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Reminiscences of the Lews
Chapter XIV - The Woodcock and his ways, and Shooting him in the open


I HAD other amusements, on - the departure of my friends, than those wet crawls after stags, or shooting tame ones. I had to finish off the rest of the ground unshot, and that took me to the end of the season, for I never left any part of the ground unvisited. You must not imagine that I got out every day of my life —far from it. About the first or second week in November arrived the woodcocks. I always left them alone at first, and allowed them to settle; when they did, they generally remained for the season. I don’t mean to say that if I came across a woodcock I did not shoot him, but I did not go into their glens to look for them. I do not know anything I ever enjoyed more than that winter shooting in November, December, and January, when the weather would let you shoot. To be sure,, the days were short; you could not well see to shoot before nine, and it was a sort of twilight—a very awkward shooting light—by half-past two or three; but then we were borrowers of the night in going to and coming from our shooting. By this time doggies and self were in condition, and the world could not tire us, and I believe we could have marched in the famous Light Division of the Peninsula.

Woodcock shooting on the hills is hard work, and you require to walk a great deal yourself—much harder than grouse shooting. With grouse you can stand still and let your dogs beat for you, walking in the direction you want them to cast for you. But in woodcock shooting you must be a sort of dog yourself, and be always handy to your companions; for a woodcock on a hill-side does not always sit well to a dog, and if he gets up out of range you won’t easily get at him again, unless you stalk him, which is very hard—indeed, almost impossible. A woodcock, when he lights (on the hill, I mean), almost invariably runs a little, then gets up and takes a little short flight, though you, perhaps, can’t see it, and squats again, ready to be off the moment he sees you after him. The best plan is to let him alone, mark the place, and if you are coming that way two .or three hours later, try him again, when you may get at him. All my dogs would point woodcocks, but I don’t think I ever had half-a-dozen good woodcock dogs in my life.

It was thorough enjoyment to start of a fine November or December morning (when you got one), with a good brace of dogs as handy as pickpockets, and yourself keener than mustard, never knowing when your dog pointed what might not rise, from a grouse to a white owl. Now we were among the sea-beaten cliffs of Dalbeg, or in the Carloway glens, from both of whose hill-tops your eye ran over the island-dotted Loch Roag, and the great Atlantic seemed breaking at your feet; now wandering in the steep corries of Loch Clay, Loch Valli-mus, and Loch Brolum, or round Silver Hill, looking over beautiful Loch Seaforth, on Skye and Harris; or stretching through the far Uig Hills, or climbing the steep rocks under Cleisham in Harris, or dropping down dark Glen Scarladale, with the surrounding black jagged hills round Glen Langan frowning on you, and fair Loch Seaforth smiling a welcome on you again, as you left your rugged hills to nestle in her bosom. Oh, they were glorious times ! and it is good, indeed, of Providence to gladden the heart of man with such scenes as the Hebrides afford. I am as keen of sport as any sinner can be; but often have I sat down, forgetting there was such a thing as dog or gun, till a cold nose, thrust into my hand, woke me as from a dream. Yes, I loved that life, and not the least that I never found myself among those scenes without feeling a better and a wiser man. It was then one practically learnt the truth of Shakespeare’s sermon, the best and truest in the world, save one. The very dogs seemed to enjoy it, and were better and cannier dogs there than on the dull low flats.

But where am I going to? I was writing about woodcocks, and have wandered away. Woodcock-shooting on the open muir, with good pointers and setters, is very good fun. I know the exquisite delight—the first two or three fences happily got over—of feeling “we are away!” as you settle'down to the hounds on your favourite grey, that you know will carry you like a bird. I have felt that indescribable holding of the breath as the salmon turns with your fly, and you feel him, and then hold him in those awful summersaults he throws aloft, slapping his head and tail together; dropping your hand to him in the air, and picking him up as he touches the water, just as a good horseman rides over a fence. I have stalked and slain the noble stag, and felt, as all with hearts must feel, the deep reproach of that mournful eye, and sorrowed as we laid the fallen monarch of the glen in his lonely grave by the cairn’s side. But these are the grand inspirations of youth—the beau ideal of the Past. Once I remember dreaming a Peri wafted me to Paradise—a strange one indeed !—an immense grass vale, with light, staken-bound fences, watered by salmon streams innumerable, surrounded by blue hills, on which fed endless royals. Visions avaunt! let us be sublunary and rational.

