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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter VIII - Early Sporting Days

I left my home for Germany in the autumn of 1853, when the Crimean War was in full blast. My mother’s intention was to remain abroad for perhaps three years, but the first summer at Heidelberg proved too hot for me (the thermometer going up to 92° in the shade), so we had to go to Switzerland for three months. Ross-shire saw us back again (at least, for a good long holiday) in 1855, because I was beginning to get very homesick, and in consequence was not thriving quite to my mother’s satisfaction.

Now, as all the shootings on the Gairloch estate were let at this time, I proposed to my mother that we should hire Pool House, which was empty, and which had been our home on one or two previous occasions, and that we should try to get the sporting rights over Inverewe, which was quite near. It was then just a neglected outlying sheep-farm, belonging to the Coul estate, without even a resident farm tenant on it, and in charge only of two shepherds, who looked after its stock of Cheviot ewes. One of these shepherds generally carried a gun instead of the regulation shepherd’s crook ! There were also one or two other men in Poolewe and in the crofting township of Londubh (Black Bog) who occasionally shot over it; but as grouse were so very scarce, they more or less confined themselves to sporting along its shores, on the off-chance of getting a shot at an otter, a merganser, or, still better, a great northern diver. Well do I remember one of them telling me that a Muir Bhuachaill (sea herdsman, the Gaelic for the northern diver) was far better than any three fat hens. I can certainly vouch for its being bigger and heavier, if not better flavoured, for the first northern diver I ever shot weighed 17 pounds!

Accordingly we approached the then laird of Coul, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, 011 the question of shooting rent; his ideas were very moderate, for he only asked £10 per annum for something like 7,000 or 8,000 acres, on condition that we put on a good keeper, who would stop poaching and destroy the vermin. And so I started my life as a regular sportsman at the early age of thirteen years. The keeper who was engaged came of real good old stock, who had served the Gairloch family more or less for generations, and had been with us as hall-boy for some years in the Tigh Dige. He rejoiced in the modern anglicised patronymic of Morrison, which would sound so much nicer in its old original Gaelic form of Mac Me Mhoire (Son of the Servant of St. Mary).

The next thing was to get a good dog of some kind, and as I was so young someone suggested that a sort of retriever, which would occasionally point at his game, might suit me, instead of having a regular team of pointers or setters. There was nothing in the way of a kennel at Pool House, so my first and only dog, Shot, a curly retriever, made himself quite at home in front of the kitchen fire or under the kitchen table, along with various terriers, and there my pet otter used to enjoy many a rough-and-tumble game with them!

How distinctly I remember my first day out on the hill in August, 1855! I was armed with my little gun, which weighed only three pounds; but I had a real licence to shoot game, and this made me feel very important and quite a man. Away Uilleam (William) and I started, with great hopes. On our way we met the poaching shepherd, Alasdair Mor nan Geadh (Big Sandy of the Geese), who was known by that name because he had been born at a place called Acliadh nan Geadh (Field of the Geese), on the shores of one of the Inverewe lochs, where the greylags ate all the little patches of oats. The only news he could give us was that he was sure there were one or two coveys of black game in Coille Aigeasgaig, the only bit of wood on the whole property, which consisted of dwarf, scrubby birch with lots of bracken growing between the trees. I was for making straight for the wood, but Uilleam wisely argued that we should keep it for dessert, and first of all try the open moor by the side of Loch a Bhad luachraich (the Lake of the Tuft of Rushes). I remember everything as well as if it were yesterday. All we and Shot found in the open were two coveys (if they deserved to be called such)—viz., a pair of grouse with one cheeper, which Shot promptly caught in his big ugly mouth, and another pair with two young birds, out of which small lot I contrived to shoot the old cock as he ran in front of me. Then off we went to the haunt of the black grouse.

What a big pile it would make if all the black game I shot there between 1855 and 1900 were gathered into one heap! Now, alas! there are none, and why, who can tell? Shot was not long in finding one of the coveys Big Sandy of the Geese had told us of. Up they got in ones and twos, fat young cocks, with their plumage half black and half brown. I blazed at them more than once, but was so excited that I felt sure I could not have hit anything. However, Shot, who was, as a matter of fact, quite unbroken, tore off after them, and soon returned with a fine young black-cock in his mouth; of course, it was supposed I must have wounded him, though there were no signs of any pellets. The next covey Shot put up out of range of my poor little scatter gun, but notwithstanding, he brought back another young beauty and laid it at our feet. It seemed as if my firing or not was quite a matter of indifference to Shot. As for blue hares, even a well-grown leveret had not a chance if Shot got a sight of it, unless it went to ground, and then he would come and ask us to help him to dig it out. If ever there was a real poacher, it was Shot, so he was voted a very useful dog in helping to make up a bag. We came home quite pleased with ourselves, though we should not have thought much of the day's work in the sixties and seventies, after the wildcats and foxes and the falcons and hoodies had been mostly destroyed.

