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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter IX - Deer Stalking


Deer-stalking about a hundred years ago is thus described by my uncle:

“My father never was young enough in my days to become a deer-stalker, although he was very heavy on Kate Archy's venison collops and loved a fat haunch, so one day, when I was about fourteen, says he: "John, can't you and Suter go to Bathais Bheinn to-morrow and try and get a deer? Strange to say, Suter was not a native, but from the Findhorn country in Morayshire, and never saw a deer before. Neither had I much experience in stalking—Hector Cameron, predecessor to Suter, who had been promoted to Loch Luichart estate, always killing what venison we required. Suter’s father (a poacher, I fear) was actually drowned by a salmon in the Findhorn Eiver. There is a fall there where salmon are seen constantly leaping to get up, and some did and many did not. There was a narrow ledge or shelf of rock where, if one could reach it and the river was in proper trim, one could stand so near to the fish when they leaped that a look-alive fisher could whip them out of the spray with a gaff or clip-hook. Old Suter had got on the ledge when, unfortunately, an extra heavy salmon sprang in the spray and was instantly gaffed, but so heavy was it that Suter could not haul him aside, was overbalanced, and away went both the salmon and the gaffer down into the pool. The salmon was found dead from his wound, and thus it was learned how the man was drowned, although no one was present.

“Rifles in 1817 were not actually unknown, but the only one in Tigh Dige was an enormous one, say twelve pounds weight, carrying a two-ounce ball, called the Claiseach, meaning in Gaelic ‘ the grooved one/ and a still heavier one we called the Spciinneach (the Spaniard), with the sides of the bore half an inch thick, and, as Paddy would say, ‘ Its ball was a plug of lead two to -three inches long, warranted seldom to hit any mark aimed at/ So Suter was armed with the Claiseach and the Spainneach, and I had my father's double Joe Manton, with a whittled-down bullet made to fit the bore in one barrel and a lot of slugs in the other. It was past nine ere we climbed the Cosag above Loch Bhad na Sgalaig (Loch of the Ploughman's Grove), walking and talking and exposing ourselves, as we were not expecting deer for miles. On the top, as visible to us as this pen is to me, and about one hundred yards away, was a brown thing like a broken bank of reddish earth with some curious sticks upon it. A minute's look told us the sticks were a deer's horns and he himself was the brown bank, evidently asleep, or otherwise he would have soon said good-bye to us.

“In a minute we two ‘innocents abroad' scrambled out of sight, and, sweeping round the brae on which the deer was sleeping, walked, like lunatics, within twenty yards of him ere he awoke. A proper stalker would have got a favourable berth, say fifty yards from him, and would have waited till he woke and stood up. We despised such manoeuvres on this our first stalk, and the consequence was that he did not rise up, but flew into the air and away over a flat piece of ground faster than any deerhound. I could shoot decently, and so banged off my slug barrel/while Suter fired the Claiseach, but neither of us touched him. This seemed to paralyse me till Suter cried out: £ The other barrel/ I had quite forgotten my bullet till the monster was nearly one hundred yards off. Then I fired, and he rolled over and j over like a rabbit, the bullet having broken his neck. We were soon beside him, and while I was reloading, I Suter, who was over six feet high and broad in proportion, i rushed at the stag and seized him by the horns. He merely bowed his head, threw it up again, and sent Suter yards away like a pair of old boots. It ended with my having to kill the deer outright by a bullet in the heart, and then we two danced Gillecallum and hurrahed like two madmen, for though I had seen many deer killed by Hector Cameron, they were all like calves in comparison to our monster.

“Nothing would serve me but cutting off his head' and walking home direct with it about four miles, and sending a horse for the body. So, soon after twelve, there was I marching up the avenue to Tigh Dige under a royal stag's head, and Suter with the pieces of ordnance behind me. The story having got about, there were father and mother on the stone stair head outside in little less glee than I was, though a wee thing less tired. The head was handed over to the Jack-of-all-trades, William Fraser, Kate Archy’s son, with orders to go with all speed and bring home the corpse. I have killed and seen many a good stag since then, but never was a stag like my number one, passing twenty-five stone, clean and white inside as a prize bullock. Hurrah ! my stag had twelve points (he was royal), and is now hanging up on my staircase. My last stag, shot in Glencannich, had thirteen points, all clean, but was under twenty stone.

