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Deeside Tales
Chapter XXIII


As a poacher, Sandy was as systematic in his operations as any farmer. Early in the spring he would provide himself with rod, bag, and gaff, and set out for the most likely place to find fish. He recognised the validity of the law which enjoined a close time in both fishing and fowling. “Yes,” he would say, when questioned on this subject, “Yes, it is right that there should be a close time, though the day fixed on by the law is arbitrary. It depends upon the season; but I suppose some day must be chosen, and the law is not far wrong. 'There or there about,’ is what nature says.” As soon then as close time had expired Sandy was in the field, equipped for work as above noted; and dressed in tartan coat and trews, with white felt hat, he looked as smart as any gentleman in the land, and indeed by those who did not know him, he would be certain to be taken for the landlord of the property on which he might be found. Poaching, as now practised, is so associated with ruffianism and crime, that it appears almost unfair to apply the term to Sandy’s high style of doing the thing. He was more like the “free forester” of the olden time, claiming the privilege he exercised as the unalienable right of a free born Scot.

Limited only by his own desires, his field of operations was very extensive. One day he might be seen with his dog Charlie—a little brown spotted setter—crouching close at his heels, and his white felt hat all stuck over with hooks and other fishing tackle, plying the rod on the banks of Dee at the Craggandoun, four miles above Balmoral, and the following day lashing in the same style the salmon pools on the Ballogie water thirty miles lower down the river; while a day or two after would find him similarly engaged on the Spey at Carron or Aviemore.

As an angler, he was perhaps less successful than as a sportsman in any other line; yet considering the wretched trim in which he kept his fishing gear, the bags he made were wonderful His rod, a few days after purchase, would be found tied round at some ugly break with the coarsest whip cord, while line, reel and hooks were subjected to the worst of usage and the least of attention. In fact he thought everything he handled ought to be like himself, capable of sustaining any treatment however bad.

How he passed the first month or two of the fishing season has already been noticed. With the advent of spring weather in April, Sandy renounced the luxury of lying down in wet clothes among the straw in some friend’s bam, and sought no other comfort for the night than what nature supplied on the grassy bank of the rolling river,

“Lolled to sleep by the rash of the stream,
And gently awaked by the early beam.”

In this manner the months of April and May were generally passed. There were occasional interruptions. When the produce of his labours had lined his pockets, he would spend a week or so among the haunts of his fellow mortals, “enjoying good company,” as he used to express it. His fondness for high life in his own way was the great weakness of his character, and probably did more to injure his health than the privations he suffered by flood and field.

By and bye as June wore on, and the season for angling as a remunerative employment was passing away, Sandy would be taking an occasional turn into the forest to ascertain if the stags and the “yell” hinds were coming into condition. When he was satisfied that there were in some favoured glens “good animals”—animals that would command attention in Leadenhall—he would look out the rifle, which he had thrown aside in Banchory, Dufftown, or some other place he was in the way of making his headquarters at the close of the previous season, and which he would now find all covered over with rust and in a sad state of disrepair. The rod was now cast aside, as if he was never to look at it again, and the rifle, put into as good order as was thought necessary, was laid hold of. He now disappeared from the habitations of man, taking with him by way of provisions, a “pocket pistol,” well filled, and a “whisky buckie”—a compound of whisky and oatmeal rolled together like a great pill of two or three pounds’ weight, in fact “Atholl brose” of portable consistence. Several days would elapse before he would again be seen or heard of; but some early morning he would appear, bearing on his shoulders two huge venison haunches which he had probably carried a distance of seven or eight miles during the night.

A few days after these had been despatched to Leadenhall, Sandy would be found, like a prince, at some favourite hotel, surrounded by a gang of harpies who had smelt the game, and practising on their victim’s weakness for “good company,” endeavoured to supply that commodity in return for the “treat” which they knew he would bestow in the most lordly manner. While the price of his haunches lasted, ball and revel were the order of things; and high and fast life went on for some time.

Not, however, on every occasion that he received money from the great London market did Sandy spend it in this foolish and reckless manner. It only so happened when he had the misfortune to fall into the trap laid for him by some worthless and designing loafers, that too often dogged his steps. At other times he would husband his money almost with miser care, and these were so much more frequent than those of a prodigal expenditure that he was seldom without as much as served his needs, after handsome donations to his poor relatives—a duty which he never neglected when he had the means of discharging it

“When again in want of money, Sandy would prepare for another expedition, taking the precaution, however, to select a different forest He had several reasons for so acting, among others a desire not to be too hard on any one, unless indeed he bore a grudge to the owner for some act of severity towards himself which he not unfrequently took this way of avenging, but generally from prudential motives, afnud lest the fact of the former inroad should have got wind, or the deer’s “grealach” (inside) might have by some chance been discovered by the keepers who would then be doubly on the alert, or that some one of the many accidents by which murder will be out might render a second visit after so short a time unsafe.”