The following year we returned again from Germany, and I began rather to look down on Shot, and aspired to getting a brace of properly broken pointers or setters. Hearing of two for sale in Loch Broom—viz., at Foich Lodge, which was then tenanted by a friend of ours, a Mr. Gilbert Mitchell Innes—Uilleam and I crossed the hills by way of Carnmor, Strath na Sealg, and Dundonnell—a very long wild walk it was—and I spent the night with my friends, leaving again in the morning, accompanied by the Foich keeper and two pointers, which he was to show off to us.

They were of an unusual colour for pointers—viz., black and tan—and we found any amount of grouse as we went along, though I believe they are all but extinct there now. We made a bee-line for home, crossing the dreary high-road to Dundonnell, where there used to be a tiny wayside pub., well known by its Gaelic name of Tigh Osda na feithean mora (the Inn of the Great Swamps). The dogs behaved well, and I decided to buy them, but we already perceived that they would be very determined about returning to their homes with the keeper, and would refuse even to be dragged in the contrary direction by us. Ross, the keeper, however, was a match for them; he asked us to hold them and stay where we were, giving him a quarter of an hour’s start; then he walked straight ahead as if making for Poolewe, and as soon as he got well out of sight over a top, he slipped round, and returned to the big strath of Loch Broom. Then we started, the dogs always thinking Ross was in front of them, and, straining on their couples, they dragged Uilleam, who held them, all the way back to Pool House. They proved useful dogs, were as hard as nails, and never got tired or gave in, but they required constant flogging, as nothing could ever cure them of running hares or of quarrelling and fighting; and though they were brothers, of the same litter, before very long the one killed the other. We always thought they must have had a dash of foxhound or some other blood in them, as they took such a fearfully vicious grip of anything they got hold of. I remember one day, when shooting grouse along a hillside on Inverewe, we heard a most awful row going on ahead of us, and there were the black and tan brothers, quite in their glory. They had come on a badger which had got its foot in a small steel trap, set for a weasel or crow, and had gone off with it. One would have thought they had bulldog blood in them by the way they tackled the badger and killed it straight off.

We still have in use a big rug of badgers' skins in front of our smoking-room fire, all caught on this place, though, as in the case of the eagles, we had no wish to exterminate them like wild-cats and foxes; in fact, we should have liked to preserve them, but they would not keep out of the vermin's traps, and so they soon became extinct.

At last I determined to start breeding setters of my own, as the grouse and all other game had increased greatly, and! secured a pedigree bitch from Sir Alexander Cumming of Altyre. She was “Gordon Castle" on the one side and “Beaufort" on the other, and proved a really good investment. Indeed, I was never, perhaps, quite as successful with anything else as I was with my setters from 1858 to 1914. For many a long year they had such a good name that I used to sell from £80 to £140 worth every season, and I always had more orders than I could possibly supply. In 1914 we were compelled to give up the setters. My gamekeeper and faithful friend and companion, John Matheson, who was such a wonderful dog-breaker, had, alas! died, and it was impossible to get food for a kennel of dogs during the war, while the grouse had decreased greatly in number.

Among the first litter I had from the Altyre bitch was one jet black pup, “Fan.” She and I were inseparable friends during the fifteen best years of my life, and it would fill a book if I attempted to describe what she did for me, and what marvellous powers of reasoning she had in that dear old head of hers. There really seemed to be nothing in the way of sport that Fan was not up to. Although she was not a “show” dog, not being quite correct, it was much more interesting to be out with her than with any other dog I have ever seen or possessed.

About the time Fan made her debut, Lord St. John of Bletsoe (who was my brother’s shooting tenant at Gairloch) very kindly gave me the winter shooting of those twenty-five lovely islands in Loch Maree, the very place for Fan to show off—in fact, it was the islands that taught her so many of her clever tricks. With the exception of parts of Eilean Suthainn, the islands were more or less covered with trees, but they also had some open spaces with heather where grouse came in for shelter from the neighbouring deer-forests in wild weather in November and December. There were a good many black game and woodcock, and just enough roe and wild ducks and geese, and even wild swans, to raise one’s expectations and make it exciting; indeed, I did get one wild swan on a long shallow loch on Eilean Suthainn after a tremendously exciting stalk with my little three-pound gun and with the help of an Eley cartridge duly charged with slugs!

