Conceived in Kenya, cast on the Spey

Scottish Sporting Gazette

The 5,000-mile journey of one man's fly, from a vice high up in the Kericho District of East Africa to the waters of Gordon Castle. By Patrick Tillard.

Sitting at his desk in Dumfriesshire, both eyes glued to the screen, Will Landale scrolls through the images. As MD of the fly tying company Fulling Mill, keeping abreast of the latest fly patterns is part and parcel of the responsibility.

With a back-end trip to the Spey fast approaching, the newly conceived Cascade variants grab his attention. It's an easy decision - Will orders a batch to be dispatched from their UK warehouse.

But the full story is far from simple.

Several months earlier, and some 5,000 miles away in the Kericho District of the Kenyan highlands, a salmon fly is in the vice.

Kenya

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Under blameless blue skies a soft bouquet of ketepa tea carries in the breeze, rustling the leaves of Nandi flame and wild date palm. Rows of rickety bicycles stand in the shade, as groundsmen tend to the luscious gardens surrounding the factory.

Inside, skilful employees go about their delicate art. And none are more skilled than Charles Soi, who, having joined in 1975 as a trainee tyer, is now a venerable ambassador for the company. There's a high chance that you have had one of this man's creations in your fly box at some point.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Will's order is part of a current trend - the fangled Cascades are proving a major hit with salmon anglers on Scottish waters. Keeping up with demand west of Kenya's Great Rift Valley - where patchy agriculture and russet corrugated iron span the vista - the Spey team move onto another batch.

The enterprise blossomed in the 1920s, when schoolboy Dennis Whetham, in an effort to alleviate his boredom while recovering from a rugby injury, trained a team of locals in the ways of fly tying.

This fledgling business attracted the attention of Major Andy Unwin - or 'Mzee' as the locals called him (a respectful Swahili term for 'old man') - and under the name of Unwin & Sons he took the company into new climes. The Major unearthed his love of fly tying when serving with the Cheshire Regiment in Northern India in the late 40s, having lost his last fly in Kashmir on the Scinde River. He had little option but to create his own.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

In the 90s, with retirement beckoning, he sold the business to Fulling Mill. Five men now own the company and their passion for fishing is as clear as a pool on the upper Itchen. But while the reins have changed hands, the Major's chief ambition to set new worldwide standards from this East African workshop has remained true. Fishing flies of only the finest quality; this is the Fulling Mill tenet.

In a country where nearly half of the 43 million people live below the poverty line, the factory is a hugely welcome source of stability for the locality, engaging 300 locals year-round and supporting a further 3,000 individuals in the nearby communities and townships.

Coupled with the fulfilling art of fly tying itself, employees benefit from healthcare, pensions and housing allowances. Their gratification resonates in their loyalty - the average service is a matter of decades rather than years.

The tyers are divided: Test, Wye, Itchen, Avon and Spey - each with a particular skillset, be it dry, wet, salmon or saltwater. Those in Spey, delegated with the salmon patterns, from brass tubes to classic fully dressed, are the most prestigious.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Using only the very best materials, Will's Cascades take shape and colour: the hook from Japan; hackle from America; thread from Italy; dye from the UK; and pelts from Canada, America and Central Europe.

The tying itself is a meticulous art. There are no shortcuts, no machines - just painstaking and highly skilled crafting by hand. The key to understanding the process is to appreciate that the tyer is king - everything in the factory is geared towards supporting them.

In a corner, a team dedicated purely to measuring, grading and sorting every strand of fur, fluff and feather required by the tyer examine the latest batch to come across from the dyers.

The recent construction of a new dying house impels the clarity of colour. On a concrete floor behind the building, under the searing tropical heat, lines of pavonine pelts are laid out to dry.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Emphasis on quality is instilled from the off. Every year, Fulling Mill takes on 20 new recruits who undertake an intensive and structured six-month training programme led by the most accomplished artisans. Only after passing a rigorous examination are the tyros certified as fully-fledged tyers.

