James Henderson – a Highland deer stalker
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.