The most talked-about stag in Europe

The Oban Times - - HERITAGE - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­

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.

Pho­to­graph: Iain Thorn­ber

The sil­ver model of the fa­mous stag.

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