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Reminiscences of the Lews
Chapter VII - Soval Shooting and Old Tom's Pedigree


IN 1853 I removed to Soval, where I remained till the Lews and I parted in 1869. I was monarch of all I surveyed, and my survey consisted, as far as my recollection goes, of some 75,000 acres, according to the Ordnance survey. A great deal of the ground was of little use for game, as there were several large villages or towns, as they are called, well populated, and a great number of minor hamlets. All along the west coast the towns came very thick, and in the immediate neighbourhood of those townships game could not be expected to abound. For several years I had no comrade, and I had my little principality, very like Robinson Crusoe, entirely to myself. By road, from Balallan Bridge to Sharbost, the extreme bounds of the shooting was over thirty miles—very grand, indeed; but how were you to get at the ground to shoot it ? True, at that time there was very little indeed to shoot on the western parts; and towards Dalbeg and Sharbost one might travel miles without seeing a grouse, though there were woodcocks and snipes and plover. The first thing to do was to make out some abode from whence one could get at the larger portion of the ground, which from Soval was entirely impossible. How curious it is that in Scotland the lodge is always placed as far from the centre of the ground as possible!

At that time there was i^o inn, as there now is, at Garrynahine; therefore I was constrained to build myself a bothy, kennel, and stable on the top of Diensten Hill, about seven miles from Soval, whence I could get at the heart of the shooting, and which was about three miles and a half from the best river; and in this said bothy I located a keeper. In the neighbourhood of Diensten, too, were to be found the few deer that were then on the ground; for at that time the only part of the Lews that was forested was Kenraisort, and there were deer going over parts of the Soval ground at particular seasons, passing from south to north, and vice versa; and the stags obtained were good. I therefore never killed the hinds, but let them increase, in hopes of attracting the travelling stags, which succeeded very well till the foresting Aline and Harris so diminished their migration that it all but ceased. Diensten Hill—where, as I said, I built my bothy— commanded one of the finest, if not the finest, view in the country. The whole line of Park, Lewis, and Harris, and the TJig Hills, lay like a panorama before it, and of a fine day it was truly such a view as was seldom looked at; but it had its disadvantages. This same hill, when it was not fine—which it is not always in the Hebrides—was about the windiest spot in that very windy country. Diensten bothy did not originally cost a great deal, but its repairs-did. In roofs and windows I hardly know what it did not cost. They were perpetually blowing off or in. On one particular occasion I had just considerably enlarged the bothy, and newly thatched it from end to end; when, as we were all located there for the opening of the grouse campaign in the Diensten district, it began to blow a little after daybreak. My then keeper, John Munro, came to me, advising the party to get up, as he thought the bothy was going. The thatch certainly was, and he had been three times blown off the top of the bothy into his garden trying to secure it. I got up to see what was going on, as the others were too lazy; and lo! there was the roof making its way, by instalments, fast back through the air to the place whence it came, the side of a well-heathered hill. (N.B. Our roof was of heather). We breakfasted early that morning alfresco.

From Diensten it was about, eleven or twelve miles across the muir to Dalbeg, where lived a great ally of mine, the then ground officer, an excellent man, John M’Kenzie, who was of much assistance to me in grouse preservation, and who had a comfortable slate-roofed house, where I used to locate for a week or a fortnight at a time for shooting purposes, and where also I built a kennel.