While poaching for deer he was very seldom detected or caught. This was partly owing to his caution. From long habit he had acquired the art of keeping such a sharp lookout that it was almost impossible for a keeper to approach him unobserved. His piercing eye was continually on the watch for signs of danger as well as for game, both of which he had the faculty of discovering to a degree seldom, if ever, attained by any other man. Besides this, “he made so little noise in the forest,” as the keepers affirmed, “that it wisna good fin’an’ him oot.” Sandy’s aim was so true that a second shot was scarcely ever necessary to secure the game. Yet it was not steadiness but quickness of aim that signalized his shooting. He has often been surpassed at rifle practice at a target, but never at taking up a stag between the trees as it bounded through the forest. "I remember meeting him,” says an old friend who was well acquainted with the character of his shooting, “one day soon after he had been in the forest, and he complained bitterly of himself for having missed two or three fine stags. ‘Were they standing, Sandy?’ said I. ‘They were, James; and I believe that’s how I missed them.’ ‘I think so,’ said I, ‘if you had got a glimpse of them bounding between the trees, there would have been another story to tell’ ”

But he more frequently baffled the gamekeepers by the address with which he had concealed himself than in any other way. The writer has been told by the late John Bowman, gamekeeper in the Ballochbuie, that if he once lost sight of Sandy Davidson in the forest he could seldom find him out again; and those who remember old John will have little difficulty in believing that, if Sandy could elude him, he was pretty safe under similar conditions from the pursuit of any other keeper on Deeside.

Notwithstanding all his arts however, he was sometimes caught; but, unless under special circumstances, he was not informed upon. All that was generally exacted from him was a promise that he would not come back again within a certain time; and if once he pledged his word it might almost implicitly be relied upon. Such an engagement was, in Sandy’s estimation, like a solemn truce between two armies. But though it was very seldom that he was brought before the Justices and fined for his poaching, he had a great horror of being caught, not so much because he accounted it a sort of military defeat, involving through the promise he was sure to have to make a cession of territory and a curtailment of privilege, as that it put the poor gamekeepers into a false position with their employers, and endangered their livelihood should it be discovered that they had not reported him. One instance of this kind deserves to be noticed, as it is highly honourable to Sandy:

A keeper one day by some unlucky chance came upon him, under circumstances when it was impossible for him not to report him .to headquarters. He pointed out the circumstances to Sandy, remarking, “If I don’t tell on you, my wife and family will be ruined.”

“I would not have such a thing happen to a poor man on my account, no, not if the matter were to cost me one hundred pounds, instead of five. Go you and report me, and when I am summoned, I will appear and relieve you of danger,” was Sandy’s heroic answer. He was reported, and paid the fine ungrudgingly, and was a great friend to the keeper afterwards, frequently giving him small sums of money to assist him in bringing up his family, and abstaining from shooting on the ground over which he watched, lest any should represent his kindness as bribery.

Though he could be thus generous to a poor man acting openly in the discharge of his duty, he hated with a corresponding intensity sneaks and poltroons, and if they injured him he did not spare them when it was in his power to retaliate.

It happened once that Sandy had shot a fine stag in Glengelder, now a portion of the royal forest of Balmoral. At that time some change of gamekeepers was contemplated on the estate, and several persons were grasping at the situation and endeavouring to supplant each other. Finding the animal too heavy for his strength to remove it before morning he had engaged a man to bring a horse for that purpose, describing to him where he would meet him at an hour which he appointed. The man came, but he had either misunderstood his instructions, or in the darkness failed to find the place, and though Sandy repeatedly fired his gun as a signal to attract his attention, it proved of no avail. On his way home the man was discovered on the highway by two of the candidates for the vacant situation, who had some temporary employment as watchers over the property, and guessing what errand he had been on, they so wrought on his fears that he told them all the circumstances. The result was that Sandy was summoned before Mr. Roy, factor on the Invercauld Estates, and the only Justice of the Peace then in the district, and fined the statutory penalty of £5. The factor, as a magistrate, was obliged to discharge this public duty, though he knew this was not the way to manage Sandy, for whose good qualities, notwithstanding that he hated his profession, he had in his private capacity a certain degree of respect. Sandy bore Mr. Roy no ill-will for the dischaige of his duty, but for the “fool” who informed upon him, and especially the “sneaks” who had played upon his simplicity “to entrap a man unlawfully whom they had not the skill to convict by the means which the law permitted,” he entertained the reverse of friendly feelings, putting himself to considerable trouble to poach on their beats, when he might have obtained his game more easily and safely elsewhere, and making no secret of his delight when some years afterwards they were dismissed from their situations.

