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Sketches of the Wild Sports & Natural History of the Highlands
Chapter XXVI


The Muckle Hart of Benmore.

Sunday. This evening, Malcolm, the shepherd of the shealing at the foot of Benmore, returning from church, reported his having crossed in the hill a track of a hart of extraordinary size; and he guessed it must be "the muckle stag of Benmore." This was an animal seldom seen, but which had long been the talk and marvel of the shepherds for its wonderful size and cunning. They love the marvellous, and in their report "the muckle stag" bore charmed life; he was unapproachable and invulnerable. I had heard of him too, and, having got the necessary information resolved to try to break the charm, though it should cost me a day or two.

Monday. This morning at sunrise, I with my rifle, Donald carrying my double-barrel, and Bran, took our way up the glen to the shealing at the foot of Benmore. Donald had no heart for this expedition. He is not addicted to superfluous conversation but I heard him mutter something of a "feckless errand as good deer nearer hame." Bran had already been the victor in many a bloody tussle with hart and fox. We held for the most part up the glen, but turning and crossing to seek every likely corrie and burn on both sides. I shot a wild cat, stealing home to its cairn in the early morning; and we several times in the day came on deer, but they were hinds with their calves, and I was bent on higher game. As night fell, we turned down to the shealing rather disheartened; but the shepherd cheered me by assuring me the hart was still in that district, and describing his track, which he said was like that of a good-sized heifer. Our spirits were quite restored by a meal of fresh-caught trout, oat-cake, and milk, with a modicum of whisky, which certainly was of unusual flavour and potency.

Tuesday. We were off again by daybreak. I will pass by several minor adventures, but one cannot be omitted. Malcolm went with us to show us where he had last seen the track. As we crossed a long reach of black and broken ground, the first ascent from the valley, two golden eagles rose out of a hollow at some distance. Their flight was lazy and heavy, as if gorged with food, and on examining the place we found the carcass of a sheep half eaten, one of Malcolm's flock. He vowed vengeance; and, merely pointing out to us our route, returned for a spade to dig a place of hiding near enough the carcass to enable him to have a shot at the eagles if they should return. We held on our way, and the greater part of the day without any luck to cheer us, my resolution "not to be beat" being, however, a good deal strengthened by the occasional grumbling of Donald. Towards the afternoon, when we had tired ourselves with looking with our glasses at every corrie in that side of the hill, at length, in crossing a bare and boggy piece of ground, Donald suddenly stopped, with a Gaelic exclamation, and pointed and there, to be sure, was a full, fresh footprint, the largest mark of a deer either of us had ever seen. There was no more grumbling. Both of us were instantly as much on the alert as when we started on our adventure. We traced the track as long as the ground would allow. Where we lost it, it seemed to point down the little burn, which soon lost itself to our view in a gorge of bare rocks. We proceeded now very cautiously, and taking up our station on a concealed ledge of one of the rocks, began to search the valley below with our telescopes. It was a large flat, strewed with huge slabs of stone, and surrounded on all sides but one with dark rocks. At the farther end were two black lochs, connected by a sluggish stream; beside the larger loch a bit of coarse grass and rushes, where we could distinguish a brood of wild ducks swimming in and out. It was difficult ground to see a deer in, if lying; and I had almost given up seeking, when Donald's glass became motionless, and he gave a sort of grunt as he changed his posture, but without taking the glass from his eye. "Ugh ! I'm thinking yon's him, sir : I'm seeing his horns." I was at first incredulous. What he showed me close to the long grass I have mentioned looked for all the world like some withered sticks; but the doubt was short. While we gazed the stag rose and commenced feeding; and at last I saw the great hart of Benmore! He was a long way off, perhaps a mile and a half, but in excellent ground for getting at him. Our plan was soon arranged. I was to stalk him with the rifle, while Donald, with my gun and Bran, was to get round, out of sight, to the pass by which the deer was likely to leave the valley. My task was apparently very easy. After getting down behind the rock I had scarcely to stoop my head, but to walk up within shot, so favourable was the ground and the wind. I walked cautiously, however, and slowly, to give Donald time to reach the pass. I was now within three hundred yards of him, when, as I leant against a slab of stone, all hid below my eyes, I saw him give a sudden start, stop feeding, and look round suspiciously. What a noble beast! what a stretch of antler! with a mane like a lion ! He stood for a minute or two, snuffing every breath. I could not guess the cause of his alarm; it was not myself; the light wind blew fair down from him upon me; and I knew Donald would give him no inkling of his whereabouts. He presently began to move, and came at a slow trot directly towards me. My pulse beat high. Another hundred yards forward and he is mine ! But it was not so to be. He took the top of a steep bank which commanded my position, saw me in an instant, and was off, at the speed of twenty miles an hour, to a pass wide from that where Donald was hid. While clattering up the hill, scattering the loose stones behind him, two other stags joined him, who had evidently been put up by Donald, and had given the alarm to my quarry. It was then that his great size was conspicuous. I could see with my glass they were full-grown stags, and with good heads, but they looked like fallow-deer as they followed him up the crag. I sat down, disappointed for a moment, and Donald soon joined me, much crestfallen, and cursing the stag in a curious variety of Gaelic oaths. Still it was something to have seen "the muckle stag," and nil desperandum was my motto. We had a long and weary walk to Malcolm's shealing; and I was glad to get to my heather bed, after arranging that I should occupy the hiding-place Malcolm had prepared near the dead sheep next morning.