Having thus rendered it possible to get at my ground, I then turned my mind to see what was to be done with it as far as grouse were concerned. The prospect was not promising, for the stock of birds, from the causes already given, was, for the extent of ground, miserably small. On large tracts there were actually none, and the first time I shot from: Callernish Inn to Dalbeg, some eight miles across the muir, my grouse-bag consisted of one old cock. Fortunately we had three or four very good breeding seasons, one after another. A great deal of the ground consisted of flats and glens, surrounded with hills. I do not think there ever was more beautiful hunting country formed for the different varieties of winged vermin and other enemies to grouse, that abounded; and, but for the great number of peat bogs and peat mosses, which were a great protection, I think birds never could have held their ground. In my opinion, Highlanders—certainly Hebrideans—are not the best trappers in the world; they have not system enough for the work, and are not early trained up to it. I once remarked to a Hebridean keeper the number of hawks I had seen on such and such ground, and recommended attention to it, when he silenced me by saying that "hawks did not pay for shoe-leather.” An eagle is worth money to stuff; an otter’s skin fetches a good price, and this accounts much for the keenness after them. There is also one thing to be said about trapping in those parts. There are no trees on which to set traps, and wood is a scarce article. They can then only be set on cairns or piles of either stones or peats, which attract the attention of the natives to a certainty, and the traps stand a very poor chance. But somehow we managed, at their breeding time, by degrees to get rid of a great many hawks, ravens, and crows. I decidedly objected to the destruction of eagles; for who does not like, even at the cost of several grouse, to see an eagle soar? Besides, I don’t believe they do such a great deal of harm; I will back the gulls against them any day. Against those birds I declared war to the knife. There was a beautiful freshwater loch, Trialaval by name, in the centre of the shooting, shaped something like a star, with numerous bays and outlets, or rather inlets, for burns. It was some three or four miles long, but how many round I never could make out, for it was almost impossible to get round it, unless one knew the particular fords to cross the different streams that ran into it. On this loch were several islands, on which nested every species of gull that can possibly be imagined. It was really an extraordinary sight to go up there at the time the young gulls were coming out, and watch them taking their first lessons in the air and on the water, and getting ready for their migration to the sea, some three or four miles off.

Well, I settled the whole community by year after year systematically destroying their eggs, till, as Paddy said, “I made them lave that" so completely that they disappeared; and I know that as they became scarcer the grouse increased considerably.

Haying thus taken measures, as far as practicable, against the increase of vermin, I proceeded, as far as I could, to divide all the ground into separate beats, never shooting the same ground over twice for grouse. For some seasons, as far as I could possibly manage it, I never shot hens, but killed every old cock I could get at, in season or out of season, on the ground; poached him, in short, anyhow I could. I shot the broods always lightly, and thus, by degrees, spread the birds out over the whole ground, so that parts of the north ground, where there was really nothing at first, became as good as the south; but the process was very slow indeed, and it entailed great labour. To shoot the ground in this way, we had often—besides driving some six or seven miles along the road, where we left our trap to return in — to walk three, four, five, or six miles to our beat, shoot that beat, and then walk the same distance back across the muir to our road or our bothy. Few men could do this, or would do it if they could; and therefore, though I should have been glad of a companion, the sort I wanted was hard to find.

I said above that I never went over the same ground twice for grouse; but, in the woodcock season I again went over much of the ground, particularly the glens, and then I never spared an old coat. Thus I gradually cleared the ground of that worst of all vermin.

There were two great difficulties to contend with in getting up game in the Lews—viz., egg-stealing and heather-burning. And first as to egg-stealing. In the spring of the year, just about the breeding season, it is the custom for the women and children—the men being occupied at the different fishing stations—to go out to the shealings, as they are called, with their cattle. These shealings are temporary turf cabins, scattered all over that part of the muir allotted for grazing to the different townships, or towns, which extend over a large portion of the shooting. It is necessary that this should be done, as otherwise all those parts of the „ muir near the towns which should be reserved for autumn and winter feeding, would be grazed off early, and the remoter parts left untouched. Now, conceive a whole population of women and children let loose over your ground in the nesting and hatching season! .The consequence is, that a general search is made for the nests, which sharp eyes soon find. When found, the nest is watched till pretty full of eggs, when a snare is set for the hen, who is soon caught and eaten, and then the eggs are taken. Against this system no amount of keepering can avail. The wholesale destruction that takes place may be conceived. In some places it amounts almost to annihilation, and accounts in some measure for the number of single cocks seen about. If even, any egg-stealers be caught, the difficulty of punishing the culprits is great; and so is the expense, for the canny Scot wisely introduces a clause into your lease that the expenses of the prosecution are to be borne by the renter of the shooting, though he can only prosecute through the Fiscal, whose duty it is, ex officio, to perform that office. I, therefore, always eschewed prosecutions ; and, at last, by being well known to the general population over my shooting, having been the means of doing them some little service, having popular keepers who well knew the habits of the people, and by a little bribery of so much per brace to the herd of every shealing, I was able, in some degree, to stop the wholesale destruction that sometimes takes place. But still, the system of shealing —which cannot be prevented, though it might be very much modified—is a bar to that steady increase of grouse that good preservation might otherwise produce.

