Sunday, December 05, 2010

A Flock of Sparlings

(It is an unfortunate truth that I am so disorganised and xenochronicitous I have actually lost or failed to assemble or bring to a final edit several more or less complete books. By 'lost' I mean to so completely misplace some manuscript or other among the boxes and boxes of papers stacked in several rooms in several locations that I no longer know whether a copy exists or not.

One of these books, less lost than under-finished, is the collection of near- and non-short stories, Virtual Scotland, which failed to capture the imaginations of a couple of publishers in the late 90s and so went back to sulk in the aforementioned boxes. Some of it was no doubt not well served by my lack of interest in makie-up people. But other parts were what I would like to think of as a happier blend of fact and fable, like this little piece on a little fish.)

The recent discovery that the rare fish known as the sparling has again been caught in the waters of the Forth bodes well for the Scottish fishing industry. A distant cousin of the salmon, this little fish has for many years been caught by the tonne in the Tay, where it is considered a great delicacy because of its scent.

The sparling is also known as the 'cucumber smelt' for the simple reason that it smells strongly of that large oblong fruit. Fishermen in the Carse of Gowrie are able to detect a shoal of sparling from the river bank, simply by dilating an experienced nostril. Dundonians have long had their own piscine version of that English dainty, the cucumber sandwich.

Now geneticists, spurred on by ancient documents in archives in Dundee and Perth, are striving to reintroduce the sparling’s full range of subspecies. A cryptic note in the accounts of a Perth merchant for the year 1538 refers to 'thae puir soules wha depend sa on the Orient tae gust thair mowes, given hou hereawa is sic a fouth o spice fish.'

A Dundee chronicler in the late 1570s refers to 'the sparline, that is baith benigne and breme.' Scientists conjecture that there were once several types of sparling, and are experimenting with two new strains.

The first of these, the garlic smelt, looks like it may prove more popular for its eggs than for its flesh. The unfortunate fish smelt so strongly of garlic that the population of Newburgh were recently advised to stay indoors with windows shut while river police 'herded' the guilty shoal downstream.

The eggs, however, are odourless and may be eaten like caviar. Their beneficent qualities have already aroused the jealousy of producers of garlic capsules. River police have been alerted that industrial sabotage is possible, and spawning areas are being guarded round the clock.

The chilli smelt has proved slightly less successful as the fish have displayed a marked tendency toward spontaneous combustion. When one sparling explodes this sets off a chain reaction amongst the others. One fisherman, displaying a learned bent, has described the effect as resembling 'Greek fire': 'Ye can see the haill shoal burnin awa ablow the waater like a fire through a windie.'

Compensation comes for the sparling at least in the form of jet propelled excreta. Marine scientists observing the chilli smelt have established that the small fish can employ the considerable power generated by their unstable constitutions both to thrust themselves through the water at high speeds, and to repel attackers with a focussed squirt of shit. As one young diver put it, 'When the lot of them turn their backs on you it’s quite a daunting experience.'

It is hoped to eventually be able to produce varieties of sparling for each of the major spices employed in preparing fish. Those fishing communities which happen to occupy the estuaries of Scotland’s major rivers may be able to look forward to a decidedly less hazardous future.

Plans are already afoot to relaunch boats from Broughty Ferry on the Firth of Tay, for the first time since the 1930s. The commercial possibilities seem limitless. The hot-tempered little chilli smelt may yet become Britain’s ultimate fast food.

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