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Reminiscences of the Lews
Chapter XII - Setters and Wet Crawls


AT last care began to tell, and tlie grouse increased; and my landlord having kindly raised the roof of my house, I was enabled to take in two guns. By great good fortune I stumbled upon two very nice fellows, soldiers of course—T. D. and W. H. N. by name—who had served and run a good deal in couples together, and delighted in shooting in company. I thus was enabled to gratify my own peculiar fancy, which was dog-breaking—or superintending dog-breaking as I got older, and could not walk up to a pair of young scamperers.

I had taken great pains with my dogs, never breeding from anything bub good animals. I had been obliged to give up pointers (save and except keeping up old Tom’s blood, of which I always kept a brace) as they would not stand the climate. When I say pointers won’t stand rough climate, I must except those that have a foxhound cross in them. They, I think, as far as coat and hardihood go, will stand it as well, or perhaps better, than the well-bred setters of English, Scotch, or Irish blood, whose coats have not the thickness of the ordinary coarse-coated setters. But then I have almost always invariably found the pointer fail in the foot when the ground is wet, as it is in the Lews. The pointer’s foot skins and blisters on wet muirs between the toes: but for this, I never should have kept a setter in my life. Indeed, the setters (Gordons) scarcely could stand the constant wet. I never had to do with such a climate for dogs in my life; they were never dry. I never could get them to look as I liked, nor had they ever the condition they should have had. The food was nothing but the eternal oatmeal; flesh was all but impossible to get, and cracklings or greaves are, to my mind, an abomination. There was no bedding but the worst possible description of oat-straw or bad hay. If distemper got among them, gOod-bye to them; there was scarcely any saving them. Twice or thrice my kennel was so swept, that I almost gave up breeding in despair, when my four best dogs all went in one fell swoop. It was necessary to keep a much larger kennel for my work in the Lews than I ever kept before, as the dogs got prematurely old from the effects of the climate; and, from the impossibility of being properly conditioned, could not do the same work they would have done in other countries. Besides, from the birds being widely scattered, they had to gallop hard, or they were of no use. If a brace did my work for two hours and a half, it was as much as I expected of them; and I generally gave three brace enough every day we shot, which was as often as the weather would let us. I tried every dodge I knew of with my kennels, but I never was satisfied with the appearance of my dogs, though I was more than satisfied with their performance. Though I say it who should not say it, I had a real, good team of dogs, for I never kept a moderate one, or bred from anything but first-rate animals. The real Gordons —I don’t mean your show cart-horses, but your thorough-bred racers, compact, sinewy, and bony enough for all working purposes, staunch as steel, docile, and sensible—are a noble breed, and like their old master, well deserve the name of the “gallant Gordons;” and those who have them pure, will rue the day they ever tried to change their real style, and shape, and make. I always took them in hand early, broke them, or saw them broken to hand well myself, and had little trouble with them afterwards with anything but sheep.

Mutton—Highland—they had a decided propensity for, and I don’t wonder at it, for a black-faced sheep smeared has an awful scent. A dog runs this scent breast high, when up gets a wild nondescript, whistles like a maniac, makes for the nearest loch, of which in the Lews there are plenty, and into it he plunges like a fool, and then there is grief. I wish the breed was annihilated. Dogs that never notice sheep on the mainland take to them in the Lews. My famous old dog Grouse II., the dog of my heart, I had to part with and send away. One fine morn they brought in fifty-four lambs, which they laid out before the door at Soval, putting their murder to his account. Fortunately, lambs were then not dear, and I left it to the adjudication of three persons what remuneration I should give the people. According to Scotch law, as my poor Grouse had never been known to kill a sheep before, I could not have been compelled to pay anything ; but it would not have been either right, or politic to have availed myself of this; and, therefore, I had £15 to pay for my favourite’s misdemeanours. I have, however, every reason to believe that I was rather done, and my poor dog very much maligned. One of Grouse’s judges was the everlasting ground officer, whose two sheep dogs were just about the hour of this massacre out on the rantan, as the soldiers say in the district, for sometime. He never said a word about this then, but quietly and secretly destroyed his colleys. This, however, oozed out some time after, but too late to save my pocket, though it did account for the very little uproar the people themselves made at the time. The whole thing, however, did me no harm; my grouse certainly increased, and I never afterwards had a complaint of a dog of mine.

Sheep, then, were the only thing I had to fear, and I never had more than one or two incorrigible instances. One very odd case I must record. The most inveterate sheep-killer I ever had was a very good, staunch dog, very handsome, and a great goer. He had just killed a sheep, for which we had inflicted condign punishment. Shortly after this, the very same day, he went hard at another, and was handsomely running into him, when he turned short and stood like a rock. We went up to him, and killed grouse over him. But there was no keeping him after this, and, to my great sorrow, I sent him to the mainland, where he never showed the slightest propensity for mutton.

