Stalking stories in mists of time
THE ENGLISH romantic poet, John Keats, was probably not a deer stalker, but he certainly caught the atmosphere of the hills in his poem about autumn and of it being a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
The stag stalking season is now under way and the high west coast hills are well and truly wreathed in mist this year.
The sportsmen have arrived, heavily-tweeded and Barbour clad, some mellowed by fine dining, others red-faced and complaining of gout, European bankers, young sprigs, muscles honed on the playing fields of Eton, peacocks in green wellies and colourful stockings, all happy to have their plastic cards bent and keen to be led to the slopes by young stalkers and curmudgeonly old ghillies eased out of retirement for September 20, ‘the day of the roaring’.
Hotels, lodges and cottages are full, game dealers are vying for custom and the local pubs, restaurants and craft shops are doing a roaring trade. Perhaps it should be renamed ‘the day of plenty’. And why not? There is a long, lean winter ahead. SINCE stalking began, it has generated a culture of fine prose and wonderful stories. Alfred Cochrane, the cricketer, wrote a poem in the early 1900s called ‘Northward Bound Once More’ which captures beautifully the train journey from London Euston to the Highlands in what later became known as ‘the Deer Stalker Express’.
Does your heart still beat with the old excitement As you wait where the Scotch expresses are? Does it answer still to the old indictment Of a fond delight in the sleeping- car, As it did when the rush through the autumn night meant
The Gate of Desire ajar?
Oh! the years, the years, they be rusty and mothy; Oh! the flesh it is weak, that once was strong; But the brown burn under the stone falls frothy And the music it makes is a siren song; Then the pony’ll take you as far as the bothy, And that’ll help you along.
There are tales too of the supernatural. A favourite was of a young Highland ghillie who found a fairy stuck in a peat bog.
He rescued her and was granted one wish that would last for the rest of his life. As the young man wanted to go to sea, the fairy granted him the favour of a continual wind at his back.
On the oceans the gift, given at the time of sailing-ships, proved so bountiful he made a fortune. He returned to the Highlands and bought a deer forest. But, alas, whenever he tried to stalk deer they scented him as the wind was always at his back!
Lord Malmesbury, Queen Victoria’s Foreign Secretary, leased Achnacarry Deer Forest from Donald Cameron of Lochiel from 1844 to 1859.
In his memoirs, he mentions a monster in Loch Arkaig which apparently was well-known in Lochaber long before Nessie made a name for herself.
John Stuart, Malmesbury’s stalker, said he had seen it twice and described it as having the head and hindquarters of a pony and because of the shape of its back it could not be a species of fish.
Lord Malmesbury offered to shoot it causing the superstitious stalker to say, ‘Perhaps your Lordship’s gun would misfire’.
Not surprisingly, wild deer and wire fences do not mix. In Glenhurich, near Strontian in west Lochaber, a stalker was out on the hill with a guest, a retired colonel, who as it happened, had not excelled himself on the target beforehand.
As they were walking along a ridge they heard an unusual metallic noise ahead of them and found a stag trailing a long length of wire which had got wrapped round the poor beast’s antlers.
It had to be shot causing the guest to remark to the stalker afterwards, ‘I know you don’t think much of my shooting, but there is no need to be tethering the stags for me!’
I don’t know why soldiers in general are such rotten shots. Perhaps it is because they are more used to spraying their targets with automatic rifle fire. The colonel in this case was so bad a shot that, on one occasion after loosening off several rounds without hitting anything, the accompanying ghillie was heard to mutter under his breath, ‘ You ******, you couldn’t hit Argyllshire’.
KEEN: young stalkers and curmudgeonly old ghillies waiting for shooting guests at Forest Lodge,