“I had a hard day once with a fine stag in Coire Ruadh Stac of Beinn Eighe of Kenlochewe. I started with a lad and prog (food) for two days, and we roosted at Uaimh Bhraotaig under the big stone there, having seen nothing the first day. We were young, rash stalkers, and next morning started a fine stag, which galloped off towards Coire Ruadh Stac, about two miles off. Now, that corrie is a cul-de-sac, its upper end being one sheet of white quartz gravel about one thousand feet to the top of the hill, in which man or beast would sink deep every step. I had never before seen a deer in that grand corrie. Probably they knew that if pursued there they must come out past their enemy, although the corrie is about half a mile wide at its mouth and is very rough hillocky ground. Could our friend the stag really have gone into the corrie? Peeping into it carefully, we spied the brown back of a beast near its mouth, and after we had scraped our knees and tummies badly in getting within shot, our deer turned out to be a pony strayed there from Lochcarron or Torridon ! Further enquiry, however, exhibited our coveted friend lying on a heather mulcan (hillock) near the mouth of the corrie, placed so that nothing alive could come near him unseen.

"That was severe on us, but I knew that deer often let people come wonderfully near them if they seemed bent on other business, walking smartly past and not stopping and peeping about, and with no gun visible. That was my only chance, so, leaving the lad in hiding,

*Joe Manton* and I sauntered into and up the corrie as far as possible from my friend, f whistling as I went for lack of thought,’ and never even looking at him, though I saw he kept an eye on me. The hillock faced west, and I saw that, if I could get far enough east, a shoulder of it would come between me and him, so on I swung till the shoulder concealed me. Then I took off my shoes in a second, and in a few minutes I was panting at the back of the hillock, hoping for breath to take aim. I was on my knees and seeing if my flint and powder were all right when Mr. Stag thought he had better see where I was going up the corrie. He soon saw I was within fifty yards of him, and, turning like lightning, he just flew away; but my bullet flew also, and by good luck hit his flank, breaking all the ribs on one side and his left shoulder, so on my getting over the hillock there he was, poor fellow, sitting on his end like a dog, thinking how he could pay me off. I was rather below him, but quite near, so he rushed on three legs at me and made me clear out. Then I loaded with small shot, which, applied to his neck, ended matters, and, the lad coming up, we had a light fantastic hop, for he was a trump stag, though only of ten points.

“But we had soon to drop the fantastic and to consider how to get him home'. I never went stalking with more than one helper, so I had always to stay to assist him with the deer, and that was often a great bother. After gralloching the beast, I was taught to tear up heathery turf and hide my prize from birds and beasts, of which in those times there were more than enough, and all willing to dine on venison. Then I squibbed gunpowder among the clods all round, and no fox would touch a beast so perfumed. If we only had our friend down at Grudie Bridge, three miles off and twelve miles from Tigh Dige, we could direct a carrier to the deer while we were more agreeably employed.

“But first, where on earth were my shoes ? After about an hour’s hunt we found them. Then, the brown pony coming in sight, we resolved to try and catch him and saddle him with the stag, but probably he smelt blood on us and would never let us handle him. We went close to a scree of the Beinn Eighe quartz shingle. If we could only rush him into it we had him, but then where were our bridle and ropes to tie the deer on him? Luckily we were both good string-collectors, and had two big handkerchiefs, so when at last we grabbed the stray horse, we brought him below a steep, broken bank, to which we slid the deer, and after about an hour’s calming of our terrified charger the deer was on his back with its legs tied below him. Gentle reader, if you have an enemy whom you would like to make miserable and mad, you will give him exactly such a job as fell to our lot for several hours while we were covering the three miles on that dreadful hillside. But ere dark we had our stag near the track and bridge, and the place was marked so that the men with the deer-saddled horse whom we sent off next morning needed not us to direct or help them. That was the worst day's job for fatigue that either of us ever met with. I suppose we had to hoist up the stag on to the pony about fifty times on the way. Had we known what was before us, we would never have handled him, but once we started pride carried us through, and our praise when he was in the larder was great.

“In all my stalking it surprises me that I only once came across a wounded deer. Being abstainers, I believe they soon recover from wounds. I have often found shed horns, but have seldom seen the bones of a dead deer in the forest. Yet they must often die unknown at the time of being shot. Once, trotting along the top of the Glas Leitir wood, I started a hind in the brae about a hundred yards above me. I took a flying shot at her, but felt it was a miss. I loaded and went forward, never troubling to look where she had gone, till, about a quarter of a mile on, I saw a little burn red, evidently, with blood. Walking up it a few hundred yards, I found the hind stone dead, the heart actually cut in two by my bullet. The one wounded deer that I ever got was a fine old stag who for years had been devoted to the Taagan corn at the head of Loch Maree.

