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A Caught By The River Extract: Bill Drummond's The Penkiln Burn
Luke Turner , June 19th, 2009 07:46

An extract by Bill Drummond from Caught By The River - A Collection Of Words On Water

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The Caught By The River blog has been essential reading in Quietus Towers of late. Full of eloquent paens to all things fluvial, it was set up by sundry members of Heavenly Records as an antitode to the bustle of the music business and the unrelenting march of the freedom and leisure-sapping technological age. Although there's a strong fishing bent to what Caught By The River get up to, those who don't enjoy hauling fish from their watery home will find much to enjoy.

This week, Caught By The River publised their first printed collection of essays by musicians, fishermen, writers and journalists, including sometime Quietus contributors Ben Myers, Jude Rogers and Roy Wilkinson. Musicians involved include Jarvis Cocker on the rivers under Sheffield, Karl Hyde on the Severn, Cabaret Voltaire's Chris Watson on how he records wildlife in watery environs, and Saint Etienne's Bob Stanley on the impact of the Olympics on the River Lea. With each piece accompanied with a woodcut print from John Richardson, Caught By The River is a thoughtful, beautifully laid out and designed tome, well worth perusing beside sparkling brook, pounding surf or roaring fire over the coming months.

The good people of Octopus Books have kindly given The Quietus an extract for reproduction on the site. So we present, from KLF man and art provocateur Bill Drummond, The Penkiln Burn.

The Penkiln Burn is a small river in Southwest Scotland.
It rises in the Galloway Hills at the Nick of Curlywee.
It tumbles and turns for eight-and-a-half miles,
Passing on the way Scheuchan Craig, Lamachan,
Glen Shallock, Auchenleck, Garlies Castle and
Cumloden before it fl ows into the River Cree
At the village of Minnigaff.
The Penkiln Burn is also something else.

So this is the plan. I load up the Land Rover, then I drive. I drive as far as I can before the hallucinations get too vivid and I become a danger to whoever else is on the road. I was on the M1 heading out of London by 7.30 pm. Light was already draining away. The destination was Stroke City (Derry/Londonderry) via the ferry from Stranraer to Belfast. It is now 7.43 am, the morning after the drive up the M1, M6 and along the A75. I’m sitting on a large boulder on the bank of the Penkiln Burn staring down into the waters, letting my thoughts drift and float. Early this afternoon I catch the ferry but, for the next couple of hours, I’ve got time to let those thoughts drift and float and get these notes done. A few weeks back I got an email from Jeff Barrett of Heavenly asking if I would be interested in writing a piece for a book he was editing about fishing and rivers called Caught By The River. I knew instantly that I needed to write this. It is something I had been planning to write for some years, but I knew I had to return to where I am now squatting for me to do it. I hope I can get it all out of me in one go.

When I set off last night I assumed I was going to pull into a Travelodge somewhere up by the Lakes, get more than half the journey behind me, have a few hours’ sleep and get the rest done this morning. But the three Lodges that I pulled into were all full, so I bought another can of Red Bull and kept driving. By the time I was passing the turn-off for Carlisle, it was well past midnight, so I yanked the ring pull on the fourth Red Bull and thought ‘Fuck it! I may as well do the last 80 miles and get to the Penkiln Burn tonight.’ I had a sleeping bag with me in the back. I could sleep on the banks of the Burn. The day had been a glorious autumn one. The temperature touched 21 degrees Celsius, according to the weatherman. The sky was clear and studded with stars, just the sort of night for sleeping out. As I was crossing the border at Gretna, it started to rain. But I kept going, turning off the motorway to head west along the almost empty A75, passing names on signposts that began to pull me back to another age, a far-off land – one before Kennedy was president and Paul had met John, even before Elvis was King. Way back to the mid 1950s when this was the limit of my known universe. Dalbeattie, Cardoness Castle, Moss Yards, Blackcraig: on and on the names come, each momentarily caught in the glare of my headlights before disappearing back into the darkness. Sleeping villages and small Scots towns. I could almost feel a starless, bible-black, crowblack, bobbing sea moment coming on, but I was in the wrong land even if it was the right decade.

