The Ghillie's Office a short walk between desks
I'm going to be on a freezing hillside in the snow and rain, lugging a rifle along as I'm beasted up and down the highlands by the ghillie.
My happy place
There have been a lot of stories told about the highland stalking experience, often from a money no object perspective. With everything sporting on these islands there is a kind to historical theatre on offer for them that wants it. 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. On the really big estates there’s enough water courses to have Argo-cats to get about. This story takes place on a relatively small estate of only 5,000 acres. The estate sells Grouse shooting both from the Butts and Walked Up, Pheasant, Reds, Roe and Mountain Hare. On the big estates you stay in the grand baronial mini-castle. We are self-catering in a cottage down the road.
“Yes I’ve done it, where you crawl about all day in the mud and bog, you shoot a deer and on walking back you’re 200 yards from the cottage, I bet you love it”
Unknown Toff - met at Pheasant shoot
I awaken in the glorious any blackness of the predawn of my birthday, no street lights, no car horns, or sirens. Surprisingly considering the day before’s exertions no searing pain. It’s my birthday and just for once I have no expectations or hopes to be crushed. Just a brutal day of highland stalking with whatever surprises it throws my way. But first the sweet black taste(s) of morning. Coffee served as it tastes best, with a new day all to play for. A day with rifles and venison in it. The temperature outside the bed covers suggests that it may even be a day that starts in dry clothes. Any day that can start with dry clothes; coffee of the Italian persuasion, and eggs, eggs from shells-not from powder, has started well. As I leave my room it occurs to me that the Bambi Basher has brought a black pudding and some sausages with him. The foundations are in place for a really great day. Happy birthday me.
The cottage is picture postcard, with brass ornaments, exposed stonework and an assortment of furniture that will one day puzzle interior design students. Nice but has some strangely thought out features; in England light switches are placed where your eye falls, in Spain they’re where your hand falls, in the cottage, perhaps in an attempt to limit the amount of copper wire used, they are scattered where you’d least expect them to be. Some we never found.
I give up looking for a hall light and too lazy to stumble back to my room to look for my head torch I make for the kitchen. The stairs may have been recycled from a much larger property, they are wide enough for a town hall so its very easy to step into empty space with the banister rail you’d use to save your life well beyond reach.
Now thoroughly adrenalised and fully awake I tour the drying areas in front of the storage heaters and rearrange the now warm dry clothes. So far so birthday.
The kettle boils, the sizzle of sausages and black pudding becomes a siren call drawing fat boys from their beds, in order of size. “Morning mucker, happy birthday!” first up The Bambi Basher hoves into view.
There are two opposing schools of thought when it comes to a hill-breakfast.
Plan A; stuff your face so you’ve got enough fuel to survive all day without eating again, using slow-burning carbs.
Plan B; smaller breakfast made of protein and fat. Memories of being over dressed and over stuffed the day before, prompt me to eat the smallest birthday breakfast I’ve had in a few years and dressing, I sacrifice one layer of fleece. After the debacle of the day before where the scope came loose from the rifle, I spend a couple on minutes looking at the crumpled sheet of paper we used as a zeroing target, with its cluster of holes overlaying the back squiggle of marker pen. Absolute confidence in the equipment is a must.
The clothes I’d chosen performed flawlessly, I’d eventually gotten wet, but never cold and wet. My binoculars had recovered from being dragged though the bog a few times, my boots had kept water out until totally submerged for the Nth time. What could go wrong? The Bambi Basher has other plans for the day, so Mr Grendel and myself set off to find the Ghillie.
The Ghillie looks delighted to see us, which immediately makes me suspicious that he has some horrific fate planned for us. “Its his birthday” Mr Grendel announces. The ghillie’s eyes narrow slightly. The wind drops for a moment and I can hear to ghosts of long dead sportsman, whose bones lie where they fell on the hillside, wailing their terrible warning ‘Yer doomed! Doomed I tell yee’. Facing my way with his back to the Ghillie Mr Grendel allows himself a little smirk knowing my fate is sealed.
We clamber into the landrover, it's been raised up on significantly bigger wheels in a conspiracy to make all but the tallest sport feel as unfit as he really is. The Ghillie fires up the repurposed blast furnace of a heater, its all very cozy, my trepidation lessens, the Landy has started to feel like a refuge from the elements.
Mr Grendel: I’ve had a few Landy’s both of my own and of Her Majesties, I’ve never been in one with a heater like this!
The Ghillie: Aye. Is that right?
This is the highlands so the changeable weather has blown in a change. Some of the day before’s snow has melted, and being the highlands has just a quickly changed back and been refrozen as a thin sheet of ice over the snow and freezing mud. The Landy lurches and slides its way up the glen, the Ghillie’s hands shuffle the wheel like a Stig, When that doesn't work he tries to use the the tires to melt their way through the snow.
