Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

Welcome to "Man with two dogs" - the family website for dog owners and dog walkers.

This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Eels and Old Nick

March 25th, 2006

EELS HAVE a special place in the dark recesses of the Scottish psyche. Why and when we developed a revulsion to eating them is very much a mystery.

  It can't have always been so because there are still working eel traps, and enough evidence of old ones in the county of Angus alone, to make it clear that eels must have been an important item of diet at one time.

I spent an informative morning at Milldens Mill, between Friockheim and Forfar, being shown over the historic, and still working, meal mill, and the eel trap which relies on the mill lade to provide its harvest of eels.

Eel traps benefit from simplicity for their effectiveness. The Milldens one is nothing more than a large, square box lined with quarried stone slabs. It has an inlet from the mill lade, and an outlet to carry away the water. The Lunan Water, which feeds the mill lade which powers the mill, flows from Rescobie Loch, through Balgavies (pronounced Balguys) Loch and down to Lunan Bay, between Montrose and Arbroath.

The eels are born in the Sargasso Sea, somewhere south of Bermuda. They come to Scotland as elvers, where they feed and grow in our streams and ditches and lochs until they are mature. Then, like our salmon which return to their mother rivers to spawn, instinct tells the adult eels it's time to make the enormous journey back to the Sargasso, to regenerate the whole mysterious life cycle all over again.

Migration down traditional waterways like the Lunan occurs in September and October. Best catches are made on moonless nights, when river levels are rising and the water is turbid and clouded. These conditions may provide some sort of natural protection to help hide the migrant fish from otters which, after man, are their worst predator.

A series of grills controls the eels' progress along the mill lade until the only way forward is through a pipe from the lade into the eel trap, from which there is no escape.

Twenty or thirty years ago locally caught eels were smoked locally, and I recall them fondly as a particularly delicious meal. But most went by train to Billingsgate Fish Market in London, or were transported in specially tanked lorries to the Continent. Declining catches mean that now it is more difficult to find regular markets.

So what is it about eels that makes our Celtic fantasies writhe? They are long and sinuous, and serpent-like. Pick one up and it will wrap its tail and body round your hand and wrist like a tentacle. Worse still, they have slippery, slimy skins and can travel overland, usually during the uncertain hours of darkness. They surely can't be fish, and snakes have reassuringly dry skins.

Maybe there's something about them of Old Nick himself that gives us the creeps.