Then, in a blink, it’s the Minnigaff turning. I made a right along by the Cree Bridge Hotel and then a left where the sawmill used to be, up around the Kirk, down to Queen Mary’s Bridge and fi nally a few hundred yards along a farm track that runs parallel to the Penkiln Burn. I pulled up and switched off the engine. It was still pissing down. Sleeping out was not an option. I considered making a bivouac using the two paintings that I’ve got lashed to the roof rack, but even if I did that, the ground would still be soaking. I pulled my boots and jeans off and hauled myself into the sleeping bag, got as comfortable as I could across the front seats of the Land Rover, checked the time, 3.35 am and fell fast asleep almost immediately. I woke about 20 minutes ago. Four hours solid kip. Not bad.

Although overcast, it is no longer raining. And I’m sitting here on this boulder staring into the water. This is where I come from, where I belong and where I will come back to when I die. The passport in my pocket may say different but this boulder on the bank of this modest river, the Penkiln Burn, is at the core of my existence. The boulder measures about fi ve feet in diameter. The rock it is made from must be a few million years old. I guess it took on boulder-shape status and ended up here on the banks of the Penkiln at the time of the last ice age. By contrast, I was eight years old when I fi rst sat on it and stared into the water flowing past. That would have been back in 1961. For the next three years until we moved south in June 1964, I would find myself back on this boulder at least once a week. Whatever the weather, whatever the season (well almost), I would be here staring into the Burn and the surrounding world.

The Penkiln Burn had been part of my life for some years before I started sitting here. My father had taken up fishing as a hobby. I guess he thought it was away of getting away from work and family responsibilities, but it was not long before my mother was getting him to take me along as well. This would have been about when I was three or four. The first time he took me to the Penkiln, we went a few miles further up from where I’m sitting now. This was my fi rst introduction to the art. My father had a bamboo rod, a wooden reel, a linen line, a length of gut, a lead weight and a hook with a worm on it.

He told me he was hoping to catch a brown trout. He was a beginner; once he had mastered this he would move on to the proper thing, fly fishing. We had dug for the worms in the garden before we set out. I had held the jam jar full of worms as we drove the few miles in our pea-soup green Austin A40. The worms fascinated me. I watched as he put the hook through the worm and it wriggled and wriggled in protest, He told me that, once the hook was in the water with its worm on it, a hungry trout would come along, think it was dinner and eat it. And once the trout had eaten it, the hook would stick in the trout’s mouth and we could pull the trout out of the water. We then would take the trout home and have it for tea.

My dad cast his line into the water, with the still-wriggling worm on the hook. I expected that the hungry trout would be gobbling down the worm in no time. We waited. We must have waited for all of 30 seconds before I got bored with the waiting for the hungry trout, so I went off for a wander. I wandered along the bank, then I tried skipping from stone to stone on the water’s edge, I slipped and fell. I ran back to my dad completely soaked. The fishing was curtailed for the day and we drove home to be welcomed by the wrath of my mother.

A few weeks later, my father was required to take me along again, and again I fell into the Penkiln Burn before the hungry trout got to eat the worm that I had dug up for him in our garden. And again we drove home to be welcomed by the wrath of my mother.

I am not aware that my dad ever went fishing again after that. As for the rod and the reel and the hooks and the sinker, he kept those at the back of his wardrobe. They took on almost mystical significance for me. There would be times when I would creep into their room, open his wardrobe and pull out this rod and put it all together. I saw other men fishing, some in waders standing in the middle of River Cree (the Penkiln is a tributary of the far-larger Cree), casting their line again and again. I was told they were fishing for salmon. I learnt how the salmon was a huge glorious fish, revered by all and that, although born in rivers, the salmon spent most of its life out at sea and, after some years, it comes back to the river it was born in to get married and have babies. I had never seen any of these men standing in the River Cree catch a salmon but I had seen one at the fishmonger’s. It was a splendid-looking giant of a fish. I was told its meat was pink, not white like the fish we had for tea once a week. I was told that only rich people ate salmon. That it was the king of fish. This was decades before farmed salmon brought its price tumbling down and we all ate the stuff.

