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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter X - Deer Stalking continued


I shall now follow up my uncle’s account of deerstalking by some of my own doings in that line in the fifties. I was about sixteen and residing with my mother at Pool House, and had Inverewe hired as my shooting, when one day our great friend, the gentleman farmer, Hector Mackenzie of Taagan, Kenlochewe, called. Knowing me to be very keen on deer-stalking, and being aware also that I seldom had a chance of a deer in those days, he remarked that he wondered I did not try to ingratiate myself with my eccentric old English neighbour, who owned some seventy thousand acres, forty-five or fifty thousand of which were the most famous stag ground in the country. It was then still all under sheep, but notwithstanding this, it had a good stock of its original breed of deer on it. Was it not famous even in the Fingalian days, when they killed the monster boar in Gleann na Muic? The very name of Srath na Sealg (the Valley of Hunting) suffices to show its special merits.

The owner, who had then been thirty years in the county, had never even attempted to stalk. My friend of Taagan thought that if I went and made myself agreeable to the young ladies of the house, and could manage to offer something, even a small sum, in the way of rent, there was no saying but that I might get permission to stalk on the famous Srath na Sealg ground, which had never been regularly stalked, and where the deer had only occasionally been killed by poaching shepherds. Wonderful to say, my trip succeeded. I told the old gentleman that I had no money of my own except a little pocket-money. He asked what I could give him, and I told him I could afford only five pounds. Marvellous to say, though almost a millionaire himself, he agreed to take that; so I wrote him out a cheque for the amount and came back in triumph; for had I not got carte blanche to stalk over a huge bit of country of some fifty thousand acres for a whole season ? Perhaps that was among the happiest days, if not the very happiest day, of my long life.

But how was the stalking to be managed? There was a broken-down, thatched shepherd's bothy at Carn Mor, some eight or nine miles away from Poolewe, with no road to it; this bothy had not been lived in for many years, but it seemed to be the only chance for me in the way of shelter at night, so I was determined to try it.

We had a favourite sailor and fisherman in our employ at that time and for many years after, William Grant, who was one of those who went with us to St. Kilda. Three or four of these Grants have served me faithfully and devotedly all through my long life, and one of them (Donald) is still serving me, aged seventy-nine.

In 1640 one of my ancestors, Kenneth the sixth of Gairloch, married as his second wife Ann, daughter of Sir John Grant of Grant by Ann Ogilvie, daughter of the Earl of Findlater, and when Ann Grant started on horseback from the door of Castle Grant, her gille cas fhluich (wet-footed lad), who led his young mistress on her palfrey, wading through all the fords between Strathspey and Gairloch (and they were many), was a young Grant. From him all the Grants in the parish of Gairloch are descended. Some of the Grants were very powerful men, and when my grandfather, Sir Hector, was young, there were said to be only two men in the whole parish who could take up a handful of periwinkles and crush them; they were my grandfather and Grant, the big bard of Slaggan.

To come back to my deer-stalking. William Grant and our house-boy started away on a Monday morning with a little red Uist pony called “Billy". To a big saddle on his back were attached two large peat creels, into which my dear mother put a week’s supply of provisions with her own hands. Away they went to Carn Mor, whereas my trusted keeper and stalker, William Morrison, and I made a bee-line across the Inverewe and Kernsary moors to a tiny sandy bay on the Fionn Loch (White Lake), where we kept a boat. Rowing across the loch, we soon landed on the Srath na Sealg ground, which was in the parish of Loch Broom, landing either at the foot of Little or Big Beinn a Chaisgan, two hills on the^opposite side of the loch. I forget if we got anything the first day, though I know as a fact that we were never out on that ground without seeing lots of deer, in spite of its stock of eight or nine thousand sheep.

We arrived in the gloaming at Carn Mor, to find things in a terrible mess in the bothy. It seemed that a few days before Grant and the boy got there, a passing herd of cattle belonging to the laird, being bothered with the heat and the flies, had pushed open the door of the bothy and taken refuge in it, which was not difficult, as the door was barely hanging by one hinge. This was all very well until the beasts began to get hungry and tried to get out, but the door which they pushed inwards so easily, refused to be pushed outwards, and if by the greatest luck a shepherd had not passed that way and looked in, the whole lot of cattle would have been starved to death. The smell made the house almost unbearable, and had it not been a wet night we should rather have laid ourselves down a la belle etoile. Time, however, cures many things, and it at last cured Carn Mor of being “cowy.”

The fire, which consisted of heather sticks and bog-fir, was at one end of the bothy against the gable, and I lay on the earthen floor on a bed of heather, with a blanket or two on me, the man and the boy having to do likewise on the opposite side. I was what would be called at the present day very badly armed. All I had were my little rifle, given me by my mother when I was about eleven years old, which required at least two sights to be raised if the animal was one hundred and fifty yards away, and an old, heavy, German, doublebarrelled, muzzle-loading rifle lent me by my brother, and a very small, inferior telescope. The second day I was in luck, and got two stags with a right and left. I was very pleased with myself, and, not forgetting that I had got the shooting at a fairly low rent, I thought it my duty to make the eccentric old gentleman a present of the whole lot. So the boy was sent very early next morning to the mansion of the laird with a polite note, and he himself started with a lot of retainers and several ponies to fetch the stags. They carried them home in triumph and with great pomp.