Wednesday. We were up an hour before daylight; and in a very dark morning I sallied out with Malcolm to take my station for a shot at the eagles. Many a stumble and slip I made during our walk, but at last I was left alone fairly ensconced in the hiding-place, which gave me hardly room to stand, sit, or lie. My position was not very comfortable, and the air was nipping cold just before the break of day. It was still scarcely grey dawn when a bird, with a slow, flapping flight, passed the opening of my hut, and
lighted out of sight, but near, for I heard him strike the ground; and my heart beat faster. What was my disappointment when his low crowing croak announced the raven! and presently he came in sight, hopping and walking suspiciously round the sheep; till, supposing the coast clear, and little wotting of the double-barrel, he hopped upon the carcass, and began with his square cut and thrust beak to dig at the meat. Another raven soon joined him, and then two more ; who, after a kind of parley, quite intelligible, though in an unknown tongue, were admitted to their share of the banquet. I was watching their voracious meal with some interest, when suddenly they set up a croak of alarm, stopped feeding, and all turned their knowing-looking eyes in one direction. At that moment I heard a sharp scream, but very distant. The black party heard it too; and instantly darted off, alighting again at a little distance. Next moment a rushing noise, and a large body passed close to me; and the monarch of the clouds lighted at once on the sheep, with his broad breast not fifteen yards from me. He quietly folded up his wings; and, throwing back his magnificent head, looked round at the ravens, as if wondering at their impudence in approaching his breakfast-table. They kept a respectful silence, and hopped a little farther off. The royal bird then turned his head in my direction, attracted by the alteration in the appearance of the ground which he had just noticed in the dim morning light. His bright eye that instant caught mine as it glanced along the barrel. He rose ; as he did so I drew the trigger, and he fell quite dead half-a-dozen yards from the sheep. I followed Malcolm's directions, who had predicted that one eagle would be followed by a second, and remained quiet, in hopes that his mate was not within hearing of my shot. The morning was brightening, and I had not waited many minutes when I saw the other eagle skimming low over the brow of the hill towards me. She did not alight at once. Her eye caught the change in the ground or the dead body of her mate, and she wheeled up into the air. I thought her lost to me, when presently I heard her wings brush close over my head; and then she went wheeling round and round above the dead bird, and turning her head downwards to make out what had happened. At times she stooped so low that I could see the sparkle of her eye and hear her low complaining cry. I watched the time when she turned up her wing towards me, and fired, and dropped her actually on the body of the other. I now rushed out. The last bird immediately rose to her feet, and stood gazing at me with a reproachful, half-threatening look. She would have done battle, but death was busy with her; and, as I was loading in haste, she reeled and fell perfectly dead. Eager as I had been to do the deed, I could not look on the royal birds without a pang. But such regrets were now too late. Passing over the shepherd's rejoicings, and my incredible breakfast, I must return to our great adventure. Our line of march to-day was over ground so high that we came repeatedly into the midst of ptarmigan. On the very summit Bran had a rencontre with an old mountain fox, toothless, yet very fat, whom he made to bite the dust. We struck at one place the tracks of the three deer, but of the animals themselves we saw nothing. We kept exploring corrie after corrie till night fell; and as it was in vain to think of returning to the shealing, which yet was the nearest roof, we were content to find a sort of niche in the rock, tolerably screened from all winds; and having almost filled it with long heather, flower upwards, we wrapped our plaids round us, and slept pretty comfortably.