By the time I went to school at the age of five, I learnt that some of the big boys in primary four (8 years old) went fishing on their own. I wanted to be like the big boys. Our neighbours had a stand of bamboo canes growing in their garden, so I climbed through the fence and got one. Tied a length of string to the end, got a pin from my mum’s mending basket, bent it and tied it to the end of the string. Next I dug up some worms, put them in a jam jar and headed for the nearest bit of water. This was the millrace for the Cree Mills mohair factory. I fell in. I came home soaked through. My mother was not pleased.

So that was it for me and fishing until I was given a proper cane rod for my eighth birthday in April 1961. But between the ages of five and eight, the mystery of the Penkiln Burn grew in my imagination. My father helped out with the local boy-scout troop. I would be taken along to the camps with him. One camp was in the White Lady woods up near the Penkiln. Me and the big boys were collecting wood for the campfi re. I lifted a log and underneath was a perfectly-coiled snake. A beautiful black zigzag marking went all the way from its head to the tip of its tail. I stared transfi xed at this snake, which I knew to be an adder, as it uncoiled itself and silently slithered away through the grass into the safety of the bracken. It was my first snake. There is nothing like coming across a snake in the wild to make you feel alive.

Sometime later we were in the grounds of Cumloden House, the home of Lord and Lady Galloway. They had opened it to the public for the day. The Penkiln Burn flowed though their estate. They had a Chinese-style bridge over it, the sort of bridge you see the lovers escape over on Willow Pattern plates. This was magic, like something out of a Rupert Bear annual. I stood on the bridge staring down into the water waiting for the magic to begin when a bolt of electric blue with a slash of orange flashed straight under the bridge followed by a repeated short, sharp whistle. Nobody else seemed to see it. But I described what I had witnessed to my father. He said it must have been a kingfisher. The following week there was a story in the Galloway Gazette about the Reverend Jack Drummond’s wee boy seeing a kingfisher fl ying along the Penkiln Burn, and, if his claim was true, it was the first seen since before the war. I make no claims for what I saw or did not see, but whatever it was I knew it was something beyond the dull daily world of school and TV programmes.

Some months later, I was out on my bike along the Cumloden Road up by Glenhoise. I got off to watch a herd of deer that were between the edge of some woods and the bank of the Penkiln. From the herd emerged a large stag, with a full set of antlers. What shocked me was that he was pure white. I had heard stories about this from my teacher at school, she called it a white hart and how they were very rare and how, back in the days of heathens, people used to think they brought good luck. I looked at the stag and the stag looked at me and then he and his herd turned and disappeared into the woods. I climbed over the dry stone wall, went down to the Burn and drank some water, remembering to not lower my face to the water to drink like they did in cowboy films, but lift the water in my cupped hands. This was so that I could pass the test given to Gideon’s army, in the book of Judges; this meant that I could be one of the 300.

Another time when out wandering on my own, I found myself standing on the Queen Mary’s bridge, which is only a few hundred yards downstream from where I am making these notes. The Queen Mary in question is better known to the world as Mary, Queen of Scots, who had her head chopped off at Fotheringhay on the instruction of her cousin, Good Queen Bess. From the tradition I come from, Queen Mary was never looked upon with any sort of pity, but the fact that she had walked over this very bridge, or so I was told, made me feel in touch with history. Proper head-chopping off history. So anyway on this particular day, I’m leaning over the wall of the bridge staring down into the rushing waters many feet below. Just up from the bridge, the water tumbles through a narrow gap and steeply down over some rocks. The level of the water drops about 30 feet in about the same distance. There are three or four small pools between the top and bottom. While standing there watching the power and force of the water, a large salmon leapt out of the water attempting to make it to the next pool up. It failed and fell back to the one it came from. A few seconds later he tried again, and failed again. This carried on minute after minute. As I indicated earlier, I know something of the life cycle of the salmon, that this beast I was watching was now attempting to return home, way up to the head water of the Penkiln Burn where the Burn would be no more than a shallow brook. He will have left the Penkiln heading for the sea, as a mere smolt, no more than a few inches long, and here he was returning, a splendid fully-grown monarch of the waters. I kept watching and just as I was about to give up on him and the rain started, he took one great leap, his whole body pushing against the air and all the forces of gravity that were trying to drag him back down, and he made it to the next pool.