Now, never shooting till my two friends went away, which they generally did towards the middle of October, I had ample time to see to the thorough breaking of my dogs, without over-breaking. I was, in short, head keeper. Cameron of Lochiel had long gone, as I foresaw he must, and been replaced by Sandie, who had been a gillie, and accustomed to sheep and sheep-dogs. He had, therefore, like many shepherds, a turn for dog-breaking; and I finished by making him a very good breaker. I had also imported from the mainland (Ross-shire) John Munro, whom I placed at Diensten; I had known him from his childhood; he was a first-rate fisherman, and, having been some time under a good keeper, knew something about dogs, and was not too proud to be taught a little more. He was also a very apt scholar, so that I was tolerably sure of having my dogs well handled. My comrades, too, were good sportsmen, and fond of dogs, and, knowing my hobby, always took care, when I was not out, that order was kept and no liberties taken. To be sure, when they first began, I don’t think they were the first shots in the world; had I been a grouse, I should not have minded them much at thirty-five yards; but they mended wonderfully, and one of them, T. D., has since become a very good shot. My two comrades were the two most unexacting creatures that ever existed in the way of slaughter. They were always satisfied with their day’s sport, good or bad, and would not even shoot their number if they thought the season would not bear it. The consequence was, our grouse increased; and latterly, when one of the comrades, to my great sorrow, departed, the remaining one and I got on so well together that we eschewed a third, who might have unknown qualities, shot together for the rest of my tenure at Soval, and consequently had very good sport.

It was after the departure of the comrades, however, that my season began. Till the end of October I devoted myself to looking after the few deer that were to be found on my ground, and which, for the first few years I held Soval, did not entirely desert it. There were always a few hinds on the ground that I never molested, and occasionally stags came to visit them, or crossed the ground from the forest to the Monach Hills to the north of Stornoway, where there is very good feeding alongside the burns. It was hard work, for you had long distances to go, and you never liked leaving a stag as long as there was a chance, or daylight to see the sight of your rifle; and some eight or ten miles over the muir in the dark to Diensten bothy was no joke. Fortunately, the ground was soft, so you ran no chance of breaking your legs among the rocks, as you did at Aline, but you might be drowned in a peat hole. Many a tramp had Sandie and I, for he was my stalker, and a right good one he was, for he had been brought up on the ground. I remember once leaving a stag, a good one, that I had wounded, and followed till it was pitch dark, and we found ourselves eleven miles from the bothy. It was as dark as pitch, and how many times we rolled over together—for we walked arm-in-arm—I don’t know. At last Sandie said, “ Now we must be near the last deep little burn, and we must look out,” when “By gorra, you’re in it! ”—as delightful Lever’s car-driver says to Jack Hinton—and into the burn we went, sure enough. Well, we picked ourselves up, and fortunately it was for the last time, as we were near home, which we reached about eleven. We were off before light next morning, for we knew our stag would not go far; and there we found him, not fifty yards from the place we left him, as stiff as a biscuit, and a right good stag he was. We caught one of the wild ponies of the country, tied the stag on him, and sent him home under Sandie’s care; and, as John Munro and I were walking home together, what should we come across but two other stags. The demon of mischief came across us; we stalked them, and I killed one, a very old stag, with a bad head. I could have killed the other too,—only he was a small beastie, and I never was a murderer, even with the few chances I got on that uncertain ground,—for, as is often the case, he did not like to leave, his friend. He kept waiting for him a little distance off, returning, as they will do, to see why the other did not follow; for the poor beasts often get much attached to one another, and consort kindly together till love and jealousy estrange their hearts, just as they" do those of their two-legged foes, and then they forget their old friends and auld lang syne, like human beings.