“When Hector Mackenzie complained to me of his loss of crop through deer I said to him, what Sir George Mackenzie used to say to me, ‘ Shoot them, shoot them. Hector was no great gunner, but he took a shot at his enemy and made him clear out, at all events for the season. Next year, however, he was back again, though his footmarks only were seen. Having Colonel Inge's keen-nosed lurcher Gill with me for some such lethal purpose, I got some beaters to drive the east end of Glas Leitir wood, where Hector said the stag was seen almost every day, though he hid himself in a jungle whenever disturbed, but whereabouts exactly no one ever could tell. I gave Gill on a leash to the forester, old Duncan —whoever could see or walk or stalk better than he, though then past seventy ?—and went out on Loch Maree in a boat, sure that on such a lovely, clear, calm day a hare could not move in front of the beaters without our marking it. But the beaters went carefully through the wood without seeing the stag, though they found his bed in a jungle-hole. It was beaten as smooth as if done with hammers and coated with his cast hair, so he had been there since spring.

"That was disappointing, but Duncan waved for us to come on shore and come up to him, and there was he, nearly pulled in pieces by Gill raving to follow some scent. Gill never gave tongue in any circumstances. Of course we followed Gill, wondering why on earth he was leading us to an almost perpendicular wall of rock down the centre of which ran a small ravine, its bed covered with red gravel that had been washed from the top to the bottom by heavy floods. Up this ravine Gill dragged Duncan, and we followed on our hands and feet till, after about a hundred yards, we emerged on to a flat peat moss, where Gill made us ashamed of having doubted his nose, for there were the quite fresh marks of a big three-footed stag, so we drew breath and opened eyes all around.

“Nothing visible, but from the lie of the tracks we knew our friend must have made for the deep burn half a mile in front of the Allt Giuthais. So we minuetted along slowly till old Duncan dropped down in front of us as if shot, turning round with his tongue out and holding up his spread fingers above his bonnet to signal 4 deer's horns seen/ Then we peeped and saw them too, and we had almost to choke Gill, who was mad to get on. A short council of war sent me away to the left to strike the burn half a mile down, and I was soon there waiting till wanted. The two others and Gill took to the right, and soon halloaed to me to look out. The stag as soon as he saw them flew to the burn and crossed it into the fir-wood, which grew out of six-foot-long heather and ferns, and but for Gill we should have seen no more of him. Gill, however, was at his heels in a few minutes and compelled him to fly back to the burn, where the men with stones prevented his keeping the dog at bay, and speedily drove him through the rough ravine and burn past me, where my rifle ended the sad story. And then we found that Hector's bullet the previous year had broken his fore fetlock. The wound had healed, but it was only a flail foot, and a mere nuisance to the poor, beautiful fellow^ I think he had nine points, but was well and fat. ‘Yes' said Hector, on my corn and potatoes, digging the potatoes out of the pits with his horns, the rascal. Even with three feet he was a grand beast.

“I am reminded that when Hector Cameron kept the Tigh Dige in birds and beasts he was one day on top of this same wood (Glas Leitir), watching a roebuck feeding some hundreds of yards down in the flat below. He stopped. What is that other red beast evidently stalking the roe? His spy-glass soon told that it was Mr. Fox, so he took a lesson in stalking from him without a fee ! In a few minutes the roe was kicking helplessly below the fox, who, holding on by the throat, soon killed him. Hector thought it was then time for his stalk, and ere the fox had drained all the roebuck’s blood, Hector had potted him, and brought his skin and the roe home.

“Years after this, Frank (Sir Francis Mackenzie) hired the Wyvis shooting, and at much expense in keepers, etc., brought it up to be so good a moor that in the last year of his tenancy, on the twelfth of August, he shot over eighty brace of grouse to his own gun. Having heard of the slaughter, the laird of Foulis, a recluse living in London who had never himself put a keeper on the ground, which, till my brother hired it, was only shot over by poachers, resolved to allow it to recover. I was then nominal tenant of the sheep-farm of Wyvis, my brother being the real tenant, and in my lease I was bound to protect the game from persons trespassing. My shepherds gladly ordered off all who were disturbing the sheep, till one day my shepherd, George Hope, who came from the Borders, on a twelfth of August saw three men with pointers and a pony and creels on his beat, and had to tell them his orders were to allow no one there. The reply was,4 Unless you want your collie shot you had better be off/ Nothing makes a shepherd get ‘oot o’ that’ so quickly as such a threat, so he left the poachers alone, merely watching their movements, suspecting, as there were blankets and pots, etc., in the creels, that they were making for the Smugglers’

Cave at Coire Bhacidh behind Wyvis. And so it turned out. His spy-glass showed them making for the cave* into which they carefully emptied the creels, and off they went with pony and creels up a long glen and began business. As soon as they were out of sight Hope made for the cave, and was at least as busy as they were. Every pot and blanket, every bag of meal, all the cold provisions, ammunition, etc., he took to a deep peat-hole he knew of, where the articles are safe and sound to this day, for he kept his secret to himself, for fear of the poachers'’ revenge, till just when he was leaving my service for the south years afterwards. Then, retiring to a hillock far off, but in sight of the cave, he lay there till the sportsmen's return to the cave in the evening. His glass revealed one of the men entering the cave and rushing out as if chased by wasps. He seemed to be explaining affairs to his comrades, who also ran to the cave and ran out again, all three proceeding to search the hill in the hope of finding the cave robbers. Then Hope retired home; I am sure he was very sorry that he dared not tell his comrades of the fun he had in his burglary.