Thursday. A dip in the burn below our bivouac renovated me. I did not observe that Donald followed my example in that; but he joined me in a hearty attack on the viands which still remained in our bag; and we started with renewed courage. About mid-day we came on a shealing beside a long narrow loch, fringed with beautiful weeping-birches, and there we found means to cook some grouse which I had shot to supply our exhausted larder. The shepherd, who had "no Sassenach," cheered us by his report of "the deer " being lately seen, and describing his usual haunts. Donald was plainly getting disgusted and home-sick. For myself, I looked upon it as my fate that I must have that hart; so on we trudged. Repeatedly, that afternoon, we came on the fresh tracks of our chase, but still he remained invisible. As it got dark, the weather suddenly changed, and I was glad enough to let Donald seek for the bearings of a "whisky bothie" which he had heard of at our last stopping-place. While he was seeking for it the rain began to fall heavily, and through the darkness we were just able to distinguish a dark object, which turned out to be a horse. "The lads with the still will no be far off," said Donald. And so it turned out. But the rain had increased the darkness so much, that we should have searched in vain if I had not distinguished at intervals, between the pelting of the rain and the heavy rushing of a black burn that ran beside us, what appeared to me to be the shrill treble of a fiddle. I could scarcely believe my ears. But when I communicated the intelligence to Donald, whose ears were less acute, he jumped with joy. " It's all right enough, sir; just follow the sound; it's that drunken deevil, Sandy Ross; ye'll never haud a fiddle frae him, nor him frae a whisky-still." It was clear the sound came from across the black stream, and it looked formidable in the dark. However, there was no remedy. So grasping each the other's collar, and holding our guns high over head, we dashed in, and staggered through in safety, though the water was up to my waist, running like a mill-race, and the bottom was of round slippery stones. Scrambling up the bank, and following the merry sound, we came to what seemed a mere hole in the bank, from which it proceeded. The hole was partially closed by a door woven of heather; and, looking through it, we saw a sight worthy of Teniers. On a barrel in the midst of the apartment half hut, half cavern stood aloft, fiddling with all his might, the identical Sandy Ross, while round him danced three unkempt savages; and another figure was stooping, employed over a fire in the corner, where the whisky-pot was in full operation. The fire, and a sliver or two of lighted bog-fir, gave light enough to see the whole, for the place was not above ten feet square. We made our approaches with becoming caution, and were, it is needless to say, hospitably received; for who ever heard of Highland smugglers refusing a welcome to sportsmen ? We got rest, food, and fire all that we required and something more for long after I had betaken me to the dry heather in the corner, I had disturbed visions of strange orgies in the bothy, and of my sober Donald exhibiting curious antics on the top of a tub. These might have been the productions of a disturbed brain; but there is no doubt that when daylight awoke me, the smugglers and Donald were all quiet and asleep, far past my efforts to rouse them, with the exception of one who was still able to tend the fire under the large black pot.

