Last autumn I spent a pleasant evening in the company of deerstalker John Sinclair of Killin. I had not seen him for many years and was delighted to find him fit and still stalking. In our early days as deerstalkers my son, Toby, and I used to visit Killin in November or December for a few days at the hinds. Great sport it was too!
For several years we enjoyed the hind stalking on Kennock, Boreland, Invermearan and Glen Falloch. Sometimes we went on our own and on other occasions with friends to make up a small party. Kennock and Boreland in Glen Lochay comprised hill ground which rose quite steeply in a V-shape from the floor of the glen. It’s ground that is vividly described in William Jones’ memoir Georgian Afternoon although Jones only visited Glen Lochay in the stag season and, so far as I know, never pursued the hinds. At that stage I was pretty green, particularly as to hill stalking, and made most of the mistakes it was possible to make. However John Sinclair, as well as being a thoroughly nice man, taught me a good deal about the stalking business. At that time Kennock belonged to one Cameron, a Scottish farmer, and the numerous gates on the tracks on the place were secured with bits of string, rope and wire and were a pain to keep opening and shutting on cold winter days. When one client ventured to suggest these could be improved he was told that he did not have to come again! I soon learnt to open and shut the gates without complaint.
Sinclair was a good planner. Typically, he would spy from the glen road until he found a parcel or, better still, several parcels of red hinds. He would then leave the Land Rover and make height very often using a cheek wind to pass and get above the beasts he had seen. This would often take until the top of the day and Sinclair would be keen to engage one or two hinds from the top parcel before stopping for a piece while the hill settled down after the shot, which in those days was not moderated. Then, taking a hind each, we would often slide down the hill until we came into range of another parcel from which Sinclair would select a hind or two. More often than not the light would be fading fast by then and there would be a briskness in John’s steps off the hill.
He was a member of the Killin Mountain rescue team and recounted a number of stories of, sadly, avoidable accidents. He told me snow had a magnetic influence on English hill walkers and that a snow covering would lure them up to high places without common sense precautions or any regard to safety. He recalled a father and teen son couple who went up the hill and both slipped 300 feet down a steep snow-covered slope. The son stood up uninjured, but the father’s skull was completely and fatally destroyed by the impact of concealed rocks. An unnecessary tragedy! Since those days, I have always had respect for the potential dangers of the hill. My acronym for these is “WETT”: weather, energy, time, terrain. All these are worth considering before going to the hill and, of course, while you are out on it.
Sinclair taught me to move cautiously at all times and ticked me off if I made jerky, quick movements of body or hands. I can see him now, lying full length on the firing point with the front of his deerstalker covered in snow. Some of the stalks he got me into looked impossible to achieve, but more often than not we would get a shot. In those early days our equipment was nothing like as efficient as it is now. There were no range finder binoculars or illuminated ballistic turrets. Although I had a recently acquired Zeiss Diavari scope it was nothing like as sophisticated as those we have now. Sinclair did not like bipods of any description, although Harris bipods were becoming available. This was because the bipod raised the rifle a few inches off the ground, which at Kennock was heavily grazed and bare by the time of year we were there. When I saw him again last year I forgot to enquire whether he has been converted. If not, he is in a minority.
I have some really warm memories of stalking in Glen Lochay, though some of the anecdotes seem funnier now than they did at the time. Once I went up for the last three days of the stag season to find a Danish fellow as my fellow guest. He made it clear he was an expert stalker and would only go to the target at Sinclair’s insistence. When he fired, his rifle was way off and it took an hour to sort it out. Throughout his visit, this fellow and his girlfriend constantly complained they were being treated like children by being asked to walk in single file, notwithstanding that on several occasions they spooked hinds by walking alongside him.
While Sinclair was handling these characters I enjoyed three fabulous days with his friend and associate, the late artist Iain Oates. He told me about a gentleman stalker who used to take the last week of the stag season in the company of a succession of girlfriends. Some of the girls were reluctant to go home on the appointed day and the youthful Oates derived much amusement from the manoeuvres then required to keep them apart. I was somewhat flattered when Oates, without a shred of evidence, suggested me as a suitable candidate to replace the gentleman whose stalking days were done.
Looking back, I am still conscious of how few daylight hours there were during those stalking trips. Impossible to spy before 9.30am, height and distance to be won, beasts to be shot, gralloched and off the hill by 3.30pm even on a light afternoon. For that brief window Sinclair always devised a plan A and a Plan B so that if the first stalk went wrong there would likely be another chance. Sadly, pressures of business and work resulted in us foregoing that annual trip leaving me with a roesack filled with acquired knowledge and happy memories.