It was when in pursuit of the deer that Sandy had to pass the dreariest and most lonesome time of all his poaching expeditions; and to a man tainted as he was with the superstitious notions of his day and class, it must, one would suppose, have been almost unendurable.

Leaving some distant village late in the afternoon, furnished with his rifle, powder and ball, pocket pistol, and “whisky buckie,” he would set out for the forest in which he meant to try his luck. Long before he reached its confines he would strike off from the public road, and, after traversing twenty miles or more of rough trackless hill-ground in the dark, the dawn would find him concealed in some wild corry of the Ben Muicdhui range, watching the movements of the antlered herds that might be within eye-shot of him. There he would lie the whole day long—sleep, it is true, a considerable part of it—taking note at intervals of all that came within his ken, keepers’ movements, as well as those of the deer. As evening drew on he would be very observant of the places to which the latter repaired for the night He had studied their habits so long and so thoroughly that when he saw a herd lie down he could generally tell where they would be found at daybreak next morning; and thither he would convey himself in the darkness. He might, however, have several days to spend in this manner before he got his coveted shot, for deer were not so plentiful then as they are now in the corries of Ben Muicdhui. And how terrifically dreary and lonesome must have been the wakeful nights he passed in these wild regions, where even nature herself is most weird and preternatural! We are apt to suppose that superstitious beliefs fill the mind with unnatural fears, and perhaps so they do; but it would be an error to conclude that such beliefs make a coward of a man, or unfit him for braving any danger. It may be fairly doubted whether the most sceptical disciple of the materialistic school would not have been the subject of greater fear—fear of unknown danger, whether preternatural or not—at the dead hour of midnight, if placed among the yawning chasms and towering precipices of Ben Muicdhui, than Sandy Davidson, with all his superstitious beliefs.

One whose information has often been quoted in this sketch thus describes the condition of his mind: u Notwithstanding the eerie life he led among the hills at all hours, he never got above a belief in the preternatural—especially a belief in those merry gentry who are said to be clad in green. He once came from the Glenbeg forest, in the Braemar district, where he had been spending the night to have an early shot at a stag, declaring to me in solemn seriousness—

‘I have oftentimes had doubts about the fairies, but I heard them last night, as sure as I ever heard anything, singing and playing on the bag-pipes.’ This he evidently believed, as he was above an untruth or a jest on such a subject, and besides was very grave and troubled-like in mind. But though he was superstitious from the training of the time, and the affair of the 'Black han' in particular, it never in the least prevented him from going at all hours into what many less brave would have thought the very jaws of death and destruction — the murky and dark forest, the eerie mountains, heightened in gloom and terror by the shade of the night, and the strange unearthly soueh of the wind among their beetling crags.”

As a variety, Sandy often intermitted his visits to the forest, in order to have a day or two at the “pouting” when the river was in condition—a sport of which he was passionately fond, and in the pursuit of which he had no equal. The testimony of one, well acquainted with his skill in the various branches of the line of life he led, is as follows—

“I have known several men more successful than Sandy Davidson as an angler; occasionally too he would miss his mark in the forest, especially if the deer were standing; he has even been known, though very rarely, to be surpassed on the moors; but as a spearman of salmon I have never known his equal. How well I remember one sultry summer day when the river Dee was low enough for 1 pouting’ (spearing) purposes, a little party of us set out on this sport with Sandy as one of the number. We were all good old tried hands; yet at the close of the day he had three more fish to his own hand than we all put together. He had practised this sport from a boy about the Auld Brig o’ Dee, and knew every stone for miles along the river where the salmon were likely to ‘haul.’ His practised eyes would scan the water to a great depth. His power of detecting the fish in streams and at great depths was something wonderful. It was a treat to watch him when the game came in view; the expertness of his movement, the eagerness of his manner, and the keenness of his glancing eye. Then he would raise the spear cautiously, take his quick aim, hurl it to a distance of many yards, transfixing his prey as surely as the falcon is sure of his quarry. I have seen him do this in all positions, sometimes while standing up to the neck in some dark, forbidding pool, at other times in some dangerous rapid, and yet of the many salmon I have seen him throw his spear at I have never known him to miss but one.”