Now, as to the other difficulty, of heather-burning, there was too much and too little burnt. The sheep-farmer, who paid high rents —as he said, at least,—not being bound by his lease to burn only a certain portion of the ground yearly, and that only as sanctioned by the keepers, of course practically burnt as he liked. It was all very well recommending him from head-quarters not to burn but as agreed upon between him and the shooting tenant; but self-interest is self-interest; and, though I generally pulled well with the sheep-farmers, still, very often, just what ought not to have been burnt was burnt. Now, as to the poor tenants’ grounds, it was precisely the reverse. They did not care much about burning, but, as to the rank old heather that ought to have been burnt, I never could get them to burn that, because they declared it was the only protection they had for their sheep in winter; and it would have been as wrong as it would have been impolitic in me to have used anything like coercion with them. Between the two systems, however, we throve badly. Over large tracts we had either no heather or too much.

My factotum at this time was one Cameron, who had been Burnaby’s henchman, and was a jack-of-all-trades, and at that time a considerable favourite. He was a mainland man, somewhere from Lochiel’s country, and I christened him “Lochiel.” He was a very clever fellow, and could do anything he liked. He was a good walker, and knew a good deal more about shooting than he cared to let you know. He pretended never to have handled a gun, but he could shoot very well. He had a good eye for a deer, though he always professed “being no acquaint with them.” He was the second best fisherman I ever saw in my life. My old Davie at Killarney was the best; but then I don’t think Cameron ever let any one know how well he could fish, or how long a line he could throw. He was a very good boatman, and held a boat for fishing—a very great art—better than anyone I have ever fished with, except the aforesaid old Davie. He was a very good carpenter, and decidedly handy at anything. He was fond of his pony and his dogs, and took good care of them. But then he had a fault, and it was a strange one. It was not whisky, it was not temper; but he passed his whole life thinking and contriving how he could save himself trouble and avoid doing any particular thing that he knew must be done. He was a lazy man, of great energy if he liked. Sandie, too, came into my service about this time, as a watcher in the far west side at Dalbeg; but it is not the time to speak of him yet.

My dog-team was not at this time what it afterwards became; I was only getting my kennel up. True I had Old Tom, a host in himself, then young, and his little son Jock, the offspring of his youth; Grouse, the first, a beautiful black and tan setter, that I bought of Burnaby, and as good as gold; a wild demon of a black, white, and tan setter bitch; Lady, a very good black and tan setter bitch, given me by poor Douglas of Scatwell, who had a nice kennel of beautiful Gordons; and Dick, a great big handsome liver and white setter, very useful in his way. His nose was wonderful, and I always took him out with little Jock. Dick telegraphed grouse at extraordinary distances, when Jock bulleted in for a quarter of a mile and took you to the birds. Between them they were very effective. But, before concluding this account of my dog-team, I must say a word or two about my dear Old Tom and his pedigree.

Fifty-four years ago, when at Cambridge, I purchased, on the recommendation of a Yorkshire friend, a very thoroughbred-looking, handsome, and excellent pointer-dog, called Clinker, whose breed, derived from that of the celebrated Colonel Thornton, had been in my friend’s family many years. This dog died a few months afterwards of dysentery; but the terms of his purchase having been that I was to have a bitch puppy of the same breed, in the spring of 1818 a beautiful little one arrived at my rooms, and commenced our long acquaintance by tearing an Herodotus to pieces. Die (so we called her) was a most precocious animal, played all sorts of tricks, was lost, cried, found, and then, spite of all college authorities, domesticated as the faithful companion of my every hour. Beautiful, faithful, sagacious, perfect in the field, Die was allowed to be the handsomest and best pointer in the University and its vicinity. There may be some persons living still who remember her and her picture (as painted by one whose real vocation certainly was animal painting). I refused for her what then were fabulous prices; but no gold would have tempted me to sell poor Die, whom, on my going abroad, I gave to my dear friend, her painter, who loved and valued her equally with myself. With him she passed the remainder of her days, well known both in Staffordshire and Cheshire ; and from a daughter of hers, very like herself and called after her, I bred a litter of puppies by my black-and-tan pointer, Fowler (from liis performances called the Professor by those who may yet remember him in Ireland and in Norfolk).