The following winter, it rained for weeks on end. The waters of the Penkiln Burn rose and rose. No longer clear and dancing but a charging swirling torrent of murky brown, ripping chunks of its banks away from where they had been since before man had set foot in Scotland. Whole branches, if not trees, came crashing down with the charging currents. It was Mrs Monteith, our primary three teacher, who broke the news to the 47 of us in her class. The Queen Mary’s bridge had been swept away in the fl ood. We might have been taught to despise Queen Mary for her papist ways, but she had walked across our bridge and now it was gone. I didn’t dare return to the Penkiln Burn for almost three months after the news had appeared as the front-page story on the Galloway Gazette.

It was the April when I turned eight and got my own proper fishing rod that I made it back to the Penkiln for the first time since the floods. Where the Queen Mary’s bridge stood was a gaping chasm. What had been done could not be undone. A new bridge could be built but it would not be the one she had walked over. But the waters were crystal clear again. The new leaves were out; lambs could be heard bleating in fields. I walked on up the small track that ran parallel to the Burn. I had never been up this way before. I came up the same farm track last night. I was looking for a pool to start fishing in. Between the bank and the burn was only two or three yards, but it was thick with trees, bracken and brambles. Finally there was a break in the foliage and I could get down by the water with ease. Here was a huge boulder that I clambered on to. From this vantage point I looked downstream at a large pool of calm water. This would do.

I sat there without getting my rod ready for some time, unable to do anything but drinking in the wonder of it all. Both banks, as far as I could see were blanketed in the azure of bluebells. The intensity of the colour almost hurt my eyes. After 20 or so minutes, I pulled myself from the reverie, got the jar of worms from my pocket, hooked up a big juicy one and started my first day of fishing.

How long I was there, I do not remember. I just know I spent as much time staring into the waters to the other world below the surface as I did wondering if any fish were about to take the bait. What I do remember is how the day ended. It was like this. I felt the line running through my finger, I struck. Started to turn the reel. The line went tight and then I could feel it. Something alive and pulling was at the other end. It felt strong, it twisted and turned. Maybe I’d hooked one of those salmon or a large sea trout, big enough to feed the whole family. I kept trying to wind the reel, to bring whatever this monster was into land, but he kept pulling the other way.

After what seemed like ages, I began to get the better of this unseen Leviathan. When I fi nally lifted that fi rst catch clear of the water, I was shocked, disturbed and dismayed to see it wasn’t a salmon or large sea trout but what I guessed to be an eel. It was no more than 15 inches in length. As I tried to grab the serpent, the rod slipped from my grasp and fell into the water. The eel wriggled free of my grasp, but he was still hooked to the line. I caught hold of line in my left hand, picked up a stone the size of a tennis ball in the right hand; pulling on the line, I dragged the eel up the side of the boulder until he was on top, still writhing and wriggling but unable to shake himself free of the large hook I could see coming out the side of his jaw. With the stone in my right hand, I bludgeoned his head. But he kept writhing. Another blow and this time his head was totally smashed to bits. Still he was not giving in so I rained down blow after blow until his blood covered the stone and splattered my face. My hands were covered in his slime, but he was dead. I stood on top of the boulder, took my jersey, shirt and vest off, rubbed the slime on my bare chest and roared my little eight-year-old boy voice at the world. But the world said nothing back. So I roared again. This time I did hear the world answer back. What I could hear were the bleating of distant lambs, the rustle of the spring leaves, the gurgle of the Burn and the silent tinkle of the massed multitudes of bluebells all around. I listened and I listened until the bloodlust and killing frenzy drained from me. After that, I pulled my rod from the water on to the bank. Got dressed. Put the jam jar of worms in one pocket and the battered and defeated eel in the other and headed for home.