But another branch of his poaching operations comes now to be noticed; and in doing so we give the information of one often quoted in this sketch:

“The time would be coming on apace when his step would become lighter, and his eye brighter; for the glorious 12th of August had to the year of his death this inspiring effect on poor Sandy. The rifle would now be thrown aside, as if it had been useless lumber, and the fowling piece would be hunted up in the same manner the other had been a month or two before. Other sportsmen had their prescribed field of operations, Sandy’s was practically without limit

The crack of his gun might be heard anywhere, from Inverness to Glenmark—a distance of 80 miles. His habit was to shoot in early morning and late evening, especially when the gentlemen were in their shooting quarters. I have often heard him say, 'Real gentlemen are deserving of respect; and I hold it to be too impudent to shoot over their grounds when they themselves are out.’

“It might be supposed that in the dim twilight or early dawn the produce of his gun would not be very great But it was not so. Though he disdained to adopt any unsportsmanlike method of obtaining game—expressing his contempt for those who did so by the not uncommon remark, ‘ Why! he is no man at all who would not give a muircock a chance for his life by getting on the wing; an old wife could kill a sitting bird; yet he was so sure a shot, and his eyes, either from natural strength or long use, had got such a power of descrying, especially game and gamekeepers, that a full bag was often the result of an hour’s shooting in the dusk.

“The unemployed part of the day was spent by him in sleep, either below an overhanging rock, or deeply imbedded among the long heather. His power of falling asleep was something extraordinary, but it was somewhat like a Red Indian’s sleep, very light, for the slightest sound would awaken him.

“He not only had, for a poacher, the courteous feeling about not shooting when the gentlemen were out; but from a similar motive it was his general practice not to wander far from the marches of different gentlemen’s properties. I have heard him defend this practice by saying, ‘Some people would think this cowardice on my part, because, if likely to be taken, I could soon move across the march; but this is not the reason with me. It is because it is not so impudent like as when one goes into the heart of the property.’ There were, however, some notable exceptions to this rule.

“He was very well known to most of the gentlemen and keepers in the north of Scotland for these respectful characteristics, and was in consequence often tolerated when more ‘ impudent1 poachers would not have been. Those keepers who were not inclined to overlook his poaching encroachments, or who treated him with, as he thought, unnecessary severity when he was in their power, roused a sleeping lion within him; and it was the only revenge he ever took or threatened to take even on those who had treated him most harshly. ‘ I would never like,* he would say, 1 to annoy a civil man, but those scoundrels who would not allow an honest man to live deserve punishment’

“A case of this kind once occurred on Speyside. Sandy, as already noticed, was seldom caught napping, but it did sometimes happen. On one occasion he was passing the noonday hours on the braes of Avonside, concealed among the long heather as usual, waiting the evening to have his shot, when the party at the Lodge had retired for the day. He had fallen into a deeper slumber than usual, and was only awakened by the sound of footsteps close at hand His dog ‘Charlie,’ knowing his business better than to rush off, like illiterate curs, and make a noise, apprehended the danger of the circumstances and crouched closer to his master; but all in vain. Men may pass very close to each other without discovery, dogs seldom will Finding himself detected Sandy sprang to his feet at once, resolved to act as dignified a part as circumstances would permit The gentleman of the party, who was himself the discoverer, flew into a passion and stormed furiously, while the object of his wrath stood before him unmoved

“I demand your name instantly,’ said the irate sportsman, in a tone that told Sandy he had the worst to expect; and he therefore immediately replied, ‘ My name is Alexander Davidson; what is your name?’

“My name,’ replied the other, ‘is George MacPherson Giant of Ballindalloch, and I require you to follow me.’ “Sandy was taken before the Justices and fined £$• When questioned about this business, he used to remark, ‘The money was not at all lost, for the moors of Ballindalloch paid for it handsomely afterwards. I knew Sir Geoige perfectly, but I thought it would not be every day I would have it in my power to ask the name of such a great man; and I believe he had as little occasion to ask mine.’

“I have been told that when he came to the Ballindalloch moors his eyes would assume a determined expression, his steps quicken, and his aim become unerring. He would also deviate from his usual practice of shooting on the marches, and would strike into the very finest ground and blaze away in defiance of the watchers, and yet he was never afterwards caught on these moors. When pursued, as he sometimes was, he has been known to disappear on comparatively bare ground, plunge into some moss pit leaving nothing exposed above water but his nose, and in this state remain till danger was past”


 


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