I have shot grouse on the Moss of Monaltrie, and hunted them in Kerry. I have shot partridges in Norfolk and East Lothian, and looked for them in Tipperary. I remember the fens in England, when “ of snipes,” as old Camden says, “good Lord, what store!” I have revelled in the bogs of Ireland; I have been nearly smothered in the Briichen of the Rhine; I have wandered miles in the wild heaths and beautiful copse-woods of Westphalia, and right good sport have had; I have shot a good deal in France, when there was game; I have hunted the wolf, and meanly slain the wild boar with the ball; I have assisted—:proh pudor !—at that abomination of all sports, a German and an English battue. All these sports have I enjoyed and properly appreciated; but for an old trapper, which I am fast becoming, give me a favourite sport— one requiring a remnant of the fire of youth, tempered with the discretion of age—woodcock-shooting on the open muir.

Deer bonnie brown bird I have looked for you in Great Britain, where you were few and far between. I knew you well in Brittany in the days of youth. I have followed you in the heaths and beech and oak coppices of Westphalia. How I have seen you missed in the cock-shooting parties in Ireland, when my fun used to be producing a large bag, from. “The Professor” (one of old Tom’s ancestors)— retrieving and stealing other people’s birds! And O Kerry! O Killarney! the little copses in the mountain glens round the upper lake, down which the birds used to come and go; the black valley, Coomb Dhuv, where I have left bits of my legs; the hollies and furze bushes at the head of it; the glorious Cahar-nies, the beautiful Long Range, the dark Glena; the lowering Toomies, the grand Tore Mountain, with its fine rocky covert; the peninsula of Mucru^s, unrivalled in frost and snow—

“And, oh! if there are cocks in this world to be found,
It is there, it is there!

If only you can get leave to shoot—which, of course you cannot (and very properly), unless known to the proprietors. What happy, cheerful hours have I passed in that beautiful country, and among the hills and glens stretching away down to Carra loch and woods, when it was fine, which it was not often.

Now many, I believe most men, like driving coverts and glens with beaters, and shooting woodcocks a la battue—I confess I do not; it is, however, fair to say I would not give a straw for any shooting without my friend, the dog; and therefore I prefer small returns where I can use him, to large where I cannot. But then you must have dogs that not only will point a woodcock when they come on him, but understand where and how to look for him. Having such, I know now no pleasanter sport than to start on a fine morning, towards the middle or latter end of November, when the birds are settled in their haunts (not before, or you will drive them away), accompanied by a brace of trusty tykes, such as old Tom and his little son Jock; your ground looking promising, the distant mountains and rippling sea-lochs giving you something glorious to contemplate when passing over unlikely places, and grateful that God has given you such a beautiful creation to gaze on, and health and strength and mind to enjoy and ponder over its never-ending lessons.

Now one thing you must always study in this sport—the weather about daylight. The woodcock feeds, except when the weather is very bad, at night; and with the twilight, according to the then weather, he takes up his abode for the day. If open, misty, drizzling, he will be found in the most exposed places, squatted flat, like a toad on a rock, or among stones; if downright wet, often under a large stone or bank which keeps the drip from him, which, either in or out of covert, he cordially hates; if cold dry weather and cold wind, he likes the shelter of thick heather and rock; if the whole night has been wet and stormy, there is no knowing where to find him. Bearing this in mind, take to your ground accordingly, and leave the dogs to themselves.

“Come, Mr. Tom, none of your swinging casts after grouse yet, if you please; just try these little hillocks round that swampy ground. Ah ! I thought so; and your stern down too.” And up gets a woodcock, like an owl as he rises—but don’t he, before you know where you are, with, a flick of his wing all but put that little hillock between you and him ?—but, no; you have got him ! and Tom, so pleased, brings and lays at your feet the first cock of the season, the beauty of whose eye is not equalled, or the exquisite pencilling of feather surpassed by any of the winged tribe.

“Mr. Jock, what are you doing there, down in the swamp, wagging your little tail, going slowly, and waiting for me to come up? Oh! yes; the brown bird was feeding there last night.” And little Jock proceeds to walk after him, round corners, up through the peat hags, and then looks round at you with such a turn of his eye, as much as to say, “Come along, old fellow; it’s all right.” From the peat hags on we go into a small run of a rain-track, at the end of which the little dog stiffens himself, with his nose towards a sort of hole in the bank, quite dry, with some sedge-grass like a shed roof over it.

