The most talked-about stag in Europe
ON AUGUST 25, 1893, the sound of a rifle shot echoed round Coire nan Gall, a remote and wild place lying between Loch Quoich and Loch Nevis.
The man who pulled the trigger was Michael Arthur Bass (1837-1909), first Baron Burton, and the stag he killed became more famous than Landseer’s
Monarch of the Glen – not because it had 20 points, but over the question of whether it was born in the Highlands or an English deer park.
Lord Burton leased Glenquoich for 33 years and, in that period, 2,599 stags were killed. The stag has often been described as the Glenquoich 20-pointer. In fact it was shot on the adjacent Glenkingie forest, rented from Donald Cameron of Lochiel from 1874 to 1905.
The stag was killed during an excursion Lord Burton made over the hill to Loch Nevis with his daughter Nellie (later Baroness Burton), James Baillie of Dochfour (his future son-in-law), two other guests and two stalkers, James Henderson and his son Robert.
There was no plan to stalk but James Henderson told his son to take a rifle ‘just in case’. Near the watershed they disturbed some sheep that ran off down into the corrie taking about 35 stags with them. The stags stood for a moment and, to please his daughter, Lord Burton took a shot at what appeared to be the best of them, little knowing at what he was firing.
The body must have rolled a distance because Lord Burton and his party carried on their way leaving the stalkers to do the necessary. It was only in the evening, on returning home, that he learned of the magnificent trophy he had acquired.
The Glenkingie head was shown at the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901 and, later, in Germany. It attracted great attention and no- one raised any doubt that it was a genuine pure-bred Scottish stag. That came two years after Lord Burton’s death when Frank Wallace (1881-1962), a Scottish-based sporting painter, said in an article in Country Life, that there was more than a suspicion that it might not have been a true ‘Highlander’.
So began a furious exchange of letters. Lochiel, a member of the Deer Forest Commission, was the first to wade in. He reminded Wallace that Coire nan Gall was nowhere near a deer park, that the head was of an ordinary type of Highland stag and it was difficult to imagine how it could have been any other but one born and bred in Knoydart.
Unsure of himself now, Wallace began quoting John Guille Millais (1865-1931) the naturalist and gardener specialising in wildlife and flower portraiture, who wrote, in his British Deer and their
Horns (1897): ‘The clumsy-looking tops [of Lord Burton’s 20-pointer] are not the least like those of a typical wild Highland head, but on the other hand, closely resemble the formation which is found in certain parks.’
In his Mammals of Great Britain and Ireland (1906) Millais went further by admitting that he had not included Lord Burton’s stag, because he did not believe it to be genuine. Examining the head ‘in the flesh’, he told his readers that he found it to be an old worn beast suffering from decline with horns only weighing about a pound or two and were not such as would be carried by a Highland stag in its prime.
He concluded: ‘The lessees and owners of Highland forests are without doubt perfectly right in introducing fresh blood from the south, but these stags, if not confined, wander off into the forests and become perfectly wild and the stalkers, to please their masters, never say a word when they are shot.’ Allan Gordon Cameron, author of The
Wild Red Deer of Scotland (1923) and a keen stalker who lived near Connel and should have been more cautious, joined the fray and began tying himself in knots about which English park the 20-pointer might have come from, and when. But neither James Henderson, who was the head stalker during the greater part of Lord Burton’s tenancy, nor George Malcolm, who had been the factor throughout, were having any of it.
Meticulous records had been kept and, although some stags had been imported from three different English parks, they could account for all of them. Moreover their ears were marked with a particular cut to prevent them being shot if they got out of the purposebuilt deer park. No such mark can be seen on the head today.
The long correspondence was brought to a close by George Malcolm in April 1913, when he wrote that Lord Burton had never doubted the purity of the 20-tined stag’s descent and, as no man was ever more sensitive and scrupulous than he about fictitious claims or unfounded assertions, there was little more to be said.
When Nellie Bass married James Baillie of Dochfour in 1894, the people of Glengarry and Glenquoich presented them with an exquisitely scaled model in Scottish silver of the much- discussed stag they had witnessed being killed the previous year.
The silver model of the famous stag.