Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Red Herrings


Yesterday, I explained how harking back was to do with calling back dogs who have lost the trail of scent. Harking back is thoroughly necessary when the dogs are following a red herring. Hounds love the smell of a good red herring. Thomas Nashe observed, back in 1599, that:

Next, to draw on hounds to a sent, to a redde herring skinne there is nothing comparable.

So, if you want to lead a dog astray the best thing to do is to drag a red herring along the ground, thus making a false trail of scent for them to run after. It appears that this was originally done just to give the dogs and horses some exercise. You laid out a herring trail and then went for a jolly good gallop. This from the Gentleman's Recreation of 1697:

Now, that I may not leave you in Ignorance what a Train-scent is, I shall acquaint you that it has its Name as I suppose, from the Manner of it, viz. the trailing or dragging of a dead Cat or Fox (and in Case of Necessity a Red-herring) three or four Miles, (according to the Will of the Rider, or the Directions given him) and then laying the Dogs on the Scent.

Nineteenth century huntsmen, though, got wilier. They used red herrings as deliberate distractions to train hounds to follow the original scent. They would lay out one scent of proper prey, and then drag a red herring across it. If the dogs followed the red herring they were harked back to the original trail.

So in 1836 The Times could write metaphorically that:

Mr. Rice called Lord Lyndhurst's intimation that the Government might take off the whole of the stamp duty ‘a false drag—the scent of a red-herring to draw off the hounds’.

And thus the modern red herring. There is also a phrase 'Neither fish, nor fowl nor good red herring.' But nobody knows where that comes from at all.

And now go and look at this on Facebook: Waterstones are giving away advanced copies of my book! I saw the first copies yesterday and they are more beautiful than all other things on earth. So go to Waterstones and like it all those other facebiblical things that folk do.

Fishing with the Inky Fool

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