“There’s our friend, master,” says little Jock, “and I think I can catch him if you like.”

“No; give him a change, my boy;” and whizz goes the woodcock in your face and behind you, and, by all the powers ! you don’t shoot within a yard of him as he dips through the hags; but, fortunately catching a glimpse of him stealing over the flat, you just touch the tip of his wing with a stray shot, and stop him. Loaded: Jock walks up to him, and ascertaining that he positively is there, rolls himself with great glee on the moss.

A word about old Tom’s little son Jock. Alas! both father and son are gone to the place where the good doggies go. Jock was by Tom out of a black-and-tan setter bitch of great speed and nose; but having been let run riot in her youth, she was never properly broken. He was a little black curly-haired dog, with a rat tail, just like a small Irish or Norfolk water-spaniel retriever. He was beautifully shaped, as strong as a little bull, and could go fast and for ever. His nose was wonderful, and he would find more game in a day than any dog I ever owned. But he had a peculiarity—a fault, indeed. When he got on an old cock grouse, he seemed to know what a dodgy, wary old scoundrel he had to deal with, and therefore liked, if possible, to get near and keep his eye upon him. This done, he would stop looking at him all day. In the process, however, he sometimes sprang a bird; though, as he generally found three birds for any other dog’s one, he made up for it. But with a woodcock it was different. The moment he got on the haunt of one, he waited till you came to him, and then, with a “Come along, slow coach,’ on he went, and cunning must the bird have been that walked away from little Jock. This, I suppose, was some of his father’s wonderful instinct.

“I should so like to try that loch side with the warm covert to the sun; I am sure there’s an old cock grouse or two there,” says dear old Tom. cc Why, you know I am after woodcocks to-day; but, if you like it, you may; only remember, ten to one, the birds will fall into the loch, and it will be cold work fetching them.” "Oh, never mind that; only you kill, I’ll get them.” On he goes; and “Didn’t I tell you?” he says, pointing steadily into some thick heather and stones close by the water edge. Up get two regular old stagers (old cocks that won’t pair themselves, nor let the younger birds do so), as we used to call them in Kerry, and, to my great satisfaction, over they go, the two handsome birds, but most mischievous vermin, into the loch — such headers! The gallant old dog brings them out as if it were the 12th of August, Jock chuckling and laughing his little fat sides out at his father shaking the water off, and then, with filial affection, kissing his moist face, waggishly adding, “Cold, ain’t it, pa?”

“Come along, Tom; I know you can find plenty of grouse there; but we shan’t have light for the glens, and I must see what is in them.” He turns a rueful look at the loch side, and leaves it with regret. “Now, what are you at, Tom, stopping under the hill-top? I know you have no birds.” “Yes, master; but I am sure there are plover over the top, and you know I dare not show over it—they are so wild these fine days.” And we top the hill cautiously, and get a chance at a lot of plover, out of which, in that righteous way a blaze into the brown is generally rewarded, we get but two birds; but they look so pretty mixed with the others, and they are so good now they have left the sea.

“Oh! Jock! Jock! why won’t you leave those sedges alone? I know there are snipes there, but I don’t want them to-day. Well, you do look so anxious and positive, I suppose I must go to you; but I know I can’t shoot snipes to-day, and I want to get to the glens.” “Do come; try, master;” and so Jock makes me kill two or three snipes to him. Still, on his producing a Jack, which of course is missed, I won’t stand it any longer, but walk off with the little black dog.

“Tom, what’s that in the sky-line?” “Oh, nothing for us.” “Let’s see though,” and out goes the glass. “A fine golden eagle, and I think we can stalk him.” “Well, and what good is he to us if we do get him? He does us very little harm, and, besides, we shall never get to the glens.” “Now, dear Tom, do let us try; I never did get an eagle, though you remember that one which went out to sea so hard hit,—the one which kept swooping at you that day you would not keep close enough to me as I told you, and thus lost a good chance.” “Well, if you like to try, Jock and I will keep quiet behind.” And down we go, and crawl and wriggle ourselves over the difficult ground out of sight, and then go on at a slapping pace till we near our eagle ; when, just as we are certain of getting safe within shot, a shepherd and his dog blunder into full sight, and slowly and grandly rises the noble bird out of distance, and, poising and sweeping about for a minute or two, soars aloft and disappears in the clouds. “Hang those shepherds!” says Tom, “they are always in the way. Never mind; come along to the glens.”