No ordinary dog was of any use in the islands, as one could not keep it in view for a moment among the Scots firs and birches; but with Fan all that had to be done on landing was to start her and sit comfortably on a stone or stump and wait developments. She would not be long before she came back to tell the story of her discoveries. We used to fancy we could guess by her face what kind of game she had found, and that she put on a sort of apologetic expression when it was a woodcock and not a grouse. She never wasted a moment at her point, unless we were actually in sight or she felt sure we were following at her heels. She evidently argued that the. only thing to be done was to find us as quickly as possible, put on a solemn face, and lead us carefully up to the game. Even black game feeding on the birch seed in the tops of the trees did not escape her, and back she would come to give us notice. She seemed to know perfectly well if birds were wild or not, and, if they were wild, she would sneak along, keeping herself as low as possible, and thus giving us the tip to do likewise; but, if she felt they would lie close, she would go boldly up to them. If we had Fan with us we never had to take a retriever.

There are numerous lochs in this Gairloch district. The grouse seem always to prefer the loch sides, and when shot often fall into them, and not unfrequently into the sea; but whether it was a duck or a snipe or a grouse, distance was nothing to Fan if she saw it fall on the water, and you were as sure of your bird as if you had a boat and crew with which to fetch it. With the experience of the many years she had worked the ground, she would find about twice as much game as most other dogs. She knew the sedgy pool where a jack snipe was to be found, and the smooth greenish slopes where the great flocks of golden plover spent their days sunning themselves and waiting for the dusk, when they could get on to the crofters’ potato patches; and also where the brown hares and partridges were likely to be, and the cairns which held blue hares. She always did her best to get us hares, though she never chased them, and what a dab hand she was at a woodcock!

One of her wonderful talents was always appearing to know in a moment if a bird were hit or not. She would stand up on her hind-legs so as to try to mark it down as far as she could. She had another marvellous quality, which was that she could gauge whether a bird was niortally wounded or not, and she knew if she could make sure of grabbing it, or whether it would rise again and require another shot. So if we saw Fan pointing a wounded bird and waiting for a gun to come up, then we knew it was only slightly hit; otherwise Fan managed the business herself, and spared us all trouble by stalking up to it like a cat, and then, with a sudden rush, seizing it and bringing it back to us in her mouth without the mark of a tooth on it.

After a year or two of the sporting rights on Inverewe only, I added three outlying portions of the Gairloch property to my shooting, by hiring from my brother the Isle of Ewe, the extensive hill grazings of the Mellan, Ormscaig and Bualnaluib crofter townships, and the small farm of Inveran. That gave me a good deal more room, and my annual bags became much heavier and more varied. Especially was this the case after the year 1862, when I became the actual owner of Inverewe, and added some five thousand more acres to it by the purchase of Kernsary. Mellan was some distance away, and motors had not even been dreamed of then; but my younger brother, Francis, had built and endowed a beautiful Girls’ School at Bualnaluib for the benefit of the daughters of the numerous surrounding crofters, and had placed in it as teacher a daughter of John Fraser, my grandfather’s old gardener at Conon, who looked upon herself as one of the family retainers. I used, therefore, to put up at the Bualnaluib school-house for two or three nights at a time and shoot over the crofter hill grounds, which made three good beats. This I did chiefly in November and December, and delightful shooting it was.

I did not, perhaps, make what farther south would have been called big bags, but I used to get from twelve to fifteen brace and sometimes over twenty brace of grouse a day to my own muzzle-loader, and always a few woodcock or teal, snipe or ducks. As for golden plover and rock-pigeons, there was no place like it for them; and there were besides a good many coveys of partridges and many brown and blue hares. In short, on Mellan and the Isle of Ewe there was everything a boy sportsman could possibly desire. How constantly do I still dream of those happy days even now in my old age!

I see by my game-book that one year—in 1868—I got 99A brace of grouse off the crofters’ hill ground,. 60 brace off Isle Ewe, and 30 brace off the small Inveran farm; and my total in that year was 1,314 grouse, 33 black game, 49 partridges, 110 golden plover, 35 wild ducks, 53 snipe, 91 blue rock-pigeons, 184 hares, without mentioning geese, teal, ptarmigan and roe, etc., a total of 1,900 head. In other seasons I got sometimes as many as 96 partridges, 106 snipe, and 95 woodcock. Now so many of these good beasts and birds are either quite extinct or on the very verge of becoming so. I wish I had kept a regular diary in addition to a game-book, because I saw and did many things connected with sport and natural history which would have been well worth recording.

One day on the Isle of Ewe, in a wet turnip field which was full of snipe, I started a thrush which had a broad white ring round its throat, just like that of a ring-ouzel. I promptly shot it. Immediately afterwards old Fan pointed at something, evidently close to her nose, which I thought might perhaps be a wounded snipe, though if she could have spoken she would have whispered to me that it smelled like something she had never smelled before; and what should it be but a quail, which I also shot. Afterwards I had both thrush and quail stuffed in the one case. I have heard that, one hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago the lairds in Easter Ross used to get quails there, and also that they used to be found in the South of Ireland; but, with the exception of this one on Isle Ewe, I have never' heard of a quail having been killed in Ross-shire in my time.

