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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part IV.—Guide to Gairloch and Loch Maree

Chapter XX.—Deer Forests and Grouse Shooting


THE red-deer of the Highland mountains form the subject of a branch of sport largely used as a means of recreation and recuperation by many of our most busy and often overworked statesmen, soldiers, and commercial and professional men.

The red-deer is indigenous in the northern parts of Scotland, as it used to be throughout the kingdom. There are so few obstructions that I believe it would be possible for these wild deer to roam if they pleased from the north of Caithness to the south of Argyle-shire, but as a rule the deer attach themselves to particular localities. Their numbers do not increase rapidly, even under favourable circumstances. The antiquity of the red-deer in Gairloch is proved by their cast-off horns having been found deep in peat bogs, where they must have lain many centuries (Part III., chap. v.).

Deer are said to have been scarce in Gairloch in former times, when, notwithstanding rigorous penal statutes to the contrary, there was much poaching. In the reign of James I. (1424), there was an enactment that "alsoone as onie Stalker may be convict of slauchter of Deare, he sail paie to the King fourtie shillings; and the halders and mainteiners of them sail paie ten poundis;" and there were statutes of a similar character in almost every succeeding reign, the penalties becoming more serious as time went on. Since the time when the present system of letting deer forests was introduced, the number of deer in Gairloch has greatly increased.

A considerable part of the hill ground is now under deer, or, to use the popular but (to the uninitiated) misleading expression, is "forested." This word is supposed by some to be a corruption from the Gaelic word fridh, which they say was originally synonymous with the English " free;" not meaning that forests were free and open to the public (for nothing was less so under the old Scots acts), but signifying that the ground had been "freed from," or made clear of, cattle and sheep. If this were so, the word " forest" as thus used would of course have nothing whatever to do with trees. But the better opinion seems to be that the Gaelic word fridh always meant a forest in the usual acceptation of the English word, and so was really covered with wood. The forests of timber which formerly clothed the Highlands have been previously mentioned, and the causes of their disappearance in recent times have been discussed (page 74). It was mostly the woodland that was kept unpastured, and so became the resort of wild animals, including deer. The fridh was most strictly preserved, and exactly corresponded to the "forest" of the old Scots acts. In a Scots act of 1535, prohibiting the intrusion of "gudes, nolt, scheepe, horse, meires, or uther cattle," into "forrestes" reserved for "wild beastes and hunting," the "forrestes" are classed with "haned wooddes." Now "hained" is a Scotch word still in use; on the Borders they constantly speak of a grass field being "hained" when the stock are withdrawn from it, either to take a hay crop from it or to rest it. If fridh {Anglican forest) was in 1535 considered equivalent to a "hained" wood, it appears unlikely that it ever meant a "free" wood. In any case, there is abundant evidence that for at least nearly five centuries deer forests have been private hunting grounds strictly protected by the legislature.

The deer forests of Gairloch are to a great extent unsuitable for sheep. The recently formed deer forests have been constituted by putting the sheep off what were previously sheep farms. It may surprise some readers to learn that in this part of the Highlands, as well as in many other parts, it generally requires at least ten acres of hill ground to support one sheep.

There are the following deer forests within the parish of Gairloch :—

These forests will by-and-by probably yield altogether about two hundred stags a year, besides a like number of hinds in the winter, but not until the newer forests have had a year or two more to allow of an increase of their stock of deer. It is impossible to estimate accurately the number of wild red-deer in Gairloch. Considering, however, the number of deer that may probably be killed in Gairloch after the next year or two, I would suppose that the stock when that time arrives will number about two thousand five hundred deer. This is a mere guess, based upon a comparison of the number killed and the stock on the ground, ascertained approximately by census, in some old deer forests that have come within my knowledge.

Stags are usually in condition for killing between 15th August and 8th or 10th October. These dates depend upon the season. In the case of a stag with a very fine head, the sportsman will probably not wish to shoot it until the horns are quite free from velvet, which perhaps may not be until well into September. Roaring begins in the last days of September, and a week or ten days later the stags are out of condition. There is no close time fixed by law for killing stags, and some proprietors do not even limit the season, which really fixes itself by the condition of the deer.

A stag which has twelve points to its antlers is called a royal, but a royal head is not necessarily first-rate. The best heads are distinguished by their wide span, thickness, and long points. A good stag is generally eight or ten years old at the least. The stag casts its horns every spring, and it is said the hinds eat the old horns; certainly they are seldom found.

