When we stopped at the target that morning my stalker, John, relieved me of my cased rifle before I had got out of his truck. This made me realise I was going to be treated like a king for the day. I felt a moment’s guilt over the indulgence and decided to enjoy it to the full. As it happened, the stags were less than co-operative. The day was mild for the end of September and the stags had not broken out properly. True, there was a roar to be heard here and there, and there were stags holding hinds far out, but they were not busy.
As we stalked out on a cheek wind, we even saw two stags lying peacefully together. They were apparently viewing the scene in front of them in a benign manner that suggested they had no inclination to work the hinds. With the lower ground devoid of deer, such beasts as were to be seen were all up on the ridges and high tops and, according to John, were unapproachable in the south easterly breeze. I could tell John was disappointed and frustrated by the way the day was going and that we would likely never take the rifle out of the slip. Although John was concerned about this – his professional pride was at stake of course – I could see that the absence of accessible beasts was weather driven and accepted that philosophically. It was sufficient to be out on the hill!
By late afternoon we had run out of ground and John walked me back nearly to our start point before dropping down the hill a few hundred feet and starting to stalk the tables below us which had previously been out of our sight. We prowled along the shoulder, peeping over as fresh ground became visible, and only saw one small party of hinds. As we approached our eastern march, we began to drop down towards the track from which we would be extracted. By then we were walking wearily, without hope and taking care to avoid a slip on the steep slope. And then John suddenly stopped and sat down. He had seen the tip of one antler in the grass below us – a bedded stag in the late afternoon sunshine.
There was no chance of a decent lie, no way we could move a yard. We were sitting side by side 50 yards at most above the beast. The rifle was removed from its case, loaded and handed to me. I’m left handed and John, on my left, offered me his bent knee as a rest for my left elbow as I used my right knee to steady my right arm. It was awkward and uncomfortable and we both sensed the need to resolve the encounter. John tried one roar and then another. No reaction! Then another stag, unseen by us, roared and our stag raised his head so, for the first time, we could see both his racks; he was becoming restless. Poor John! I could sense he was worried by the rest and the proximity of the stag and his likely rapid departure when he did stand up.
My arms and hands were aching now and never was I more conscious that this was a last chance stag. After all, I had the rifle now and my stalker could only sit still and wait on the outcome. And then, in that fluid way they do, the stag stood. And as he got to his feet the cross hairs came up on to his chest and I squeezed off my shot. The stag took off downhill, lost his footing, tumbled into a hollow and was still.
The moments that followed were good ones. I was mightily relieved that I had made a good shot from such a stress rest. John, perfectly mannered at the day’s end, needlessly apologised for it, saying that once we had seen the stag we simply could not move. I got the firm impression that John did not like his “gentlemen” essaying shots like that if it could be helped.
That evening, back in the lodge, I had a good war story to tell. I suspect I glossed over the fact that by the time of the encounter I was walking more than stalking! However, after hill stalking, a hot bath, flaming fire and a glass of whisky almost excuse much more serious misdemeanours than the spin I put on my story. My companions had their own tales too. All of us had experienced a little pain, as southerners always do on the hill. On their beats they too had had disappointments and successes.
In his memoir One Man’s Scotland Peter McManus wrote that a highland shooting lodge on an October evening in front of a blazing fire with a few companions to share the experiences of the day is the most desirable place on the face of this planet. How right he was!
While low ground stalking is often a solitary occupation, the participants in a stag party enjoy the sharing of the events in their individual day’s pursuit. There is surely no preferable time to be in the Highlands or any better way to carry on than to stalk red deer stags on the high, open hill. The pursuit is embedded in tradition but has adapted itself to modern conditions. The rifles, optics and ammunition are all much more effective than they were in the early days, leading to more humane culling. Its practice importantly supports the local economy of the Highlands in all sorts of different ways. It is indeed a tragedy that some well funded charities and wealthy individuals disregard all these benefits in promoting their versions of “Wilderness Scotland”. In so doing they disrespect the traditions of the past and demonise the needs of the present. Perhaps one should not be surprised. After all, for most, a stag party is one in which a prospective bridegroom is handcuffed naked to a lamp post.