Willie Wilson & An End Of An Era At Loch Leven

It was perhaps fitting that the Guy Fawkes fireworks exploding around Loch Leven last night happened to coincide with Willie Wilson’s 65th birthday and, with that, the passing of an era at Loch Leven.  After 50 years on the loch, Willie officially retired yesterday and handed the reins over to his son, Michael.

To most of us, Willie is Loch Leven – quite simply, it runs through his veins (which might explain his occasional blue/green colour!). Although perhaps coming a close second to Mary Queen of Scots in the all time Loch Leven Celebrity Stakes, Willie is up there for all the right reasons – and the recovery in the fishery’s fortunes over the last couple of seasons should be enough to ensure that he keeps his head!

Willie started work on the Estate on his 15th birthday on 5th November 1961 which meant that yesterday marked exactly 50 years of uninterrupted employment on Loch Leven.  That degree of dedication and loyalty is almost unheard of nowadays. In fact, his connection goes back even further because he grew up on the Kinross Estate where his father, Willie Wilson Snr, was Head Gamekeeper.

Although Willie’s first job was actually working in the Forestry Department on the Estate under George Thorpe, he started working on the boats under the then Fisheries Manager, Jim Sneddon, just 3 months later in February where he was put  to work painting the boats in preparation for the forthcoming season.  Despite being just 15, one of his first jobs was to row out to the Reed Bower island with Will Stark in a near gale and spend four hours armed with a shotgun with the instruction from his father to ‘give the cormorants a hammering’!!  Those were the days…..

As chance would have it, Willie’s first season on the loch in 1962 turned out to be last year in which there were no outboards on boats.  Instead, there were two boatmen per boat who did the rowing.  Willie was assigned to boat No 23 (how sad is it to know that?!) with Jack Howell who was very good on the underwater geography of the loch and Willie is the first to acknowledge that he learnt so much about the loch from his time that season working with Jack.  It was a demanding job, both physically having to row the heavy clinker-built boats and in terms of the hours of work. The normal working day started at 8am, with boats leaving the pier with anglers at 10am. They returned to the pier at 6pm which gave the opportunity for Willie to rush home on his bike to a quick tea before getting back to the pier for boats leaving by 7pm for the evening session which in high summer could last until 11.30pm. These 14 hour days rowing boat No 23 must have been physically gruelling for a 15 year old but at least he got a day off on Sunday when, in those days, no fishing was allowed.

In those days, most of the boats were anchored offshore during the night or when not in use, and Willie was given the responsibility of doing this.  In return for this extra work, Willie received the princely sum of 6d (old pennies for younger readers!) per boat – none of which I suspect was ever declared to the tax man!

In 1963, Loch Leven Fisheries bought six Perkins 4.5hp outboard engines to trial on the boats.  With the older, more experienced boatmen tending to be rather set in their ways, Willie was given one of those first outboard engines.  He became an expert in the repairs & maintenance of outboard motors at an early age and this has held him in good stead over the years.

To his complete surprise in 1967 at the age of 21, Willie was made Fisheries Manager and his salary immediately doubled.  I suppose the one downside for him was being told that he would ‘no longer receive any overtime payments – but you may have to work it’! Never a truer word…..

Eric Campbell once joked (very unfairly) to Willie that Loch Leven had started going downhill as a fishery the moment Willie started work.  A look at the catch statistics would suggest an element of truth in this because the halcyon days for the Fishery were the 1950s and culminating in that extraordinary year of 1960 when no fewer than 85,883 brown trout were weighed in. During those 10 years, the average annual catch was just over 50,000.  During the 1960s, the average fell to (a still very healthy) 32,000 pa but the trend was sharply, and worryingly, downward – and this was set to continue.

Explanations for the decline in the fishery are many but in all likelihood it was a combination of many factors.  The decline in water quality was undoubtedly a major factor.  Phosphate and nitrate levels going into the loch soared with the Todd & Duncan factory, the Kinross & Milnathort sewage outflows and increasingly intensive agricultural regimes (increased fertiliser usage) all playing a major part. The hyper-sensitive ecology of Loch Leven simply got out of kilter and water quality declined steadily.  The main feeder streams into the loch, and in particular the South Queich and the Gairney both of which are so important in the rearing of young brown trout, were undoubtedly affected dramatically by the changed hydrology resulting from gravel extraction at Balado and below Cleish respectively – incidentally, is it not unforgivable the many environmental bodies of today, and in particular SEPA and SNH, are still approving gravel extraction applications within the Loch Leven Catchment area without any regard whatsoever about the hydrological effects it could have whilst at the same time trumpeting the loch’s vital importance? In addition to gravel extraction, the network of feeder streams in the catchment area were also undoubtedly affected by the financial inducements given to farmers to improve drainage on their land.