Just to show how eccentric this old gentleman was, his same keeper told me afterwards that on the arrival of the cavalcade at the door of the big house, they were ordered to stand at attention with the stags still on the unfortunate ponies’ backs ! Had it been in these modem times the men might have thought the group was to be photographed, but photography was not known then, and so they fondly hoped it might mean a dram all round on the great occasion of the laird’s bringing back his first stags (though they happened to have been shot by someone else). From former bitter experience, however, they well knew that treating was not at all in his line; so there they were kept standing for well over an hour, until they nearly dropped; but at long last “himself” appeared, dressed as if for an Inverness Northern Meeting ball, with all the paraphernalia of powder horn and pistols, dirks and daggers. Thus embellished, he walked three times round the stags, ordered the men to give three ringing cheers for “himself,” and then dismissed them without either a dram or anything else, and retired indoors to undress himself.

How often have I since regretted not having at the time asked the keeper (who was so well known by his nickname of “Glineachan”) whether on that great occasion the laird wore his long or his short kilt. He possessed two, and at the first Inverness gathering which he attended in the thirties, soon after his arrival from England, he wore one so long that it reached nearly down to his ankles ! Some good friends having ventured to hint that the kilt would have been more becoming to his figure had it been made shorter, he had another one made for a Stornoway ball which reached down a very short distance, to the great consternation and scandal of the assembled company!

I think I got twelve stags in all that season. I might have killed a lot more, but I did not like to overdo it when I thought of the rent! I got one very big stag, the biggest, I fancy, I ever killed, though we had no possible means of weighing him at Carn Mor, as he had to be cut up in bits and packed in the creels on each side of Billy's back; but he had a grand wide head of eight points. He was evidently the master stag on Beinn a Chaisgan Mlior, and we were after him a good many days before I downed him on the flat, smooth top 2,800 feet up, where a coach and four might have driven for a long distance. I think I was in front when I saw the ears of a lot of hinds coming along down wind, probably moved by one of the shepherds, and we had just time to throw our two selves down behind a small boulder which happened, fortunately, to push its head through the otherwise smooth, mossy turf. We both at once guessed that the big stag would be bringing up the rear, and luckily managed to let the long line of hinds file past without their seeing us. When the stag came in sight I got him.

One day in October my stalker and I had crossed the Fionn Loch, so famous for its big trout, and landed at a shepherd's house on the opposite shore at Feith a Chaisgan. The shepherd came down to meet us, and he told us he had the previous day come across the very finest stag he had ever seen—namely, a grand big royal. We had heard for two or three years of an extra good stag being in Slioch, the beautiful hill which overhangs Loch Maree, and we had heard also that the Cornish shooting tenant of Kenlochewe would not allow anyone to stalk on Slioch, not even his own brothers, for feaiv they might shoot it. Well, we explored our ground most carefully the whole day, and though we saw deer, we saw nothing that resembled the shepherd's description of the royal stag.

It was getting late and the light of day was rapidly departing, so we thought we would venture to descend to Carn Mor, by an awful pass between the twin peaks of Sgur an Laoicionn and Sgur na Feart. All at once, in a tiny green corrie, just above the pass, what should we come upon suddenly but three hinds and the big royal! They were just about within range, so I fired my little rifle at him and hit him, but he was quite able to take himself of! after the hinds, and we saw no more of him that night; indeed, we did not expect ever to see him 1 again, as he did not appear to be very hard hit. However, before midday on the morrow, Morrison spotted him | about two miles away lying down on the slope of the t Ruadh Stac bheag; in fact, it was the size and length j of his beautiful antlers, with the three long white-tipped tines on each of his tops, that betrayed him. After a long, difficult stalk, I gave him the coup de grace lying down. There was a big pool of blood under him which he had lose during the night. So precious in my eyes was his grand head that we cut it off at once, for fear of anyone stealing it if left till the morrow!

I cannot quite finish my story without referring to the Cornish shooting tenant of Kenlochewe. He had a habit always of walking down in the forenoon to the hotel to see the arrival of the mail-car on its way to Dingwall, accompanied by his stalkers and gillies, and one day what should they see perched on the top of the car but the head of the big Slioch stag on its way to a taxidermist in Inverness! .

I saw just one other very big stag during those most happy days I spent at Carn Mor, but, alas ! failed to get a shot at him. I must say I like the old way of going off alone with one’s stalker in the morning much better than the present system of being followed by a retinue of gillies and ponies, in order to get the stags home in the shortest possible time, though I admit this is best for the venison. To me, however, a cavalcade of that sort takes a lot away from the romance of stalking.