“Now, then, Tom, you keep one side of the glen, and Jock the other; I’ll keep up the burnside.” Scramble, toil, climb up to the head “of the burn—not a bird ! How can this be ? We must try the next glen. I should have remembered the wind has shifted since the dawn, when it was dead on this glen. Of course, no woodcocks. But there’s Jock pointing on the plain stone flat on the top of the hill above us. There he goes flicking over, and a miss. There goes another, and clear, too. “You doited old man, couldn’t you recollect it was soft, misty rain at daybreak ? The glens are no good to-day, and the birds are on the flat tops, and as wild as hawks.” On we go up to the stones on the hill-top, and there little Jock makes a sudden turn and looks into a rock. Out comes a woodcock, and he’s “round the corner, Sally,” before you have a chance, unless you blow him to pieces, a process I singularly dislike. Another point, and a fixed gaze of little Jock’s into a snug little dry gravelled parlour under a large slab stone, a regular cul-de-sac. “You can’t hit them to-day, master; suppose we try and catch him.” And between us we produce from under the stone Mr. Brown, whose neck, to save time and trouble, we wring at once. Don’t scream out, “You pot-hunter!” Nothing steadies and delights a dog so much as taking up a live bird before him. If you doubt it, try netting and shooting birds to your dog, and see which steadies him most. ‘Well, on we work along the hill-top side among the rocks, scrambling along the grass and short heather; very slippery, loose stones rolling under our feet; holding on every now and then by our eyelids, particularly just as a bird gets up close behind us and whizzes down the hill, your foot slipping on a rolling stone as you turn and pull, your shot going anywhere but into longbill.

“It won’t do,” says Tom; “ the birds are too wideawake here; let us face home, and try the flat the other side of the swamp, where we got the birds this morning; we only tried one side, you know, and that not the best.” And, accordingly, thither we resort. The old dog is right, there are some there, and we get seven or eight in no time at all, the two dogs working and moving as if treading on eggs, and never throwing a chance away. Thus we move homewards, killing every old cock grouse we come across (if we can), but sparing the hens; and, what with snipes and plover, the bag, though not miraculously heavy, is very pretty to look at.

I am just smoothing down and looking at the feathers of that beautiful little bird, the jack-snipe, and Tom and Jock are casting away merrily in the direction of the bothy, looming in the distance, when on the loch, about a mile from it, I see something. “Hist! my doggies.” And down go father and son, as much as to say, “What’s in the wind now? Haven’t you got enough? We are very hungry.” “Tom, you remember we got a wild goose there once, and I see something.” A little circuit, and I make them out clear—wild geese! “We must wait a little longer, Tommy, till it gets dusk.” “Well, I suppose we must; only don’t go and shoot into the shadow of the geese, as you did that moonlight evening, instead of into the geese themselves—eh, old fellow ?” Cautiously we approach, just as there is shooting light enough left; and, as We look over the bank, up dash the wild geese, and we knock over three— scarcely off the water—with the first barrel, and one in the air with the second. “Not so bad, master,” says old Tom, after getting them out; “but do let us go home, for we have had a long day, and done very fairly, considering.” And we reach our bothy in time to get comfortably and leisurely dressed, dawdling over a book or newspaper, for half-past six or seven dinner. Jock and Tom’s supper is ready, which (after having their feet well washed in good pot-liquor and salt) they eat in my dressing-room. After dinner we retire to our snuggery. Doggums lay themselves on the rug before the fire, and I don’t tell you but that Tom sometimes ensconces himself in an arm-chair, out of which it is impossible to turn him, as he says, “I did as much towards the bag as you, and why shouldn’t I be as comfortable?” I enjoy my glass of Ramsay’s Islay whisky and water, cold and without, and my pipe. Now and then little Jock makes quaint noises about snipes and woodcocks, and old Tom talks to himself about old cock grouse; and so the evening passes on. I finish the end of a good novel, and about eleven turn in, with fervent gratitude to the Giver of a day of such innocent enjoyment, even though it were the last—and yet with a fond hope of a few more of the same sort; and I dream of killing a mixed bag to old Tom, of everything from a jack-snipe to an elephant, and of suddenly finding a third eye in the back of my head, and consequently killing no end of woodcock in the Carloway glens.


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