There is great fun and considerable excitement in that stalking over flat ground. I don’t pretend to compare it to hill ground, or to your fine hills and glens and corries of the Park and the south of the Lews, and those grand wild Harris hills; but it has its own peculiar charm. You find a stag on ground as flat as a pancake, wet, soft, and intersected with burns, in a place you would say a rat could not approach unseen. Then you spread yourself out like a frog, and wriggle yourself into some burn, through which you progress—depth varying from the ankle to the hip, sometimes the neck. At times your burn takes a turn almost underground, and you have to swarm over the green moss bank, below which you hear the water gurgling under you; and sometimes squash goes the bank, squelch you go into the burnie on your stomach, and are half smothered with water, moss, and black mud. You must keep your rifle dry, never mind yourself. Then, after some pleasant half-hour’s play of this sort, on emerging from your burn, looking and feeling like a wet nigger, you find a step further will put you in sight of the friend you are so anxious about. There is nothing for it but reclining pleasantly on your stomach in a splash of water, supporting your chin on a sedgy tussock. Lie in this pleasant, recumbent position, with a keen north-wester blowing over you in squalls, enlivened ever and anon by those pleasant hailstorms that I’ll back the Lews against the world for, that hit so hard about the face and ears and hands—lie this way motionless for from half-an-hour to one or two hours, as the case may be ; or, should the weather be warm and pleasant—which at that time of year it is not often—vary the pleasure a little and be midged, having either left your midge-veil at home, or not daring to put it on for fear of being seen; and, if you are not then on the verge of lunacy, you are a very patient, well-enduring man.

But everything has its end, and at last you get up to your stag. Aye, no doubt he is a clean royal—a bonnie beastie—and you put your first ball just over him behind the shoulder, while your second grazes the hair just under it. Then you begin to feel you are cold—very —and utterly wretched. You know your stag will not bring up till Glen Braggar stops him. You fumble for your flask; it is somewhere in the burn probably, where you rolled over when the moss gave way. Sandie doesn’t speak, but he looks as if he meant mischief; and you could cry, only you are in too great an inward rage. There is nothing for it but facing for the bothy, eight miles off—a keen north-wester and hailstorms blowing in your lug—which you reach despairing. But grouse soup is a wonderful restorative. After such a day and such misery, you may venture on a glass of stiff toddy (as a rule I never take it but cold and without, Ramsay’s best old Islay), and you light your pipe. Then you take courage, and you venture to call Sandie in. After a very strong caulker his heart melts and he begins to think it possible that there is truth in your assertion that your fingers, did not feel the trigger, and also just possible the big stag has not left Glen Braggar. Another caulker, and he is to call me very early, and we are to be at the glen’s mouth as near daylight as possible.

On such an occasion, off we were in the dark —though, if truth were spoken, my valour was fast oozing out at my finger’s ends as I rose, and felt all no how, like a washerwoman’s thumb on Wednesday morning. I think I wished there were no such things as stags in the world. But your bath is a wonderful renovator, and collared herring is grand breakfasting. We got off in time, and reached the glen before it had been disturbed by any bipeds. After a long, careful spy, which seemed everlasting and to promise failure, my ear was delighted with a deep guttural, “ By Gote, there he is ! ” And there was our friend, just risen and stretching himself, preparing for his breakfast. If he had only been as tired as I was when I started, and lain still some ten minutes longer, we should have lost him, for he was in a hole where we must have missed him. We were, however, a long time getting at him, as the ground was very difficult, and we had a great round to make. At last, however, we did it. It was a long and an awkward shot; but I felt I was shooting for my life, as Sandie’s look was ominous. I thought, if I missed that stag, I might be potted and left in Glen Braggar myself, and it was a relief when the thud greeted my ear, and the poor stag fell like a leaf. I never killed a stag in my life that I did not hate myself as I looked upon him; but Sandie was in ecstasy. Of course there never was such a stag before or since, and they were the best brow antlers he had ever seen; and then what beam ! And certain sure he was a forest stag, as he had the short hoof of the hill stag, not the long one of the flat north country.

Then he was closely examined, and it was discovered what a wonder it was he had escaped yesterday, for an inch higher must have killed him, as there was the clean mark of the graze of the second bullet. And there hangs the head in my study; and never more shall I have another wet crawl over that dear old Moreval ground. Indeed, it would be to little purpose now, for the forests of Harris and Kenrisort have such natural attractions for deer, and have so attracted the more northern deer, that latterly it was hardly worth while to go out and look for them, and, though there might be deer on the ground, you seldom found them. It is possible that the new forest the proprietor is making in the neighbourhood of the castle, if it gets well stocked, may again repeople the northern part of the island with deer, as certainly, at one time, they were all over the island, and the Monach Hills, to the north of Stornoway, were then celebrated for the goodness of the stags.

Ah, Sandy, dear, how could you so forget those pleasant days of yore, and turn so on “the old trapper,5’ who never did you aught but a good turn in your life, and made you the man you are now ? Remember the advice of the beautiful poet of your own bonnie Scotland :—

"'Tis good to be merry and wise,
’Tis good to be honest and true;
’Tis good to be off with the old love,
Before you are on with the new.”

But I forgive you, Sandy, dear—I do, indeed, from the bottom of my heart—for the sake of the many pleasant wet crawls and the stags we killed and missed together; so take care of the poor Fred’s-hoof box I gave you on parting, for the sake of the old horse and his master.


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