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McIan's Highlanders At Home


THIS is the most notable of all field-sports, as regards the majestic character of the prey, and its keenness of instinct, the qualities necessary for the hunter, and the grandeur of the scenery where he pursues his game. The deer, notwithstanding its great strength and fleetness, is an extremely shy and solitary animal, and so vigilantly does it guard against the approach of man, that it is a matter of the greatest difficulty to get within reach of shot. The deer possesses the keenest of eyes, and its olfactory powers are surprising; hence it is scarcely possible to advance, especially on the weather side, the animal never, but from necessity, going ‘down the wind,’ without giving alarm, while still perhaps at an unseen distance.

It is further remarkable of the deer, that in a herd there is always a stag of commanding age and size, which takes the van, and is indeed the leader, the whole following his movements, and taking warning of danger from him. The sportsman must, therefore, have recourse to the most skilful manoeuvring to get within reach of his game, with which he has to deal much in the way of the red warriors of America, adopting the same tactics to entrap his prey as the Indian practises to surprise his enemy. Like him, also, he must possess the necessary qualities for the arduous task: energy—perseverance— endurance of bodily fatigue and privation— quickness of sight, and precision of aim. The Highland deer-hunter will have to go through numberless fatigues; wading through bogs and streams, swimming rivers, clambering among rugged mountains, lying prostrate for hours, advancing on hands and knees—a movement in sporting parlance called ealadh—and even creeping like a snake among the lank heather, are some of the pleasures of this manly recreation. A bivouac on the naked heath after a day spent in the above evolutions, and a frugal breakfast of oatcake and water, happily, at times qualified by a glass of whiskey, are not to be reckoned hardships. When the deer are discovered, the softened exclamation Eid, passes quickly along the company.

There is not, throughout the Highlands, a man who possesses a superiority in every qualification required in a hunter of the hills to John Mac Rae, gamekeeper to Grant of Glenmoriston, in Inverness—shire, and from a sketch of this worthy the principal figure in the print is taken.

The stealthy manner in which the deer is slain is called Stalking; but although a covert attack, resembling the method used by illegal trespassers, is thus made on the game, which is incompatible with the rules of the open chase, it must in nowise be confounded with poaching. The country does not permit the deer to be followed as on the gentle uplands in the southern portion of the kingdom, with the exhilarating attendants of hound and horn.

When hunting was necessarily pursued for the supply of food, or, in accordance with a Gaelic practice, to honour the visits of strangers, it was on a scale which gave it the aspect of a military campaign. The Scottish monarchs frequently retired from the cares of royalty to enjoy the chase in their Highland dominions; and our most gracious Queen, like the unhappy Mary of Scotland, evinces a partiality for this ‘royal divertisement.’

This ancient mode of hunting was performed by surrounding a large extent of country by numbers of men, who, at a signal, advanced slowly with loud shouting, and by these means roused the game, and drove the whole towards a certain point, where the animals were shot or cut down by the broad-sword. This extensive battue is not in exact accordance with the modern rules; but it had formerly necessity in its favour, and it is so agreeable to a Highlander’s habits, that it is not yet abandoned when such a circumstance occurs as a royal visit. It is called Timchioll na Sealg, or the Circuit of Hunting. Curious accounts are preserved by olden chroniclers of several of these magnificent huntings, which have been made the subject of an entertaining article in the ‘United Service Magazine’ for November, 1844.

At that held in honour of Queen Mary, I 563, there were collected, besides fallow and roe, 2000 red deer, of which more than 360 were killed. In another of these ‘hunting matches,’ given by the Earl of Athol to King James V., there fell "thirty score hart and hynd, with other small beasts, as roe, wolf, fox, and wild cats."

Taylor, an English writer, called the Water— Poet, accompanied Lord Erskine, ancestor of the Earl of Mar, to the Highlands of Aberdeenshire, where he witnessed a splendid deer hunt, with the subsequent banquet, and gives a very particular detail of the whole proceedings, in quaint prose and quainter verse. The camp contained 1400 or 1500 men, who were sumptuously regaled.

"The modern method of deer-stalking, though not carried out with such semi-barbaric display, has very largely increased during the last half of the nineteenth century. This is more strikingly illustrated when we state that the deer-forests of Scotland cover a space of over two million square acres. These are chiefly rented by English noblemen, wealthy merchants, or American millionaires. Though called deer-forests in Scotland, there is really now little wood in them. They chiefly consist of large tracts of ground, lofty mountains, pasture, heather, moorland, and sheltered corries. These vast solitudes are supposed to be more favourable for the purpose of breeding the deer and for sport, if other game, sheep and cattle, are excluded. It is a debatable point whether the extension of these forests has done much to displace the crofters and sheep in the Highlands. The great deer-forests of Scotland are nearly all in the counties of Aberdeen, Sutherland, Ross, Argyll, Perth, and Inverness."

As may be supposed, the English terms of venery are not in use among the Highlanders. A deer is called Fiadh, a male roe Boc, a female, Earb, and Earbag, the diminutive, is usually applied to a fawn. The young at six months of age is called Laogh, a calf. Mang or Iiadh ôg will correspond with the English term brocket; when the animal is three years old, it acquires the name Damh, which it retains until it is five, and is afterwards called Lan-damh, a full stag. The same terms are applied to the roe, except that after the third year the female obtains the name of Eilid.

The Antlers are called Cabar, from which the deer is frequently called Cabarach. A male deer at the age of one year has knobs, or cnapan, on his forehead and small brow antlers appear. The horns are shed annually, and the new attain their full growth in three months, when a velvet—like coat, called Mogan, which covers them at first, drops off. The horns are the perquisites of the gamekeeper, and they are valuable, but are so seldom found in comparison with the numbers which are cast, that it has often excited surprise. From so many being found in lakes and marshes, it is supposed that the animal resorts to these places at the time the horn begins to get loose.

The size of the stag depends on the supply of pasturage in the range he inhabits: eighteen or twenty stone is the average weight; but instances have occurred of their weighing thirty. The longevity of the deer is very great. By a Gaelic Rann, or verse, it is said to be three times the age of a man, and cases have occurred which fully verify the calculation.

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