David Barrington Barnes heads out to Beinn Bhreac in search of a majestic stag.
During the previous week, gales had relentlessly pounded the hills of Sutherland. Every day I had gone to the hill in waterproofs. With the high tops often obscured, it had been hard, unrewarding work. I kept grimly at it in the hope I would chance upon a stag tucked up out of the weather.
Then came the morning that the wind dropped and the rain faded away. This, I thought, would be a better stalking day. I was to stalk on my own, so made careful preparations. A short drive along the coast road took me to the usual parking place above Lochan Dubh from where I could spy. This morning nothing seemed to be at home, although any number of beasts could be lurking unseen in the dead ground before me.
I stepped out downhill to Lochan Dubh, then turned upwards towards the southwest side where Beinn Bhreac forms the highest hill. This was a hard start to my stalking day. The hill rises up from the lochan like the side of a house and, with the heather long and rank, it is difficult to keep a foothold.
I climbed out on to the edge of the first and lowest ‘table’. I ascended cautiously, spying to avoid bumping any beasts in front of me. There were none to be found.
At last I emerged at a point from which Beinn Bhreac is partly visible. Crawling higher still, I reached a vantage point that gave me a view of the whole of Beinn Bhreac across the flats. From here I spied three stags coming quietly down off the summit in a leisurely and quite undisturbed manner. I watched them graze and finally settle down in rank heather at the very foot of the Beinn. They chose their spot well, with the sun on their backs and shelter from the wind.
As I observed these beasts, I soon also realised that the wind was their sentry from most of the high ground above them and that the open ground also guarded against a direct approach from the outpost. To get at them, I needed to circle around them to the northwest and come in to them over the very top of Beinn Bhreac. The wind would be fly, but I decided to give it a go.
Slipping back out of sight, I began the long march around the back of Beinn Bhreac. I would have to climb it before descending the steep slopes and screes above the stags.
This was risky. Having approached from the blind side, I had little idea of the location of the stags – assuming of course that they had not moved. If I came down on them from too far to the south they would get my scent and be gone. I could not see any of my earlier markers and did not know where I was or where the stags were. If they did not wind me, then there was still a danger I would bump them in my blind approach.
I started my descent with caution, and edged forward step by step. Now and then I slid down the hill to avoid showing myself. The steep sides of the Beinn were void of life. And then, there they were! Below me, two beasts lying back-to-back with a third tucked under the hill.
I was on so steep a slope that it just wasn’t possible to lie facing down the hill and take a shot from a prone position. I found a little hollow where I could sit half hidden and shoot off my knees. As I sat there and settled my breath, I watched the unsuspecting stags lying in the long heather. Young stags for sure, but on this poor sheep run either one would do today.
Easing the rifle on to my knees ever so slowly, I centred the cross hairs of the scope on the nearest stag’s neck and gently squeezed the trigger. His head fell forward as the echo of the shot reverberated around the hill, and the other two stags departed at speed. I walked down to bleed and gralloch him.
It was, I recall, particularly satisfying to gralloch my self-stalked stag. Having done so, I washed in a pool using sphagnum moss as a sponge, and then settled into a sheltered spot to eat my piece.
Now and then I checked on my stag in the heather. In the time-honoured humour of the Scottish stalker, I didn’t want him running away. Before long it was time to drag him off the hill. I’d picked a route that wound round the base of Beinn Bhreac, slightly uphill at the end, then an easy drag down to Loch Nan Clach, followed by a difficult haul round the Loch. The fourth and final stage was an easier one, downhill over a grassy slope.
It took me two hours to complete the drag down and a further hour to walk back to my truck above Lochan Dubh, after which the beast still had to be recovered and the larder work done.
By the time all this was done, night had come, and with it ‘inside’ time. Time to clean my rifle, dry my kit and soak in a very hot bath. Time to dwell with satisfaction on a day’s stalking replete with exercise, beauty and challenge in abundance. In the warm glow of contentment it was easy to believe that the morning’s impoverished hirsel had become a well-stocked deer forest, and my young stag a magnificent mature royal. For sure, no one could have enjoyed deer stalking more than I did that day.
On the Deer Path
The new book from David Barrington Barnes, On The Deer Path is more than just an instructional tome – it’s a comprehensive collection of anecdotes, from the author’s first taste of stalking through years of indecisions, humorous incidents and exciting stalks.
Buy it from the Sporting Rifle bookshop today – fill in the form on page 98, call 01926 339808 or go online at www.virtualnewsagent.com