Hinds are in the best condition for shooting in November and December. The hinds have only one calf in a year, though there have been rare cases known of a hind having two calves.

Deer-stalking is an arduous and absorbing sport,—its difficulty is its glory. This is especially so in the stag season, for in summer and autumn the deer often keep to the higher parts of the mountains. Frequently a stalk is only attempted when a good stag has been spied in the early morning, or even the day before. If it be decided to stalk a particular stag, the sportsman and his attendants endeavour to approach by such a route as that, if possible, they may not be visible, and so that no breeze may convey their scent to the wary deer. Notwithstanding every precaution, it will sometimes happen that the suspicious stag gets an alarm from a previously unseen sheep that has strayed into the forest, or from a crowing grouse, or a frightened mountain hare, or even an eagle, and it may be the chance of a shot is lost to the sportsman for that day.

Hence it will be seen how fatal to a, successful stalk would be the sudden presence upon the scene of a thoughtless rambler upon the mountains, who, quite unintentionally it might be, would thus mar the pleasure and success of the hard-earned and well-paid-for sport of the deer-stalker.

Until late years the deer were hunted by. staghounds, and the present method of deer-stalking was rarely practised. Now-a-days dogs are not much used except for the purpose of tracking wounded deer ; and cross-bred dogs, including strains of the collie, pointer, lurcher, and other breeds, are found to be better adapted to this use than the handsome staghounds so grandly depicted by Sir Edwin Landseer, scent being more important than speed. Even for tracking, dogs are little used in the smaller forests, lest their baying might drive deer away to other ground.

In "The Pennylesse Pilgrimage," by John Taylor, "the King's Majestie's Water Poet," printed 1633, an excursion he made to Scotland is described. He visited the Earl of Mar at Braemar, and made the following quaint record :—

"There did I find the truely noble and Right Honourable Lords John Erskine, Earle of Marr; James Stuart, Earle of Murray; George Gordon, Earle of Engye, sonne and heire to the Marquise of Huntley; James Erskin, Earle of Bughan; and John, Lord Erskin, sonne and heire to the Earle of Marr, with their Countesses, with my much honoured, and my best assured and approved friend, Sir William Murray, Knight, of Abercarny, and hundreds of others, knights, esquires, and their followers; all and every man in general in one habit, as if Licurgus had been there and made lawes of equality. For once in the yeere, which is the whole moneth of August, and sometimes part of September, many of the nobility and gentry of the kingdome (for their pleasure) doe come into these Highland countries to hunt, where they doe conforme themselves to the habite of the Highland men, who, for the moste parte, speake nothing but Irish; and in former time were those people which were called red-shanks. Their habite is shoes with but one sole apiece; stockings (which they call short-hose) made of a warme stuff of divers colours, which they call tartane. As for breeches, many of them, nor their forefathers, never wore any, but a jerkin of the same stuffe that their hose is of, their garters being bands or wreathes of hay or straw, with a plaed about their shoulders, which is a mantle of divers colours, much finer and lighter stuffe than their hose, with blue flat caps on their heads, a handkerchiefe knit with two knots about their necks ; and thus are they attyred. Now, their weapons are long bowes and forked arrowes, swords and targets, harquebusses, muskets, durks, and Loquhabor axes. With these weapons I found many of them armed for the hunting. As for their attire, any man of what degree soever that comes amongst them must not disdaine to weare it; for if they doe, then they will disdaine to hunt, or willingly bring in their dogges; but if men be kind, unto them, and be in their habite, then they are conquered with kindnesse, and sport will be plentifull. This was the reason that I found so many noblemen and gentlemen in those shapes. But to proceed to the hunting.

"My good Lord of Marr having put me into that shape, I rode with him from his house, where I saw the mines of an old castle called the castle of Kindroght," &c.

It thus appears that lowlanders were in the habit of visiting the Highlands nearly three hundred years ago for the purpose of hunting the red-deer, and that to please the natives they adopted the Highland dress whilst in the north.

It was not, I believe, until between 1830 and 1835 that the present system of letting deer forests became general in the Highlands. The rents paid to the proprietors have enabled them in many cases to free their estates from encumbrances, and to effect material improvements, whilst the annual visits of wealthy southerners have conferred considerable benefits on the native population.