From here on, they are part of an eminent fabric. With 500 dealers in over 20 countries, their creations will be cast into the far-flung waters of the globe, from the cold, fast currents of Scotland and Iceland, to the cyan sandflats off Cuba and Australia.

Some five million flies are tied every year (5,000 different patterns produced in three to five sizes) and each, resolutely, is a thing of artistic beauty and precision. This isn't a wild bias drumming havoc on my laptop keys, but such is the protocol every individual pattern is subjected to before passing out the factory doors; there is no room for compromise.

Each fly is traceable to the tyer, the supervisor, the quality controller who signed it off, the packer and the duty manager who oversaw every production run. Nothing below par slips through the net.

On top of this, external expertise is injected into the factory every year by flying in the world's best tyers and dyers to run instructional courses. The myth of poor Kenyan fly tying disintegrates like paper in the rain.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

From the Kericho base, Will's Cascades travel four hours southeast to Jomo Kenyatta airport, on roads lined with swathes of tea, troops of vervet monkeys and animated children, cresting the northern tip of the South-Western Mau National Reserve and south, passed Lake Naivasha and the frenetic Capital, Nairobi.

Having arrived into this magical country as numerous components, the flies now leave as a singular combination - materials from the world over, adeptly united by Kenyan hands.

England

Scottish Sporting Gazette

After 4,000 miles and 8 hours at 32,000ft, the plane brakes to a crawl on the tarmac at London Gatwick.

Next pit stop is the nearby warehouse, a riot of coloured dye, where six months of stock awaits anglers in need of a fly box refill. Here, once again, the flies undergo quality inspection. The mind boggles at the thought of how many trout and salmon will fall to the myriad of patterns under this one roof.

From here, flies spill into all extents of the UK. Will's, like so many others, are destined for Scotland...

Scotland

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Over the years, Fulling Mill has established strong Scottish connections, working closely with leading ghillies and fishermen on fly designs and patterns relevant to particular rivers and lochs in the country. In addition, the Kenyan-born flies can be found in nearly 80 stores north of the border - including the faraway isles of Shetland, Orkney and Lewis.

Thursday morning, and in Dumfriesshire, where Will lives at Dalswinton on the Nith, an envelope drops through the letterbox. Six pristine Cascades are carefully slotted into the rows of one of his many fly boxes, alongside Silver Stoats and Munro Killers of the same origin. Their introduction to running water is only days away.

Sailing up the A9 - with verdant tea substituted for puce heather, giraffe and elephants for woolly, ginger cattle and herds of Aberdeen Angus - the Cascades enter a new chapter. The Scottish Highlands are vastly different to the highlands of Kenya. Equal in drama, but on polar scales - the Kericho factory perches some 6,800ft above sea level, one and a half times the altitude of the highest mountain in the British Isles, Ben Nevis.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

At Aviemore, Will splits from the slothful tailbacks and following the A95, which shares a wide valley with the roiling currents of the Spey and a trail of famous distilleries, he makes for the quaint and characterful village of Fochabers.

Gordon Castle needs little introduction. A prolific and beautiful section of the Lower Spey, Will knows these beats intricately due to annual visits dating back more years than he can recall. A drastic change in scenery once again to where the Cascades were created, the peat-tinged pools are lined with pine and pebble.

Wetting his leader, Will pulls tight and the clinch knot coils deftly onto the fly's eye. Overhead a buzzard floats across the river, her call carrying through the valley, breaking the still of the morning.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

He wades into the neck of Cumberland, under the watch of ghillie Mike Glass, and daintily removes the Cascade from its hold. He takes a last glance at the variant in his fingertips, much as Charles Soi had done two months earlier - as ever, this is a proud moment and insignia of continuing promise for the company.

And here, 5,000 miles from the vice, the journey is over. Will sends his Kenyan creation whistling through the Highland air.

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