Friday. From the state in which my trusty companion was, with his head in a heap of ashes, I saw it would serve no purpose to awake him, even if I were able to do so. It was quite clear that he could be good for nothing all day. I therefore secured some breakfast and provisions for the day (part of them oatcake which I baked for myself), tied up Bran to wait Donald's restoration, and departed with my rifle alone. The morning was bright and beautiful, the mountain-streams overflowing with last night's rain. I was now thrown on my own resources, and my own knowledge of the country, which, to say the truth, was far from minute or exact. "Benna-skiach" was my object to-day, and the corries which lay beyond it, where at this season the large harts were said to resort. My way at first was dreary enough, over a long slope of boggy ground, enlivened, however, by a few traces of deer having crossed, though none of my "chase." I at length passed the slope, and soon topped the ridge, and was repaid for my labour by a view so beautiful, that I sat down to gaze at it, though anxious to get forward. Looking down into the valley before me, the foreground was a confusion of rocks of most fantastic shape, shelving rapidly to the edge of a small blue lake, the opposite shore of which was a beach of white pebbles, and beyond, a stretch of the greenest pasture, dotted with drooping white-stemmed birches. This little level was hemmed in on all sides by mountains, ridge above ridge, the lowest closely covered with purple heath, the next more green and broken by ravines, and the highest ending in sharp serrated peaks tipped with snow. Nothing moved within range of my vision, and nothing was to be seen that bespoke life but a solitary heron standing on one leg in the shallow water at the upper end of the lake. From hence I took in a good range, but could see no deer. While I lay above the lake, the day suddenly changed, and heavy wreaths of mist came down the mountain-sides in rapid succession. They reached me soon, and I was enclosed in an atmosphere through which I could not see twenty yards. It was very cold too, and I was obliged to move, though scarcely well knowing whither. I followed the course of the lake, and afterwards of the stream which flowed from it, for some time. Now and then a grouse would rise close to me, and, flying a few yards, light again on a hillock, crowing and croaking at the intruder. The heron, in the darkness, came flapping his great wings close past me; I almost fancied I could feel the movement they caused in the air. Nothing could be done in such weather, and I was not sure that I might not be going away from my object. It was getting late too, and I made up my mind that my most prudent plan was to arrange a bivouac before it became quite dark. My wallet was empty, except a few crumbs, the remains of my morning's baking. It was necessary to provide food : and just as the necessity occurred to me, I heard, through the mist, the call of a cock grouse as he lighted close to me. I contrived to get his head between me and the sky as he was strutting and croaking on a hillock close at hand; and aiming at where his body ought to be, I fired my rifle. On going up to the place, I found I had not only killed him, but also his mate, whom I had not seen. It was a commencement of good luck. Sitting down, I speedily skinned my birds, and took them down to the burn to wash them before cooking. In crossing a sandy spot beside the burn, I came upon could I believe my eyes? "the Track." Like Robinson Crusoe in the same circumstances, I started back; but was speedily at work taking my information. There were prints enough to show the hart had crossed at a walk leisurely. It must have been lately for it was since the burn had returned to it's natural size, after the last night's flood. But nothing could be done till morning, so I set about my cooking ; and having after some time succeeded in lighting a fire, while my grouse were slowly broiling, I pulled a quantity of heather, which I spread in a corner a little protected by an overhanging rock : I spread my plaid upon it, and over the plaid built another layer of heather. My supper ended, which was not epicurean, I crawled into my nest under my plaid, and was soon sound asleep. I cannot say that my slumbers were unbroken. I dreamt of the great stag thundering up the hills with preternatural speed, and of noises like cannon (which I have since learnt to attribute to their true cause the splitting of fragments of rock under a sudden change from wet to sharp frost), and above all, the constant recurrence of visions of weary struggles through fields of snow and ice kept me restless, and at length awoke me to the consciousness of a brilliant skylight and keen frost a change that rejoiced me in spite of the cold.