The well-remembered Colonel Inge, who (about 1832) began his sporting visits to the Highlands, is often spoken of as one of the pioneers of English sportsmen in the north. At that time he rented deer-stalking in Gairloch from Sir Francis Mackenzie, and the military discipline he maintained among the forty keepers and gillies he always employed is still spoken of, as are also his passion for method and order, and his love of a good joke.

There are many misconceptions abroad with regard to deer forests, even among those who might be expected to be better informed.

In 1883 a Royal Commission inquired into the condition of the crofters and cottars in the Highlands and islands of Scotland. In the report of the Commissioners a large section is devoted exclusively to deer forests and game. The Commission was considered to be decidedly friendly to the interests of the crofters. The report can be purchased through any bookseller for 4s. 8d., and ought to be perused by all who are interested in the subject. The following quotations speak for themselves :—

The Commissioners say:—"The principal objections advanced against deer forests, as presented to us, are the following:—

"1. That they have been created to a great extent by the eviction or removal of the inhabitants, and have been the cause of depopulation.

"2. That land now cleared for deer might be made available for profitable occupation by crofters.

"3. That it might at all events be occupied by sheep farmers, and that a great loss of mutton and wool to the nation might thus be avoided.

"4. That in some places, where deer-forests are contiguous to arable land in the occupation of crofters, damage is done to the crops of the latter by the deer.

"5. That deer deteriorate the pasture.

"6. That the temporary employment of gillies and others in connection with deer forests has a demoralising effect.

"1. In regard to the first of these objections, we have to state that we have only found, during the course of our inquiry, one clearly established case in evidence of the removal of crofters for the purpose of adding to an already existing forest. Depopulation, therefore, cannot be directly attributed to deer forests, unless it can be shewn that they employ fewer people than sheep farms.

"2. The evidence on this head is, as might be supposed, very conflicting. It is of course true that there are few deer forests where an occasional spot of hard green land might not be found which would be available for a crofter's residence, and cultivation ; but, looking to the small proportion of arable to pasture land in such places, it may fairly be assumed that almost insuperable difficulties would be offered to the settlement of crofters in these deer forests, as they would find it impossible to defray the expense of purchasing the large sheep stock which the ground is competent to carry, even though they would not in this case be obliged to take over the stock on the ground at a valuation.

"3. Suffice it to say, that as sheep in the Highlands do not come into the market until they are three years old, and, making no allowance for losses, there would be an additional annual supply of about 132,000 if all these forests were fully stocked with sheep; it is thus abundantly evident that, in view of the sheep in the United Kingdom amounting to 27^ millions,—besides all the beef grown at home, and all the beef and mutton imported, both dead and alive, from abroad, —the loss to the community is not only insignificant but almost inappreciable ; while owing to the large importation of wool from abroad,. the additional supply of home-grown wool would be altogether unimportant, if the area now occupied by deer were devoted to sheep."

"4. This complaint has been brought several times under our notice. In some cases the proprietor has, when appealed to by the crofters, shewn readiness to erect a fence to protect their crops from depredation, or to afford aid in warding off the deer; but in others the small tenant has been left without protection and without assistance." To meet these latter cases simple remedies are suggested.

"5. The Commissioners state that the evidence on the fifth objection is conflicting; they express no definite opinion of their own upon it.

"6. In discussing the last objection, the Commissioners state the pros and cons, which they seem to balance pretty evenly. They add: " It must be remembered, however, that temptations to dissipation are not tendered to the youth of the Highlands by sporting employments only. They may be found with equal facility, and less qualified by wholesome influences, in connection with the existence of a sea-faring man, a fisherman, or a casual labourer in the lowlands,—in fact, in all the other walks of labour and of gain to which the Highlanders betake themselves, and betake themselves with confidence and success. That there is a certain number of persons living loosely on the custom of tourists, anglers, and occasional sportsmen in the Highlands, and thus engaged in pursuits unfavourable to habits of settled industry, is undoubtedly true; but these people are not attached to forests, and their existence is inseparable from the general attractions of the country."

The Commissioners then summarise the subject in discussing two comprehensive questions. The first is, whether "the occupation of land as deer-forest inflicts any hardship or injury upon any class of the community, and if so upon what class?" and in reply to this question they say, " It has been shewn that crofters have rarely, at least in recent times, been removed to make or add to deer forests; that comparatively little of the land so occupied could now be profitably cultivated or pastured by small tenants; that no appreciable loss is occasioned to the nation, either in mutton or wool; and that the charge of inducing idle and intemperate habits among the population is not consistent with experience. There remains the class of sheep-farmers, of whom it may be said, that if they are affected at all, it is only in connection with the cost of wintering their hill sheep, and that in this respect deer forests have undoubtedly benefited those who remain by diminishing competition.