While I am dealing with sport I may here quote my uncle’s story of Watson and the eagles. Even I can remember Watson when he was a very old man. Though he bore a south-country name, he was, as we say in the north, as Highland as a peat in fact, he had very little English, and he was the first gamekeeper and vermin-killer the Gairloch estate ever had. I think it was he who, when my mother was inveighing against the use and abuse of whisky, replied, “ ’Deed, yes, my leddy, too much of anything is baad—too much gruel is baad.” I wonder who ever exceeded in the way of gruel!

My uncle says: “Watson by daybreak was on the top of Bathais Bheinn with swan shot in one barrel and a bullet in the other, peering over the rock. Away sailed one of the eagles, but the swan shot dropped him on the heather below the rock. Another eagle from the nest on the other side of the hill came to the same end. Then Watson hid himself among the rocks near where a wounded eagle was flapping his wing, and a third eagle, coming to see what this meant, was invited by a cartridge to remain, making one and a half brace of old eagles before breakfast. Then, to shorten matters with the two big chicken eagles, he climbed the hill again, and ere his bullets were all used up both of the young eagles were dead, having got more lead for breakfast than they could digest, and their remains were visible on the shelf of the rock for many a year after. I wait to hear of the gunner in Britain who could show his two and a half brace of eagles bagged in one day before breakfast/’ Watson was undoubtedly a first-rate killer of foxes and eagles, but I think we have as good vermin-killers in the twentieth century as were to be found at the beginning of the nineteenth. My stalker, Donald Urquhart, at Kernsary in the winter of 1918-19, killed twenty-five foxes. He once got two eagles and two foxes in one day. Two seasons running he got ten eagles, and two seasons running he got seven eagles. One day he went out to shoot hinds and visit traps. First he got a wild-cat in a trap. Shortly afterwards he got a hind; he visited three other traps, getting an otter in one trap and a fox in another, and then he shot a hind on the way home—a useful day’s work for a stalker.

I often wonder why some Coimty Councils take the trouble to forbid eagles being destroyed. How can the killing of eagles be prevented? Do the County Councils wish no traps to be set for foxes, wild-cats, ravens, or hoodie crows? And if the traps are to be set for these very destructive beasts and birds, how are the eagles to be kept out of the traps ? Is it the wish of the wiseacres of the County Councils that an eagle with both or even one of its feet smashed should be let go to die a lingering death of starvation?

The best place for a trap to be set for foxes or hoodies is a tiny island in a pool of water, the bait to be half in and half out of the water, and the big trap set on the top of the hummock of sphagnum moss just immediately above the bait. *I dare say very few County Councillors are aware that an eagle depends entirely on his talons for attack or defence, so that if one of them is fixed in a trap you may put your hand or even your face close to his head and he will not touch you. Eagles are terribly destructive. They tear the live rabbits out of the rabbit-trappers’ traps, kill lambs wholesale, and the very sight of one scares every grouse of! the ground. Only last summer an eagle was seen attacking a hogg (year-old sheep) on our ground and had to be driven away. The , Ross-shire County Council very wisely does not forbid the killing of eagles.

Apropos of eagles, I shall describe what happened in our heronry, which we greatly valued. It was on an island in the Fionn Loch, which was overgrown with a jungle of stunted birches, rowans, and hollies, the twenty or more herons’ nests being in some cases so near the ground that I once saw a terrier manage to scramble up into a nest full of young ones. It did not relish the unusual experience, as, unlike the eagle’s, the heron’s means of defence is his powerful bill, with which even a young one is very handy. One day we thought we would visit our heronry, and as we approached the island we were much surprised at seeing no herons flying about as usual. On our landing there was nothing to be seen but upset nests and quantities of feathers everywhere, and in one holly-bush we found a full-grown dead young heron, covered with blood, but still intact.

We could not imagine what had happened, and thought some evil four-footed beast like a fox must have swum to the island, or perhaps a wild-cat or marten, which are better at climbing trees than a fox. We had some strychnine with us to give poisoned eggs to a pair of hoodies in another island, and we decided to poison the young heron whose body had escaped being eaten, in the hope that we might thus discover the cause of the terrible destruction; so we laid its poisoned carcase on a flat rock on the island. A few days afterwards a dead eagle was washed up on the shore of the loch opposite the island, thus making it quite clear to us that an eagle, or more probably a pair of eagles, had done all this mischief.

We have had far too many eagles in our country of late, and when one can see seven in the air at once it is about time to thin them out. I have only once in my life taken an eagle’s nest, and that was sixty-eight years ago. We never set traps for eagles, but when one is caught I must confess we do not mourn very much.

Strychnine is a wonderfully handy drug. I remember once laying a poisoned egg in the hope of killing a pair of hoodies which were doing an immense amount of damage stealing grouse eggs, and returning in a very short time to find both the hoodies lying on their backs dead, though still warm, one on each side of the egg. On another occasion when stalking hinds in January I was crawling along at the foot of a rock when I noticed an egg which I knew to be a poisoned one. Just a little beyond it I saw two small white spots which looked like little lumps of snow, and when I got to them I saw that they were two dead pure white ermines. They must only just have put the tips of their tongues into the small hole at the top of the egg, for it was still quite intact.


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