Saturday. Need I say my first object was to go down and examine the track anew. There was no mistake. It was impossible to doubt that "the muckle hart of Benmore " had actually walked through that burn a few hours before me, and in the same direction. I followed the track, and breasted the opposite hill. Looking round from its summit, it appeared to me a familiar scene, and on considering a moment, I found I overlooked from a different quarter the very same rocky plain and the two black lochs where I had seen my chase three days before. I had not gazed many minutes when I saw a deer lying on a black hillock which was quite open. I lay down immediately, and with my glass made out at once the object of all my wanderings. My joy was somewhat abated by his position, which was not easily approachable. My first object, however, was to withdraw myself out of his sight, which I did by crawling backwards down a little bank till only the tops of his horns were visible, and they served to show me that he continued still. As he lay looking towards me, he commanded with his eye three-fourths of the circle, and the other quarter, where one might have got in upon him under cover of the little hillock, was unsafe from the wind blowing in that direction. A burn ran between him and me, one turn of which seemed to come within two hundred yards of him. It was my only chance; so, retreating about half-a-mile, I got into the burn in hidden ground, and then crept up its channel with such caution that I never allowed myself a sight of more than the tips of his horns, till I had reached the nearest bend to him. There, looking through a tuft of rushes, I had a perfect view of the noble animal, lying on the open hillock, lazily stretched out at length, and only moving now and then to scratch his flank with his horn. I watched him for fully an hour, the water up to my knees all the time. At length he stirred, gathered his legs together, and rose; and arching his back, he stretched himself just as a bullock does when rising from his night's lair. My heart throbbed, as turning all round he seemed to try the wind for his security, and then walked straight to the burn, at a point about one hundred and fifty yards from me. I was much tempted, but had resolution to reserve my fire, reflecting that I had but one barrel. He went into the burn at a deep pool, and standing in it up to his knees, took a long drink. I stooped to put on a new copper cap and prick the nipple of my rifle; and on looking up again, he was gone ! I was in despair; and was on the point of moving rashly, when I saw his horns again appear a little farther off, but not more than fifty yards from the burn. By and by they lowered, and I judged he was lying down. "You are mine at last," I said; and I crept cautiously up the bed of the burn till I was opposite where he had lain down. I carefully and inch by inch placed my rifle over the bank, and then ventured to look along it. I could see only his horns, but within an easy shot. I was afraid to move higher up the bed of the burn, where I could have seen his body; the direction of the wind made that dangerous. I took breath for a moment and screwed up my nerves; and then with my cocked rifle at my shoulder and my finger on the trigger, I kicked a stone which splashed into the water. He started up instantly; but exposed only his front towards me. Still he was very near, scarcely fifty yards, and I fired at his throat just where it joins the head. He dropped on his knees to my shot; but was up again in a moment and went staggering up the hill. Oh, for one hour of Bran; Although he kept on at a mad pace, I saw he was becoming too weak for the hill. He swerved and turned back to the burn and came headlong down within ten yards of me, tumbling into it apparently dead. Feeling confident, from the place where my ball had taken effect, that he was dead, I threw down my rifle, and went up to him with my hunting-knife. I found him stretched out, and as I thought dying and I laid hold of his horns to raise his head to bleed him. I had scarcely touched him when he sprang up, flinging me backwards on the stones. It was an awkward position. I was stunned by the violent fall; behind me was a steep bank of seven or eight feet high ; before me the bleeding stag with his horns levelled at me, and cutting me off from my rifle. In desperation I moved; when he instantly charged, but fortunately tumbled ere he quite reached me. He drew back again like a ram about to but, and then stood still with his head lowered, and his eyes bloody and swelled, glaring upon me. His mane and all his coat were dripping with water and blood; and as he now and then tossed his head with an angry snort, he looked like some savage beast of prey. We stood mutually at bay for some time, till, recovering myself, I jumped out of the burn so suddenly, that he had not time to run at me, and from the bank above, I dashed my plaid over his head and eyes, and threw myself upon him. I cannot account for my folly, and it had nearly cost me dear. The poor beast struggled desperately, and his remaining strength foiled me in every attempt to stab him in front; and he at length made off, tumbling me down, but carrying with him a stab in the leg which lamed him. I ran and picked up my rifle, and then kept him in view as he rushed down the burn on three legs towards the loch. He took the water and stood at bay up to his chest in it. As soon as he halted, I commenced loading my rifle, when to my dismay I found that all the balls I had remaining were for my double-barrel, and were a size too large for my rifle. I sat down and commenced scraping one to the right size, an operation that seemed interminable. At last I succeeded; and, having loaded, the poor stag remaining perfectly still, I went up within twenty yards of him, and shot him through the head. He turned over and floated, perfectly dead. I waded in and towed him ashore, and then had leisure to look at my wounds and bruises, which were not serious, except my shin-bone, which was scraped from ankle to knee by his horn. I soon had cleaned my quarry and stowed him away as safely as I could, and then turned down the glen at a gay pace. I found Donald with Bran reposing at Malcolm's shealing; and for all reproaches on his misconduct, I was satisfied with sending him to bring home the "muckle hart of Benmore," a duty which he performed before night-fall.


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