And here comes a singular link in the pedigree. Shortly after littering young Die took the distemper, and, being obliged to leave home, I left her and her litter in charge of my cousin’s huntsman, who falsely reported her and her young dead. One had survived, which he sold to a neighbour. Of this neighbour I some years afterwards purchased Whack, one of the best (if not the best) muir dogs I ever owned, and, after many pressing inquiries as to his parentage, it came out that his dam was my purloined puppy, his sire a fox-hound. This accounted to me for a something in Whack that was constantly reminding me of poor old Die. I crossed Whack with Meg, an excellent and fine bitch from the Eokeby kennels. Meg was a cross of Lord Wharncliffe’s and’ Lord Althorp’s (the Minister) breeds, supposed to be the two best of their day. From Meg, before I got her, sprang many of the Eokeby pointers, which were, when I knew them, among the handsomest’ and best I ever saw, and I understand their character is still the same. From Whack and Meg came Yenus, or Yin, a small but very strong bitch, who was as good as anything could be. Untiring, she was gifted with great nose, sense, and sagacity. Yin never bred till she was nine years old, when she produced, by Nathan (a sire dog of Mr. Edge’s, given by that gentleman to the late Hon. Henry Howard, as a fine specimen of his breed), the subject of this long story, Tom, or Old Tom, as he is generally called.

It is possible that there are still living some two or three sportsmen who knew Tom, and when I say he did all but talk to us out shooting, they would vouch for the truth of my statement.

I once sent him out with a friend staying with me, accustomed to dogs, and on his return he said:—

“I have not only had a good day’s shooting, but the most agreeable and extraordinary companion I ever shot with: Tom has been talking to me all day, and telling me where he was going, and where I ought to go.”

This was perfectly true, for it is his habit. Every man has, of course, the best dog in the world, though I do not pretend to say Tom was; indeed, I have had better myself, but never saw one of his sagacity.

Lews is a hard country for dogs to find game in—hilly, with hillocks; so that you cannot keep your dogs in sight, or they you. When Tom finds anything and does not see me, he is not fool enough to stay there for ever; he comes and looks for me, and when I see him, knowing what he means, I walk to him, when he takes me up to his game. But I have had other dogs do this, though not to the same extent. This, however, which I am going to relate, I never have seen.

Tom backed as well as a dog could; but if I was not in sight when the dog he was backing stood, Tom came to look for me, and having found me, brought me up to him; and his manner of introducing me to the dog, or the dog to me, might suggest a sketch to Landseer.

I hunted poor Tom thirteen seasons, and could never tire him; and if the fastest of my black-and-tan setters (and I had some very fast) was out, Tom would always take and keep the outside range. He was also an excellent and sagacious retriever—pointers, par parenthese, always making the best when properly trained. In the coldest of days he would retrieve bird after bird out of the numerous lochs round which most of our shooting lay. I once winged a grouse, which ran towards a burn, and as Tom was retrieving it, I tailored another in the same fashion, who also made for the same burn. Tom stopped, and looked me hard in the face: he was singularly tender-mouthed, and the bird was alive in his mouth; so he shifted him gently till he came to his neck, which he squeezed sufficiently to stop any more running, and then quickly retrieved the other. I could go on, with the garrulity of my years, about my old dog for ever; but I must hasten the burthen of my story and conclude.

For Tom’s pedigree I can only give the assurance of a gentleman’s word. At a dog-show no one would have looked at him, for he was not a large “ upstanding” dog, as the term is in these days, when dogs are judged by size and weight, as if they were to be eaten; yet he was probably as highly bred as any pointer in Great Britain, without the disadvantage of any in-and-in breeding. I would not exchange his blood for any in the kingdom, though I have always wished to cross it with some other as good, and as sagacious. You may increase this rare quality of sagacity by proper breeding to a great extent; you have then only to take care (but how much care!) not to hinder its development by what is called breaking.

Such was the shooting at Soval when I commenced. In my next I shall describe the fishing.


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