"We next have to inquire, Whether deer forests are of substantial benefit to the various classes which compose the community in the Highlands ? There can be no doubt that in the case of landowners this is so. If it were otherwise, they would clearly not let their land for the purpose. The advantage is especially felt at the present moment, when sheep farms are very difficult to let. We believe that if it were not for deer forests, and if the present condition of sheep farms is prolonged, much of the land in the Highlands might be temporarily unoccupied, or occupied on terms ruinous to the proprietor.

"It has been shewn in evidence that not only does the proprietor derive pecuniary benefit from the system, but that, either through himself or his shooting tenant, substantial advantages have accrued to other classes of persons resident in the district. In the first place, the high rents given for deer forests must have the result of reducing local taxation, and- this affects the smallest crofter as well as the largest farmer. The material advantage to the inhabitants of such districts does not, however, stop here. We have evidence that a very large expenditure has been effected, both by owners and lessees of deer forests, which would not certainly have been the case in their absence. Especially as regards those who have recently purchased Highland properties, it seems that while a deer forest formed the chief original attraction, this may subsequently become only an incident in the charm of a Highland residence, and that a great portion of the improvements made by new proprietors has little direct reference to sport. As instances of the latter may be mentioned the erection of houses of a class far superior to mere shooting-lodges, roads, farm buildings, and, above all, plantations, which in some cases are on a very large scale, and which, so far from being immediately dependent on or connected with deer, require to be carefully protected from them by six-foot wire fences. The expenditure directly connected with deer forests occupied by tenants includes bridle-paths, shooting-lodges, and keepers' houses, besides a good deal of wire-fencing, sometimes between sheep and deer, and sometimes between one deer forest and another. Taken together, the expenditure is very large. It will be thus seen that, contrary to what is probably the popular belief, deer forests in a far greater degree than sheep farms afford employment to the various classes above mentioned, and this consideration forms, in our judgment, the most interesting of all those which have been submitted to us."

In the above extracts detached sentences and paragraphs have been quoted, but any reader who cares to compare the quotations with the original report will, I am sure, allow that the extracts present a fair epitome of the Commissioners views.

It is but right to add, that the Commissioners make {he following recommendation on this subject:—

"It is our opinion that provisions should be framed, under which the crofting class would be protected against any diminution, for the purpose of afforestment, of arable or pasture area now in their possession, and by which the areas which might hereafter form the most appropriate scene for expanding cultivation and small holdings, should be preserved from curtailment; if this were done, the interests of,the class for whom we are specially concerned would be effectually secured."

Grouse shooting is of course a sport largely indulged in by sportsmen tenants in Gairloch, as in other parts of the Highlands. Grouse are not so abundant on the west coast moorlands as in some other districts. This is principally due to two causes,—the larger proportion of bent-grass and rushes to heather, which is the food of grouse ; and the cold hail and rain which often occur just at the time the grouse are hatching. There is one compensation, viz., the grouse disease does not appear so frequently, nor wreak such wholesale destruction, on Gairloch moors as on other better stocked grounds elsewhere. In many years nearly all the first nests produce no young birds, so that by the Twelfth "cheepers" are still abundant, and it is far pleasanter to defer grouse shooting until a fortnight later.

The delights and the healthfulness of grouse shooting have been favourite subjects of sporting writers. There are few peculiarities in grouse shooting in Gairloch. Perhaps it is worth mention that mixed bags are more frequent here than in many districts, and this is especially true in the latter part of the season, which by-the-by yields out and away the most enjoyable and invigorating sport. It is a pity that so many sportsmen from the south run away to their partridges and pheasants, and leave untouched and unenjoyed the very pick of Highland sport. Many sportsmen, even of some experience, would be surprised to find how well grouse lie to dogs on the west coast up to the very last day of the season. In and after October the following varieties may be added to the bag of grouse, viz., woodcock, snipe, wild duck, teal, golden plover, rock-pigeon, hares, and rabbits. Of course black game and partridges are also frequently met with, as well as roe-deer.

Grouse and ptarmigan are shot in all the deer forests of Gairloch. There are only three separate grouse shootings in the parish, viz., those attached to Inveran, Poolhouse, and Drumchork.


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