James Hen­der­son – a High­land deer stalker

The Oban Times - - News - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

THERE have been many changes in the deer-stalk­ing world dur­ing the past few decades, none more no­tice­able than the dis­ap­pear­ance of the tra­di­tional High­land game­keeper.

Wed­ded to the hills like old stags and know­ing no other job, they were won­der­ful nat­u­ral­ists, cus­to­di­ans of moun­tain lore and, above all, char­ac­ters with a sound, prac­ti­cal knowl­edge of deer and their habits.

Such a man was James Hen­der­son, stalker on Glen­quoich for Ed­ward El­lice, MP and chair­man of the Hud­son Bay Com­pany, and then Sir Michael Arthur Bass, later Lord Bur­ton, who leased the es­tate from 1873 to 1905. There James met Sir Ed­win Land­seer, who mod­elled much of the back­ground to his world fa­mous paint­ing, The Monarch of the Glen, on the hills and rocks around Glen­quoich and Loch Hourn.

Dur­ing his ten­ancy, Lord Bur­ton spent a for­tune on the es­tate, bring­ing em­ploy­ment and wealth to Glen­quoich on a scale not known be­fore or since. Un­der the su­per­vi­sion and man­age­ment of James Hen­der­son, the old lodge was mod­ernised, roads and bridges were built and 135 miles of pony-paths en­gi­neered and con­structed.

Throughout Lord Bur­ton’s ten­ancy, Hen­der­son kept de­tailed records of ev­ery sea­son’s cull. The Glen­quoich Stag Book, pub­lished pri­vately in 1898 for cir­cu­la­tion among Lord Bur­ton’s friends and guests, shows that dur­ing the 33-year lease, 2,599 stags were killed, 208 of which car­ried 12 points or more.

Of th­ese, 600 had been stalked by Hen­der­son and he alone had shot more than 1,000 hinds – an im­pres­sive record given the type of weapon in use at the time. Hen­der­son once said that some of his best ghillies could run al­most as fast and straight as their round bul­lets.

Ac­cord­ing to those who pre­ferred the new, high-ve­loc­ity weapons, the old, large cal­i­bre breech-load­ing ri­fles had a ‘rain­bow’ tra­jec­tory and made a lot of noise, dis­turb­ing the deer for miles.

Dur­ing his days at Glen­quoich, James kept an ac­count of the many guests he ac­com­pa­nied to the hill. The list reads like a chap­ter from De­bretts, re­mind­ing us how pop­u­lar deer stalk­ing and a love of re­mote places had be­come at that time.

James Hen­der­son’s finest days were un­doubt­edly those spent in 1904 and 1905 when he came out of re­tire­ment to or­gan­ise four great deer drives in­volv­ing 200 stalk­ers and game­keep­ers who came to Glen­quoich from a wide area to move stags to­wards King Ed­ward VII and his party hid­den from view in stone butts spe­cially built for the oc­ca­sion.

Tips of the tra­di­tional kind were no doubt given by most of the guests but, in­stead of money, the King pre­sented James with a solid sil­ver pocket watch and flask en­graved with the Royal cypher.

James’s son Robert, who had taken over as head stalker in 1900, was the re­cip­i­ent of a mag­nif­i­cent cased Mauser re­volver in­scribed: ‘To R Hen­der­son, head deer stalker, Glen­quoich, In­ver­ness-shire. From His Im­pe­rial High­ness Grand Duke Michael of Rus­sia, 1904’ – a gra­tu­ity which even then must have raised a few eye­brows.

An­other un­usual pre­sent which James re­ceived from his col­leagues at Glen­quoich in 1893 was a tri­cy­cle made by the Bri­tish Cy­cle Man­u­fac­tur­ing Com­pany, Liver­pool – a some­what odd pre­sent for a man by then in his late 50s liv­ing in such hilly ter­rain. Ac­cord­ing to a con­tem­po­rary ac­count: ‘Af­ter a few drinks, Mr Hen­der­son mounted his ma­chine and drove for home amidst the ring­ing cheers of his friends and well-wish­ers.’

James re­tired at the close of the 1900 stag sea­son. Such was Lord Bur­ton’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of his long and faith­ful ser­vice, he built a cot­tage for him and gave him a pen­sion for life. In the last stag shot by Lord Bur­ton were two bul­lets, one by the laird and the other by the stalker.

Lord Bur­ton, know­ing that his bul­let had not quite killed the beast, handed the ri­fle to James with the words: ‘ We’ve brought down many stags to­gether, let us share in the last.’

James died peace­fully in his cot­tage at Bun­chaolie in 1915 and was buried in a nearby ceme­tery to the strains of the old pipe tune Lochaber No More.

The beau­ti­ful old lodge where King Ed­ward VII held court and the lit­tle cot­tage at Bun­chaolie dis­ap­peared in 1955 be­neath the wa­ters of a hy­dro elec­tric scheme. Huge, ugly py­lons and more hy­dro schemes des­e­crate Land­seer’s primeval land­scape.

But his name lives on in a book called The Pla­ce­names of Glen­garry and Glen­quoich and in the well-made pony path which zigzags its way up the side of Glouraich above Loch Quoich to the King’s Butt. No- one who uses it to­day can fail to be im­pressed by the stalker who en­gi­neered it all th­ese years ago.

Sadly, for the deer and the nat­u­ral his­tory of the High­lands, the James Hen­der­sons of yes­ter­year have been re­placed largely by statis­ti­cians, men in train­ers and lap­tops who have lit­tle or no prac­ti­cal knowl­edge of deer or the hill.

Yes, we need sci­en­tists now and again, but if the deer are to sur­vive, th­ese new-age stalk­ers should be kept well in the back­ground to be con­sulted only as re­quired.

James Hen­der­son of Glen­quoich.

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