Willie – and the one that got away!

Nobody is more knowledgable about Loch Leven than Willie Wilson, as anyone who has taken time to talk to him about it will attest.  True, there are experts in certain scientific fields such as water quality who can beat him on pure science, but his knowledge about Loch Leven as a whole is completely unsurpassed.  But that is just a part of it – if you ally to his total love and dedication to the loch and everything about it and you have someone who is truly unique.  Despite the inexorable decline in fishery’s fortunes throughout the second half of the 20th century, Willie’s s never waned for one single moment.  He always felt the loch would start to recover at some stage and his faith never wavered – he was forever coming forward with theories about what was happening and what could be done to improve things.  Most mere mortals in his position during the darkest periods in recent decades would have found their faith broken but not Willie.  I have struggled to find a single word to describe his importance to Loch Leven and the Fishery during these times but perhaps ‘Colossus’ might be appropriate.

I suspect that if you asked him what milestones there were during the last 50 years, two  that he would give you would be, first of all, the reinstating of the fish farm at Tarhill on the north shore of the loch in 1980/1 in response to the decline in brown trout catches. Starting more or less from scratch with Roy Fernie, setting up a brown trout hatchery and rearing ponds was an unbelievably steep learning curve for them both.  Over the years from 1983 to 2006, tens of millions of brown trout eggs were hatched, around 3 million of which were then reared to 6″ or more before being used to stock the loch.  It was an incredibly delicate operation where the slightest mistake could decimate stocks. With no model to base their operation on, we relied heavily on their ingenuity.

The second ‘milestone’, if you could call it that, was probably Scum Saturday (13th June 1992) when a toxic blue-green algal bloom started washing up on the shores of the loch.  By coincidence, Scum Saturday was the very day that Scottish Natural Heritage was celebrating its formation out of the erstwhile Nature Conservancy and had to cancel various activities on the loch – a portent perhaps?

Scum Saturday proved to be the wake up call everyone needed to the fact that Loch Leven was in effect dying.  Subsequent actions by all parties over the last 20 years have turned this situation around to such an extent that the loch is now regaining its health to an extent that would not have been believable a while ago. One immediate result of Scum Saturday, and one with which Willie was heavily involved, was the controversial decision to stock rainbows in Loch Leven for the very first time in additional to its indigenous brown trout.  Only 2,715 brown trout had been caught in the entire 1992 season and it was felt that rainbows might help save the Fishery, but it was a decision over which there was much agonising.  As it happens, the rainbows initially thrived in Loch Leven and for the following 12 years they almost certainly did keep the Fishery afloat but then suddenly, probably as a result of changes to the loch’s ecology, they suddenly became vulnerable to eye fluke and stocking of rainbows ceased in 2004.

Mounting losses meant that all stocking ceased in 2006 and the fish rearing operation was closed down for good.  This was undoubtedly a blow for Willie but, as he has always done, he brushed it off and continued to be resolutely optimistic about Loch Leven and its fishing.  He was quick to seize on the possibilities from the loch becoming a natural pure brown trout fishery once again.

Everyone connected with Loch Leven Fishery is delighted by the dramatic revival in its fortunes over the last two seasons, but most particularly because it enables Willie to bow out on a high (and to dispel the joke that it had all been downhill since he started!).  Nobody could deserve it more and we are all thrilled for him.

As was stated at the start of this piece, Willie officially retired as Fishery Manager at Loch Leven yesterday and has handed over to his son Michael.  However, do not for one minute think you have seen the last of him down at the Pier.  Whilst Michael is now the boss, Willie has only really semi-retired and will continue to work on a part-time basis for the Fishery for as long as he wishes. His love for fishing and Loch Leven is such that I think it would be impossible to try to keep him away – not that any of us would remotely want to try!

So Willie, from every one of us involved with Loch Leven Fisheries and I strongly suspect the entire brown trout angling community, may we all wish you a very long and happy (semi) retirement and express our sincerest gratitude for everything you have done for us at Loch Leven over the last 50 years.

Willie & his 11 lbs brownie – sadly this was at Rutland Water but hopefully to be repeated next season at Loch Leven

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3 Responses to Willie Wilson & An End Of An Era At Loch Leven

  1. Graeme Connelly. says:

    My best wishes to Wullie, enjoy youre retirement. A true gent and fly fishing scolar.

    All the best.

    Graeme Connelly.

  2. Stan Headley says:

    A fascinating study into the life of a great man. Willie, you couldn’t be more famous if they nailed you to a cross. God bless you and your heritage, and the best of luck to Michael.

    Stan H

  3. Andy Menmuir says:

    Have a happy retirement Willie, I for one am very grateful for your experience of the loch which you passed on to me

    best regards to you and Rita

    Andy Menmuir

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