For the visitor, as with everything sporting on these islands, there is a kind of historical theatre on offer for them that want’s it. But it’s a hell of a price. You can go to estates where the Stags are brought down off the hill on the backs of especially stubborn ponies. Led by kilted locals of similar temperament. You’ll be guided by Ghillie’s and Keepers wearing patterns of tweed unique to the ground you’re standing on. You’ll be staying in a mini castle straight out of Game of Thrones. The grub is amazing. Smoked Salmon that’s more yellow than pink [wild - no food dyes], Langoustine so sweet they could have been fished from sugar water, Venison both robust from big Reds and as delicate as veal from Roe deer. And Whisky. The water of life, stained from the salty air, and peaty soil.
Our trip was to a small estate of only 5,000 acres. The estate’s main business is selling driven Grouse shooting. ‘Driven’ where you are shooting from the Butts, which are stone shooting bays designed both to offer some cover and to keep the sportsman’s gun pointing in the right direction as an army of beaters work the hillside driving the birds towards him. A good day’s bag might be 100 birds each for 8 guns. Just to put this in perspective for a moment; its £10,000 per gun - per day. Yikes!
For the more energetic Grouse shooter [read younger rich bloke] there is also ‘Walked Up’. Four or five of you might walk ten miles in a day, over very rough ground, and take a bag of 5-20 birds between you. Walked up is cheaper, probably ‘only’ ten grand for the group! For the rest of the year, to make this magic happen, the Ghillie has to control predators (Foxes, Stoats, and Weasels), he must lay out trays of medicated grit to keep the birds parasite free, he’ll burn the heather to encourage new growth and he must manage the Deer herd. If the estate allows the number of deer to grow too high the land wont support Sheep or Grouse, and the government will send first its own culling team and then a substantial bill for the cull. This imperative means that during the long Hind culling season there are affordable Hill Stalking opportunities. Which is where us poor folk come in.
Meet The Squad:
SBW, the birthday boy.
Big Tim, Historic firearms dealer, military history buff, and powdered egg enthusiast.
Little Tim, Not that little and not his name, but it became so, as you’ll see in a minute.
The Ghillie. Depending on your point of view either; a highly committed Highland Professional who will go the extra ten miles to ensure his client’s success, or a sadistic bully who will make sure those ten miles are over the roughest ground possible. Toss a coin.
Without the funds for a helicopter there are three ways to get to Scotland. 1. The train not too bad to get to Scotland but very slow to get anywhere in Scotland. Not cheap.
2. Flying very cheap but significant hassle taking firearms which, needing what amounts to their own tickets, and an extra two hours of check-in. All this seriously bumps the price up and the airport is a very long way from our destination.
3. Driving, I know American’s who would drive 100 miles for a really great burger, to us English boys 475 miles is a bloody long way. We drove.
As we head north the radio announces that the north of England is suffering an extreme weather event, the satnav is continually re-routing us to avoid flooding and road closures. Big Tim is a font of dad jokes, Little Tim divides his time between snoring and mocking Big Tim’s driving, equipment choices and military service. Betwixt and between; we debate and speculate as to how the 20th century would have turned out if we’d teamed up with the Germans in world war one, united against the French. Big Tim tells us a few tales about the last crew he came north with. A Texan took a tumble on the first day and having torn ligaments in his leg lay on the freezing hillside all morning waiting to be taken off by the ambulance crew. I guess in Scotland this wasn’t deemed far enough from the road to necessitate a helicopter or serious enough to get to him more quickly. Our host sounds like a bit of a card too, and very experienced with a rifle, 580 deer so far with a month of the year still to shoot. “Remember there’s no shame in having the ghillie carry your rifle over the rough stuff, in fact he prefers it, we’re only there to have a good time, he has to cull deer”. “To him 400 meters is everyday, he’ll expect us to shoot to 200m but not much more” “Just be careful where you put your feet.” “Don’t bother asking how far we have to walk, it’s always 300m and flat groound”
Suddenly after hours and hours in the car. Just as Big Tim is outlying his design specification for modifying the Maginot line to face the other way, keeping the French ‘nicely contained’, in a shock and awe moment - as if laid on by the Scottish tourist board - just as we cross the border, the skies and roads clear! We breathe a collective sigh of relief, and to make everyone feel even better we see deer by the side of the road. Browsing in the dying hour of what passes for sunlight in the winter in Scotland. Just a few detours around the surrounding area and we pull up at the cottage. It’s dark and surrounded by rapidly freezing mud. In a grey flash a Hare bounds past. Cloud cover is blowing in, its now very very dark. The fella we rented the cottage from has left the door; unlocked and ajar, the heating is turned off. Inside it’s not a lot warmer than outside but there is electric light. We’ve arrived. Much to Little Tim’s dismay Big Tim and I dump our mountain of stuff on the first bits of clear floor we come to. He stows his kit with the kind of discipline I’d associate with a submariner. I start lighting a fire in the grate and Big Tim busies himself turning the ancient storage heaters on. Storage heaters aren't too bad once they reach operating temperature, but it can take 24-48 hours. While stacking the fridge with provisions Little Tim and I can’t work out why the fridge, which is plugged in, doesn’t seem to want to turn on. Then it dawns on us. It’s cold enough in the house that the thermostat isn't going to trigger the fridge on. It’s been a long day, we turn in for the night.
thanks for reading