My mother declined my offering. But she said I could eat the eel, if I cooked it myself. Using my penknife I gutted it: I had seen my mother regularly gut fish. Then I chopped it up into two-inch lengths and fried it in the pan with lard. It tasted better than any fish I’d ever tasted before or since. Eel is the most nutritious fish in our rivers – fact.

From then I made it up to the Penkiln Burn with rod and jam jar of fresh worms every week. That is every week in the season from 15 March to 14 October. And it was always to the boulder. There I would sit holding my rod and thinking my thoughts. These thoughts were not just about the elusive big fat brown trout that I might catch one day. Most of the thoughts were vague and unfocused, about the call of a distant curlew or the rattle of an angry wren in a bush on the opposite bank. Or I’d compare all the shades of green on the different trees, but mostly I’d just stare into the water at the parallel universe beneath its surface.

As for the fish that I caught over the next three years, they were mainly parr (baby salmon or sea trout) and young brown trout, none more than eight inches long. And of course there were many more eels. It was always just a worm on a hook, a lead weight, and cotton line with about 12 inches of gut at the end of it. Fishing with a fly was for men, a mystery to be learnt at a later stage in life. Maggots as bait were unheard of, and as for floats, they were just seen in storybooks about English boys. Everything I caught, however small, I killed on the boulder. They would all be taken home to be gutted, fried and eaten by myself. As far as I knew back then, brown trout, sea trout, eels, salmon and of course the mysterious sparling, were the only fish to live in fresh water. I once found a strange- looking eel that had sucked itself onto an underwater rock. It was some years before I learnt it was a different fish altogether called a lamprey.

When I was 11 and we moved to England, I discovered there were all these other fish but hardly any were worth eating. Sometimes I would take a break from the boulder to explore further upstream or climb a tree. The trees I chose to climb usually had a branch that over hung the Burn. Once while sitting on a branch, staring down into a sunlit patch of water, a large brown trout swam into the light and stayed there for some time gently holding his own against the current. I say large: he was probably 18 inches at most but a giant of a brown trout in these parts. And when I say brown, these fish are anything but dull in colouring. The sun highlighted the reds and blues, yellows and greens that the brown trout has around his speckles. His colouring dies almost as soon as he is pulled from the water and is nothing like the bland colouring of the rainbow trout you find in restaurants.

I stayed up there on the branch watching this wonder for an eternally long time for a restless young boy. I knew even then that I was watching something of extreme beauty and, in the intervening 45 years, I feel I have yet to experience anything more beautiful. Nothing since has triggered complete awe for the whole of creation in the same way.

So we moved away in 1964. The years tumbled by. I learnt to fish in muddy, slow-moving waters. Learnt to appreciate the majesty of the chub and his daring comrade the dace, the colour of a rudd’s fi ns, the humour of a perch and the cold cunning of the pike. But fishing and the call of the river slipped down the ranking compared to the electric guitar, the open road and all that messy relationship stuff that happens. My rods gathered dust, my keep net hung dry for decades and the worms lived peaceful lives. But as those years went by and the decades took their toll, I could not stop that longing for the Penkiln Burn growing and growing inside my head.

The first return to the Burn was in the summer of 1972, when I dragged my teenage sweetheart away on a camping holiday to Galloway. I took her to the boulder; I was probably still too young at 19 to weep for my lost innocence.

Through the 1980s the myth of the place grew in me. It was becoming my Garden of Eden, my paradise lost or maybe if I’m lucky, my heaven yet to be reached. It became a place to be visited in moments (or months) of crisis. As you edge deeper into life, mortality beckons. Question like, should I be buried or burnt are framed in the mind. Well, the answer to that one was decided by the thought that, if I was cremated, at least I could have my ashes scattered into the Penkiln Burn from the boulder. While on another camping holiday, two of my older children were taken by me to the spot and shown where I would like my ashes flung. They were probably too young at the time to take it in or care about what I was saying; their here-and-now lives being vastly more important than whatever their father was going on about.

