmon fisherman and conservationist – but the guest list varies from year to year. In 2013 and 2014, in addition to Rodger and Jason, it included top wildlife and sporting artists Ian MacGillivray, Terence Lambert, Keith Sykes and Sam MacDonald as well as top cartoonist Will McPhail (Rodger's nephew).
It all started many years ago when Ian MacGillivray invited Jason stalking at Glen Etive. “I really didn't know what a lodge holiday was all about,” says Jason. “As I arrived it was pouring with rain and I was met by Rodger, who was sitting on a cooler box plucking grouse. We'd never met before. Anyway, Ian and Rodger turned out to be perfect holiday companions and of course Rodger's the ultimate entertainer. I guess it just grew from there, and we now take New Kelso Lodge for a week of salmon fishing and a great deal of fun. It's ostensibly a family and friends fishing holiday but the truth is, it's as much about the camaraderie as it is about salmon.”
Speaking of salmon, the most talked-about fish of the 2014 trip – which I am assured is certain to be remembered in both art and angling folklore – wasn't actually landed and, according to all who were present, was a bit of a catastrophe, “a comedy of errors,” says Keith Sykes.
“It was the first day of the 2014 holiday and we all headed out of the lodge together, heady with excitement,” says Jason. “Sharon (Keith's partner/carer) tore her waders on the fence, so I showed Keith what to do and got him fishing – Keith doesn't really fish – and headed back to get a spare pair of waders for Sharon. Just as I returned to the river, I heard Keith say that he might have one on. As it turned out, he did, a big one. Unfortunately, I was tasked with netting Keith's fish, so I got ready. Sadly, the net, as it turned out, wasn't up to the task. As I scooped for the fish, it bent backwards, the hook pulled out and the fish slipped out at the last second before shooting forward and beaching itself on the gravel in front of Sharon who didn't have a clue what to do. As I made a mad and frantic lunge for it, the salmon then turned around and swam straight through Keith Sykes' legs! Needless to say, I've been the laughing stock ever since.”
“It was like a scene from a Laurel and Hardy film,” adds Keith. “I didn't actually mind, though, because I am a terrible fisherman – my wellies leak and I don't really have a clue what I am doing – so I don't really deserve to catch fish.”
“We gave Jason a commemorative trophy,” continues Sam MacDonald, who was also present, “the Ghillie of the Year award. And Keith got the Long Range Release Award. Both trophies were truly well deserved. It was bloody hilarious.”
“There is always wonderful banter,” continues Jason. “Terry (Terence Lambert) caught three fish in the first year, so we tried not to invite him back – we were bitter as hell. Some people thrash the water for days to no avail, but Terry is keen and a bit of a killer. But then he is also the oldest and most experienced; he has been fishing since the days of cat gut and bamboo. In fact, they have even carbon dated him – but he looks great. We don't know how he does it. Probably his oils.
“And Sam's a great fisherman too and even turned up with a Tenkara rod for the trout fishing last year, which was very sophisticated by our standards.” But Jason is also quick to point out that the very first fish caught on the 2012 holiday was landed by Cecilia McPhail (Rodger's wife), a 14lb fresh-run beauty.
Although the fishing undoubtedly provides many of the highlights, not everyone is as keen on fishing as Jason and Sam, so there are always other activities factored into the holiday. “Whenever the others start talking about fishing,” adds Keith, “I start drinking.” Indeed, as Rodger alluded to, food and drink seem to feature quite heavily on the itinerary. “It's basically a week-long piss-up in the Highlands,” he says. “We even had some Welsh whisky last year, thanks to Owen Williams who unfortunately couldn't make it, but gladly his whisky could.” Ian MacGillivray agrees: “What I remember best of the past two holidays is the hangovers. And Rodger is largely to blame for that.”
So it's probably a good thing that very little if any painting or sculpting is done during the week. “When Ian started painting on the riverbank one year,” says Rodger, “we took the piss out of him mercilessly. It's a holiday and I personally wouldn't dream of touching a paint brush while I am having downtime. But we do derive a certain amount of inspiration from our activities, particularly the snorkelling.”
