Happy days on the hill

David Barrington Barnes writes in praise of hill stalkers, those hardy types who put up with everything in the name of giving the visiting rifle a true Highland experience

On receiving instructions to take a guest of unpromising appearance to the hill one morning, the head stalker enquired of the laird: “Do you want him to shoot a stag, or shall I simply show him some deer?”

On another estate, the guest for the day was a wealthy businessman, who arrived with a new and expensive rifle. He was reluctant to waste time at the target, but after some coercion ventured a few shots. These had no effect at all on the target board, which survived without a single hole. After another unsuccessful attempt, the exasperated stalker pointed out a bothy and suggested that the rifle fire at the middle of it. This he did, and his shot chipped a stone on the top-right corner of the building. On examining the rifle, the stalker soon identified the problem. The scope had been screwed on back to front.

Another memorable guest was a sheikh, a man who always got his way. At the target the sheikh performed admirably, and the stalker glassed the hill, pointing out to his guest the sheep occupying the lower slopes and the deer grazing higher on the hill. He patiently explained that the stags would be high up and that he, the stalker, would lead the party, followed in single file by the sheikh and his retinue.

At this, the sheikh spoke to one of his English-speaking staff, who informed the stalker that the sheikh wished to stalk on his own. On the stalker explaining again that he would lead the party, the assistant to the sheikh produced a bundle of notes, which the stalker declined. Further conversation took place between the sheikh and his man and more – much more – money was tendered, with the stalker holding out time and again.

After all, no guest had ever stalked alone. Every stag shot on the estate had been shot under his supervision. The sheikh, however, knew every man has a price, and when the wad of notes proffered to him was so thick the stalker couldn’t close his two hands over it, he caved in and watched as the sheikh walked uphill.

The stalker sat miserably in the heather, shamed of his susceptibility and fearful as to which stag the sheikh might shoot. Quite suddenly, and far too soon, a shot shattered the silence. The stalker rushed up the hill and found the sheikh triumphantly standing over a sheep.

The hero of these anecdotes and many more – be they fact or fiction – is always the long-suffering, patient highland stalker. He and his life are oppressed by all sorts of enemies: midges, hill walkers, sheep and fickle swirling winds.

Worst of them are, of course, the stalking guests he has to take out and guide during long days on the hill. Understandably, the visiting rifle, having his one week’s stalking of the season, is unlikely to move as discreetly as the stalker. This can lead to the apocryphal conversation that took place while a herd of red deer were fleeing the hill at speed. “Why are those deer running away?” asked the rifle. “Because you were walking while I was crawling,” snarled the stalker in reply.

I was once a guest stalking on some flat open hill ground. I recall the extreme difficulty we experienced in approaching within a shootable range of the stags. Whenever we spooked the deer, the stalker would mutter under his breath sotto voce: “They saw you”. Asked what he had just said, he would invariably reply: “They saw us!”

If the stalker is not complaining about the jerky, obvious movements of the rifle, he sometimes has cause to criticise his accuracy. One nineteenth-century tale brings this out beautifully. The deer forest owner had a VIP guest staying in the lodge and was most anxious for him to get a good stag. Under the supervision of the head stalker, the VIP rifle twice missed a stag on the first day and repeated this every day for the rest of the week. The owner then asked the stalker to test the rifle at the target, which he did, shooting a good group.

The exasperated owner then asked what the problem was with the rifle. Was it the sights? The rifling? The stock? When informed by the stalker that there was nothing wrong with the rifle, the owner demanded to know what the devil was going on. “I’m afraid, sir,” replied the head stalker hesitantly, “it’s not the rifle, it’s the afterpiece!”

I missed a stag myself at the end of a long day. Back in the yard, and greatly embarrassed by my miss, I rolled out some excuses. “I’ve got it, David,” said the head stalker with a smile, “stag too small!” Not half as small as I felt. Too late I recalled the old army maxim: “Never explain and never complain!”

Highland stalkers are, on the whole, impressive men. I remember several from my youth, particularly the legendary Charlie Ross, then head stalker on Assynt Estate. I saw Charlie Ross fly fish, shoot grouse and snipe and stalk, and he was a master of all these crafts. But when asked what was his favourite sport, he said it was sitting out all night over a fox den to catch a hill vixen returning home.

Like all the other keepers on the estate, Charlie loved a day on the hill. Out with him one day, we came to a small cairn off the pony path. Seeing Charlie smiling, I enquired what was funny. He then told me that having stopped here a few weeks earlier to eat his piece, he had buried some orange peel. His next visit was with his boss and, on arriving at the cairn, they found that an old hind had scraped up the peel and left it scattered on the ground. The boss viewed this with disdain. “Filthy day-trippers!” he said.

My first stag taken under Charlie’s supervision remains a treasured memory and, more important, sowed the seeds of my subsequent obsession with deer and deer-related matters. I referred above to deer stalkers as impressive men, and need now to single out a female stalker, Liz McDonald, as one of the most impressive I have ever encountered. On our day together, Liz frequently stopped to point out flowers and insects, and it was obvious that she was interested and knowledgeable about the whole hill ecology, not just red deer. I returned the favour in some small way by calling a malform roebuck in the policies behind the big house, thereby teaching her a little bit about the ways of the roe.

The legendary stalker and author Lea MacNally is another great name in the annals of Scottish deerstalking. MacNally was friendly with Peter McManus, the author of One Man’s Scotland. McManus stalked on many estates but latterly at Deanich, Braelangwell and adjacent deer forests, and he wrote with enthusiasm about the good times he had there. Notwithstanding all the difficulties affecting red deer stalking today, there is still great scope to have and enjoy happy days on the hill

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