“Wyvis has been sold since then, and has long been clear of sheep and under deer. It makes a real deerstalker sick to observe how stalking is generally managed now in the Highlands. I used always to be on the look-out ground if possible before 6 a.m. to observe any deer which had been down feeding on the low grounds, and were stepping away in the morning to their spying posts up above for the day. Now the sleepy, soft-potato fellows must have a grand breakfast ere they can stand the fatigue of the hill. The keepers are sent out very early to find the deer and mark them down for the guns, and when the soft gunners reach the ground, on horseback if possible, they are led up to the shooting spot as if to kill a cow or a sheep, getting their shot, but never forgetting the luncheon hour.

“When we went to stalk we were always off ere daylight. I have walked miles on the moor to reach the spying spot long before dawn. We had a bite ere we started to diminish carriage, but all we needed till we returned home was coarse barley scones and the heel of a home-made cheese in our pockets, while we never dreamt of any pocket *pistol* except the best water we met with. Then great were the excitement and enjoyment we had, which the sleepy Sassenach entirely misses, in watching every step of the deer feeding hill-wards to their look-out post. We had to consider how to get into a good position and have a shot before nine o’clock, at which hour they sometimes lie down with heads towards every direction, to discuss their news and examine anything suspicious on their horizon. Unless one gets a stalk and shot ere they lie down they had better be let alone till they get up again in the afternoon. Sometimes we went to a distant beat and did not come home at night, but slept in the heather—if possible, below a rock or stone tolerably rain-proof. Then our stalker had provisions put up for two days, and when, as often happened, they included a leg of mutton, I never saw the bare bone that the keeper or gillie did not crack for the sake of the marrow, precisely as every bone in caves with prehistoric remains is found carefully cracked by the ancestors of our stalkers and gillies.

“For some years we employed as our gillie Donald Munro of Clare (on Wyvis), the most thorough poacher I ever met with. We could never reconcile him to letting a bird rise before we fired. It would be a clever grouse whose head Donald did not see the moment the dogs pointed; then with a dig at my elbow and a shrug sideways, he would show me two heads in a line, and when I made them get up before firing he was perfectly sick at my folly in wasting two shots when one would have killed both birds had I fired when they were on the ground and in line. He always carried a gauger’s iron-pointed stick, and if close when the birds rose he would fling his stick at them with all his might, hoping to knock one down without such lamentable waste of powder and shot. Indeed, one day his iron point flew in among a covey with such force that it pierced a grouse right through, and so it had to stop, while four barrels stopped other four birds. ‘ Weel done, thon's behter; well be coming on by-and-by !’ he exclaimed.

“A blue leveret getting up once before us would have come to bag had not Donald, who detested hares as ‘ no canny brutes,' seized my gun, saying, *The stirk wasna worth a shot/ He told us he only once had a real proper *go* at grouse. In a snow-storm he .stalked an immense pack of them on Wyvis, a white shirt over him and a white neckerchief covering his face. He had his big musket and a great handful of No. 3 as the gun charge, and on that day he bagged thirty grouse at the cost of only three or four charges.

He grinned with horrid glee when telling the tale, like a Monadh Liath poacher in whose bothy I was once benighted, and from whom I heard many a shooting story.

“Once in a heavy snow-storm not far from Eallin in Inverness-shire he found about fifty deer packed together like sheep in a fall below a rock for some shelter. He crept close above them and let fly a handful of slugs among them. Five stopped where they were, and two more went only about one hundred yards, when they also stopped. His brother was a Killin shepherd living on the west side of the loch, the east side of which was under birch, where deer were frequently seen among the trees from his door. If his salting barrel was getting empty he never needed a gun to refill it, but went round the loch, guided by his daughter's signs, till just above the deer. Then he stalked down close to them, and by hounding on his two very good collies he seldom failed to make one of the deer take to the loch and swim across. Just before it landed his daughter would rise up in front of it, working an old umbrella for all she was worth and advising the deer to recross the loch. This it did, not noticing the shepherd or his dogs till again about to land, when the sight of them made it start for another swim. Thus the shepherd and his daughter so wore it out that a drowned deer was found in the loch—and of course there could be no harm in using it for food


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