The Fish Ladder

Katherine Norbury’s new book surprised me (The Fish Ladder. A Journey Upstream Bloomsbury, London, 2015).

The Fish Ladder book cover

I was expecting a travelogue which described her walk from the mouth to the source of one river; of that which runs through Dunbeath in northern Scotland to the North Sea. The nature of the book was quite different. Although not a memoir or an autobiography, it was written in an autobiographical style which exposed the author’s activities and emotions experienced one summer, accompanied by flash-backs to significant deaths and other events.  Katherine Norbury undertook a number of walks over a summer and used these as the basis for the structure of the book. She wrote about walks along various watercourses and then in one chapter she traversed the edge of Dunbeath Water from the sea to an isolated inland Loch.

What might the book title mean in relation to her walks? Fish ladders are structures in rivers, designed to bypass dams, which allow migrating fish to make their way upstream. Perhaps the journey along watercourses away from the known to the unknown, was similar for the author to the process of moving through a fish ladder-like structure.  Perhaps Katherine Norbury used the walks as a way of moving around the obstacles of her strong memories and emotions.

Intertwined with stories of the walks were details of her life. But I wasn’t interested to read about her failed pregnancy, lost baby, daughter, husband, father’s passing, the changing value of the Euro, her own adoption, picnics with her mother, etc, etc.  I felt the author was using the book as a site to explore the challenges of her past life and her relationship with her daughter during the summer of the book. As a result, reading was hard going; I could not bring myself to read every word preferring to graze selectively.

When I focused on the chapter titled Spey, I found the author arrived in a small town late afternoon and was lucky to find one shop that could sell her a survival bivouac bag to carry her overnight sleeping gear for a short trek, and a map of the Dunbeath, Caithness area where she planned to walk from the sea to the source on the following day. The chapter which followed, titled Dunbeath, provides a record of the walk from the North Sea to the Loch Braighe na h’Aihbne, wrapped around a very long section describing remembered past events. Skipping the past stories, the imagery on the walk was magnificent. Three excerpts are given below as examples.

  • ‘While I was pondering on the meal I might make … I heard something.

At first I thought it was an effect of my being alone, a trick my ears were playing caused by the silence of the moor – I wondered if it was tinnitus. But it didn’t seem to be coming from inside my head, so I stopped a moment to listen. As soon as I stopped moving they descended.


They filled my eyes, my ears, my nose and mouth with their pointy needle kisses. I breathed them, swallowed them, spat them out, batted at them, and then began to run.’

  • ‘I felt him before I saw him.… He coughed and then shifted his footing, and my nose burned with pungent musk. Lying very still, I lifted my face. The stag was standing just behind the crown of my head, his own head held high. His antlers filled the darkness above me; it was like looking at the sky through leaded panes. I could make out the deeper darkness of his body but he was too close, and it was too dark, to see his legs. He seemed unsure about what to do and then, sliding back his head … he delicately stepped down onto the track, and whether he stayed to drink or left immediately I will never know – because sleep again stopped my senses.’
  • ‘The loch. Its surface, soft as pewter, mirrored the clouds, Salt white boulders lined a powdery shore of crystal sand, unmarked and clean,  its whiteness stained to the colour of cork by the peat.’

Last April I wrote a post in which I urged readers to listen to a radio program and hear Katherine Norbury talk about this book. Subsequently, I purchased the book hoping to be exhilarated by the challenges and successes of her walk. Unfortunately, these were overshadowed by the indulgences of back stories. Dramatic culling of the non-walking stories would have suited me better and the size of the book could have been halved.  Without the expectation that this book was about walking a river, I would never have turned its pages. If you want to know more about Katherine Norbury, what she thinks and feels, and the significant things in her life then this is the book for you to read.

2 thoughts on “The Fish Ladder

  1. marybuchananbailey

    Oh dear. Like half the world she needed to tell her story!!!! I am surprised you read as much as you did. If you go to biography at the local library or any of the book sites on Google you find a plethora of “my story”. Most of them fitting into the “penny dreadful” category, as my mother would have said. Most of the titles make you cringe. Never mind. Occasionally a story is worth telling like that Indian lad, cheers


    1. Tasmanian traveller Post author

      Guess you are referring, when mentioning the Indian lad, to the remarkable Saroo Brierley. His extraordinary life has been made into a film recently put together – including Nicole Kidman as his Tasmanian mother. I can’t wait until the film is released. Having read the book of his story, I fully appreciate the meaning of persistence of endeavour and belief in oneself.



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