Yes, the infamous sub-marine expedition of 2014. Jason invited Rodger and Sam to join him for an afternoon on the Carron. “Rodger put my wife Rieke's wetsuit on,” says Jason, laughing once again. “First he put it on inside out – his excuse was that he hadn't worn a wetsuit for 40 years – and then he came back downstairs with it on back-to-front. It was a really hot day and by the time he got it right, he was knackered! We finally made it to the river and we did get some amazing footage of salmon and sea trout, but the highlight was definitely watching Rodger go down a waterfall backwards. It was like he was cartwheeling under water. Every time he got back onto his feet, he fell over again and disappeared for a few seconds. I almost died laughing.”
“I do actually love swimming with salmon,” continues Rodger, unperturbed. “Yes, I came back out of the river that day very bruised, but also very happy. Jason has failed to mention the incident when my nephew Will hooked a salmon and he happened to pass by in a wetsuit, as you do. He plunged in to try and film it on his GoPro, but the line got tangled around his snorkel. It was a near calamity. But to his credit, Will remained calm and landed the fish – a fine 10-pounder.”
Typical of a spate river, the Carron does need a bit of water for it to be worth fishing, but with particularly low water in 2014, salmon were off the cards and an outing was planned to a nearby hill loch at Atterdale. “Luckily, the wild brownies were in a frenzy,” says Jason. “We got into fish straight away and ended up with a lovely little medley of trout which we had for lunch, cooked on a barbecue at the water's edge.”
“But one of the highlights of the holiday last year was our day trip to the serpentarium on the Isle of Skye,” adds Sam. “They have a great coffee shop there, so we called it the snakes and cakes day.” With a look of mischief about him, Keith Sykes interjects: “Yes, we do day trips, a bit like school children. Anyway, Rodger is mad about adders – he wrote a book about them, I think he must have sold about four by now – so he insisted that we visit this reptile centre on Skye. What a strange place. Anyway, we had to drag Rodger out at the end of the day because he liked it so much.”
Back at the lodge, it isn't just the fishing that provides the entertainment. Keith Sykes usually takes his 8 bore muzzle-loader with him. “Oh yes, that's a lot of fun,” adds Rodger. “We didn't have any clay pigeons to shoot last year, so we improvised with cans of beer, shaken-up as much as possible for visual effect. It's a terrible waste of drink, I know, but it was spectacular and entirely worth it, I assure you.”
“Rodger had a beautiful bone hair comb,” adds Keith, “and his nephew Will threw that into the air and Rodger shot it before he realised what it was. Yes, that made us all laugh. Apart from Rodger.”
Keith and Rodger first met more than 25 years ago when they were both members of Morecambe Bay Wildfowlers – although Keith inadvertently refers to it as the Morecambe Bay Wildflowers – and there is an obvious camaraderie between them. “That's the thing,” adds Keith, “these holidays are all about the banter, all about kindred spirits – we are all good pals.” And, importantly, all of their respective other halves get on. “The truth is that all of us would struggle without our other halves, so it's important that they enjoy it too. I'll never forget the time when Sam rang us to say that Fiona (his wife) had left a few pairs of shoes behind at the lodge one year and asked if we could take them to the CLA Game Fair with us. Well, I've never seen so many shoes! She has more shoes than Imelda Marcos. That made us laugh.”
“But in order to fit in on our holidays,” continues Keith, “you've got to be able to handle a bit of piss-taking. It's like family without the bickering.”
“I agree,” adds Sam. “The highlights are definitely the banter and carry-on, particularly around the dinner table, which is always a riotous affair. Jason and Rodger make quite a double act. Rodger is very entertaining – he sings, plays musical instruments and makes us all laugh a lot – and Jason is a great story teller and is great at accents. It's just great spending quality time with like-minded people.”
“The truth is,” says Terence Lambert, “for all the fun and games we have, we all consider it a great privilege getting to spend time together. These holidays are an incredible opportunity – not only are these guys geniuses, but they are all great company. They are all such passionate people, passionate about their field, their art and what they do. And when all of those passions come together, the result is something special, something extraordinary.”
The dates for the 2015 Sporting Artists' Sojourn are yet to be confirmed, but one thing's for certain, it will be a lot of fun.
New Kelso Lodge
Completed in 2010, New Kelso is an extremely comfortable sporting lodge suitable for up to 18 people, in Wester Ross.
Owner Shaun MacDonald is particularly passionate about Atlantic salmon conservation and, along with biologist and aquaculturist Bob Kindness – who himself has dedicated more than 15 years of his life to the conservation of Atlantic salmon – has been a great supporter of a comprehensive river restoration project on the Carron.