Large scale project for Mike

Mike Shepley with the restored salmon
Mike Shepley with the restored salmon

AS a keen fishermen, Mike Shepley from Abbey St Bathans has had a few large catches in his time but last year he came across quite possibly the biggest, only this time it came from a hotel rather than a river.

Very different to your average piece of salmon, Mike collected the fish from the Ulbster Arms Hotel in Halkirk, Caithness, last October, but after spending a spell in the public bar there, it wasn’t in tip top condition so Mike had his work cut out.

Thankfully, it wasn’t the first time he’d restored a cast fish, although he did admit that it was a more painstaking process second time round.

He told The Berwickshire News: “Taxidermy is the art of stuffing the fish per-se. The alternative is to make a cast of the fish (as in this case) or a wood carving of the fish.

“This is the second cast trophy fish that I have restored - which basically involves cleaning the original cast and removing stains, such as nicotine smoke then carefully cleaning the existing paintwork and filling/repairing any damaged sections, before finally retouching and restoring the original paintwork.

“I collected this fish from Caithness at the end of the season last year and it only recently went north.

“It was painstaking but rewarding work, but with virtually every scale hand painted on the original, this took a considerable time to renovate.

“I consciously didn’t make all the scales uniform in colour, as the original live fish reflect the light in different ways by the individual scales.

“Hence - without of course using ‘silver’ paint, I have tried to create the illusion of a fish, fresh in from the sea, sparkling with energy and colour.”

But before he could put the finishing touches to the trophy and bring his artistic talents to the fore, there was plenty of repair work required.

Mike continued: “Before the painting, the damaged sections - which included some badly aimed darts and cracks to the original plasterwork - had to be filled with plaster and then sanded back to the original shape - and then repainted to match the cleaned original paintwork.

“And finally the lot receives two coats of clear varnish - and the wood mount restained with mahogany varnish.”

The salmon, which is now back on display in the Ulbster Arms, was caught on the fly from the Caithness-Thurso river and belongs to Lord Thurso and Mike said it wasn’t his only connection to the family.

He explained: “I met the former Lord Thurso, the Honourable Robin Sinclair, in the 1960s when I was studying architecture and planning, and became good friends over the years.

“As well as my architectural and post-graduate studies in town and country planning - my thesis was on a tourism strategy for Caithness and Sutherland, called ‘Ring of the North’ - I was also editor of the Scottish magazine ‘Rod & Line’ - so I needed no encouragement to head north and fish the Thurso River.

“While filming for a new television angling promo - I interviewed John Thurso MP.

“As the senior son of Robin Sinclair, John is currently Lord Thurso and continues the family interest in the river and associated estate and hotel.

“It was when chatting to John and the fishery manager, Eddie McCarthy, that I offered to restore the fish and Eddie told me there were others in storage.”

And never one to shy away from a creative challenge, Mike has offered to tackle the other two although he already knows breathing new life into them will be a much tougher task.

He added: “This is the original fish - and the first, taken from the store and restored so it could replace the current fish until ready, has been hanging in the Ulbster Arms since October last year.

“The remaining two fish are the most difficult, as little or nothing is left of the original paintwork and they are seriously compromised!

“That will be my next challenge: the first two were difficult enough - the remaining fish may ultimately get away!

“We shall see.”