Another day on the same island we kept putting up nearly as many short-eared owls as grouse and snipe. Luckily, they rose singly, otherwise Fan would have had fits, for, as it was, she was evidently horrified with this new uncanny kind of game which had taken possession of the heather on her pet preserve ! I shot five. That very same day a ptarmigan rose in front of me, which I also shot. It has always puzzled me why it had descended to the very sea-level, seeing that the big hills, where its home must have been, were some ten miles away. I surmise that it must have been driven down by an eagle or a falcon.

Apropos of Isle Ewe, I remember taking the late Dr. Warre, of Eton College, there one afternoon. I did not have my gun, and he did all the shooting himself. His bag was twenty grouse and twenty snipe. When it was getting on towards evening, and we thought the blue rock-pigeons would be back in their caves at the outer end of the island, we rowed there in our boat, and Dr. Warre added a good many pigeons to his bag. As a finish up, and to vary the sport, we lifted a long line, which we had set on our way to the island, and got a fine haul of haddock and other fish. The doctor was good enough to say it was the best afternoon's sport he had ever enjoyed.

Another day on the island we saw a flock of twenty grouse. We soon perceived they were not natives, for instead of being in the heather they sat in a row on the tops of the stone dykes and crowed incessantly. They all appeared to be cocks. So I went at them, and did not stop until I had got nineteen of them, only one escaping. Extra old cocks they were, as most of them had white feathers about their heads and white whiskers ! We often wondered where they had come from.

I occasionally had pretty good days at woodcock. Perhaps my best day away from home was once when I was staying at Invermoriston Hotel with my brother, Sir Kenneth Mackenzie, onr host being the late Lord Lovat, who had with him hi's two brothers, Colonel Henry and Colonel Alastair Fraser. We shot part of three short December days, and got, if I remember rightly, 146 woodcock, besides hinds and roedeer, etc., which was supposed to be a record bag in those days. Once at Inverewe a friend and I got fifty-two cock in two consecutive days, and at Shieldaig, on the south side of the parish, the late John Bateson and I had a good day. He got eleven and I nine before luncheon, and after lunch I got eleven and he got nine—forty in all. The keepers sometimes did well right out on the open moors, when after their traps. I remember my keeper getting eighteen woodcock one day with only a retriever along with him, and another day twenty-two in snow by walking along the old whin hedges in Isle Ewe.

I have made many a curious shot in the course of my life. I have twice killed two black-cocks on the wing with one shot, and one day, at the side of the public road, Fan pointed at a clump of bracken, hidden in which was the best covey of black game I ever came across. They began to get up in ones and twos, and I shot five young cocks, leaving the old grey-hen and her four daughters for stock. Another day an old friend of mine, Anthony Hamond of Westacre, and I were .shooting, and close to what was then the Inverewe kennel in some heather, now replaced by tall timber, a mixed lot of partridges and grouse got up. We each killed a partridge and a grouse, and it was a very rare occurrence, that would not be likely to happen more than once in a century.

On two different occasions I have killed a hare and a grouse with the same shot, and another time I shot a woodcock and a stoat with the one barrel! On one occasion I made quite a name for myself. It was when a small covey of grouse rose in front of me at the Ardlair march; the tenant of the farm, a Mr. Reid, was standing on the opposite side of the boundary at the time, and I happened, by a fluke, to kill three of the birds with the right barrel as they rose and the remaining two with the left barrel as they crossed ! Reid afterwards improved on the story by declaring that the covey was a big one of at least a dozen, and that I killed every one of them with the two shots ! This yarn he spread over the whole parish—I might even say county—much to my confusion.

But really the greatest fluke I ever made was when I let off a rifle, just to see how far away the bullet would hit the water, at three wild swans as they rose on the wing from the sea at the mouth of the River Ewe, I being about one thousand yards away. My bullet actually grazed the tip of one of the swans’ pinions, and down he came. We were so long in getting a boat launched—it was full of ice and snow—that by the time we got started the swan was far out to sea. Fortunately, however, for us—and, as it turned out, for the poor wounded swan—another boat was returning in the dusk from setting their long lines. The crew turned the swan, and we captured it. I had it put in a room, with a tub full of water into which I threw a lot of barley. For five or six days the barley was never touched, but at last one morning we found the grain all gone, so I took courage, and a fortnight later I sent the swan in a crate to the London Zoo, where the whooper lived eighteen years, and had an easy, if not quite a happy time.

The only good shot I ever had at swans was on Loch Kernsary. There were three whoopers out in the middle of the loch, when a very violent squall came on, with sleet and hail. We noticed the swans come in for shelter under a promontory that jutted out into the loch, so we ran off to circumvent them, and I killed one on the water and wounded another as it rose. The latter we had to chase in a boat, and whilst we were doing so the third one passed high over the boat, and I brought it down. With this swan story I now end the tale of my early sporting days.

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