At some vague time in the late 1980s or early 1990s, the notion started to evolve that, if I was ever to have my own book-publishing imprint, I would call it The Penkiln Burn. That notion became a reality by the end of the 1990s. But this Penkiln Burn was not just content with book publishing; it embraced everything I have ever done or am likely to do in my creative and working life. On its success as a strategy to regain paradise, the jury is still out. As a branding exercise, calling your company The Penkiln Burn is a total failure. It is too long, nobody can pronounce it and is meaningless to anybody but me.

What about the coiled adder, the flash of kingfisher, the leaping salmon, the white hart, the brutally-slaughtered eel, the silently ringing bluebells and the brown trout forever caught in the sunlight? How much has my own myth-making tarnished my memories? Does it matter? Did Jesus actually turn the water into wine? All those creatures did exist. I am certain of that. The bluebells will rise and blossom again next spring, like they did last. But was the eel caught on my first time? Was it from the Queen Mary’s bridge that I watched the salmon try and try and try again like Robert the Bruce’s spider? Is there a Chinese bridge over the Penkiln Burn or is that my childhood love of Rupert Bear annuals seeping into my ‘real’ memories?

As for the brown trout caught in the dancing sunlight, over the coming years I spent many an hour sitting on branches that overhung streams, brooks, burns and rivers, to watch the fish living their lives below. Have those memories just merged to make one shimmering and unfocused whole? Snakes, salmon, kingfishers, white harts all feature heavily in the myths of many peoples and traditions. Over the years, have I allowed my memory to stay focused on the above, giving them prime place, because I’ve subsequently learnt of their importance in other more validated myths than my own?

Sitting here on this boulder in the here and now as the grey morning brightens, I can feel the first pangs of morning hunger. After I have finished these last few paragraphs, I will head off in search of breakfast, before leaving to get the ferry from Stranraer to Belfast, and then to Derry before nightfall.

Looking around, I’m amazed at the variety of trees and bushes there are. I count them: rowan, silver birch, wild cherry, hawthorn, alder, hazel, ash, sycamore, holly, scots pine, oak, beech and rhododendron. Us blokes love a list. Then there are the ferns, the ivy and the brambles still with blackberries to be picked. I listen to the birds: pheasant, jackdaw, wren, robin, crow, blue tit, great tit, nothing too out of the ordinary but welcome all the same. I stare into the water – on the bottom among the pebbles and the stones, I can see a small parr darting about, no doubt a distant relative to the ones I caught from this spot 45 years (and counting) ago.

My hands stroke the top of the boulder. I notice someone has carved a heart with an arrow through it. There are two names but the lichen has grown over them and, however I try, I am unable to read the letters. I never noticed this when I was a lad. Do I share my glimpse of heaven with others that have come after me?

There is another whole story that I thought I would tell while sitting here. One that involves me finding a human skull on these banks and Robert the Bruce, but time is running on. But before I leave, one last thing, some years ago I set up a site – mydeath.net – this is a web site where you can, in as many or few words as you wish, set out for all the world to read, how you want your funeral and what you want done with your body. I was inspired to set it up because I’d been to a couple of comrades funeral’s that didn’t live up to what I think they would have hoped for. On setting up mydeath.net, I always assumed I’d put up my own entry on it. Somehow I never got around to it, maybe now is the time. But breakfast first.

Bill Drummond was one half of the pop group KLF and famously burnt a million pounds. He is the author of 45 and 17. Illustration by John Richardson, photograph of Bill Drummond and his mighty salmon taken by Tracey Moberly.

Caught by the River - A Collection of Words on Water, compiled and edited by Jeff Barrett, Robin Turner and Andrew Walsh. Published by Cassell Illustrated, £17.99. Visit the Octopus Books website. An exhibition of artwork taken from Caught by the River by John Richardson and Robert Gibbings is exhibiting in the Cafe at Foyles Bookshop (Charing Cross Road) unti the 26th July.

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Sep 26, 2015 7:52pm

Born and brought up in Minnigaff I recognise every stone in the Penkiln Bill talks about and as a boy guddled for trout along its banks.

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