The Scottish tourist board have laid on another of those stunning moments where you’ll swear you will return, all aching limbs and inaccuracy induced shame momentarily forgotten. The clouds part like stage curtains, sunlight illuminates the hillside, heather glows with diamond sparkling dew and the Red Stag herd, some 250-300 of them, stand proud against the snow on the far far side of the glen. Emerging from the rancid cloud of tire smoke we lurch forward and the clouds bear in again. A white mountain Hare bounds past, turns to watch us, bounds on, turns to watch us, after the forth time it bores of the game and scampers away across the heather.
Mr Grendel: I like your office a lot more than mine.
The Ghillie: Aye. Is that right?
SBW: Do all clients say that to you?
Aye, [pause] you might say its worn a little thin, [special Scottish extra-long pause] over the years.
I give Mutley style snigger, and blow snot all over my own face. The ghillie’s expression says ‘you just can’t the the clients these days’. So far so birthday. And the torment is yet to begin.
We leave the hothouse of the Landrover, as usual the ghillie is off like the proverbial racing snake. By the time we’ve shouldered our rifles he’s away across the snow. I try to long-stride after him, stumbling from tussock to tussock. We are about the same height and it gets a bit easier as I start to stepping-stone his foot prints, wearing a bit less than the first day I’m feeling a bit less overheated and light headed. In spite of yesterday’s equipment failure I’m starting to see how this could work out. I turn back to see Mr Grendel face down in the snow, on turning back the ghillie is a field of snow, heather, and mud away. He’s now doing that exasperated waving thing again, the wind howls, more snow gusts at us, I struggle on. I’ve lost the Ghillie’s footprints and either lose my footing; my boots slipping between the tussocks, or worse still I sink knee deep between them where the thick black mud sucks. After many a slip I finally start to make some progress.
There’s a sudden lightening of my load. Surprised I twist back just in time to catch my rifle while its still butt-down but upright on the ground. Sling failure. Of course the Ghillie has turned back to issue more impatient hand gestures so is watching the whole debacle. I look back the way I’ve come. I’m not sure if Mr Grendel is recovering from another plummet or just had his head in his hands in despair.
Sling mended with a bit of string - Ghillie’s pocket - I didn’t have a piece, for shame. We’re all caught up and the next stalk begins. “When ah turn round I wanna be able to touch both of you”
No more fart-arse-ing about, after all the Ghillie is in wellies boots, but his ankles never bend, most of the time he still has his hands in his pockets.
SBW: [panting] I keep expecting you to spark up a fag
The Ghillie: [deadpanning]
Aye. is that right, ah used to smoke, [special Scottish extra-long pause] it did used to irritate the clients.
We stalk up hill, we stalk down hill, occasionally we stalk across the hill, somehow we stalk around the hill crossing our tracks several times. Suddenly the Ghillie does that thing where ‘racing snake’ leaves the realms of metaphor and becomes a literal description, he basically dives down the steep hillside slithering along on his belly until the heather gives way to shale where he moves into a low crouch. I follow him, more sedately obviously. Rounding a mini-crag of cold slippery rock I find him signalling and then shouting for me to catch up. Two Roe doe have just become aware of his presence and are high tailing it away. I trudge back to Mr Grendel who’s taking a breather, sheltered behind the remains of some ancient drystone wall. We share that moment of wordless understanding familiar to all travellers in far flung lands. The Ghillie strolls past “When ah turn round I wanna be able to touch both of you”
Back to the Landrover. Once we’re back in the warm its all a laugh and a joke again. Like many psychopathic bullies our Highland Professional alternates between being hilarious and withering disdain. But on the upside he will not let you fail, even if you nearly die in the attempt.
Some more of the same later we’ve been up and down, and down and up, I’m really not sure if I’ve got it in me to climb another one, we cross a stream, and cross back again several times, taking the route down along the water course we are obscured from the hillside far above us. The ghillie turns and starts up the near vertical hillside. I pull myself up grabbing handfuls of heather until I run out of heather, I struggle on up the hill and catch him up, he takes my rifle and in his anti-grav wellies saunters on up the hill. I follow. Instantly falling through the thin crust of ice into the snow, as I push down with my hands to get my head out of the snow, both of them disappear into snow deeper than my arms, I’m like a beached bearded walrus, I roll over on to my back and manage to struggle to my feet, the Ghillie is lying prone about twenty meters above me, somehow we’re now bellow three Roe. Reinvigorated by my snow-bath I power myself alongside him collapsing behind the rifle which balances on its bipod. I’m wheezing like a broken set of bagpipes lying in the snow. Breezily he tells me to relax and let my heart rate drop, I chamber a round and at his command shoot the first one, he tells me to shoot the second, and then the third. The first bounds away and the other two drop dead in their tracks, “there you see just as easy as that”.
Obviously I’m delighted, the light is failing fast this was the last shout. We pull the first two together and the Ghillie gralloch’s , the third eludes us. As we’re driving back I’m resigned to going back up onto the hill with a dog to look for the lost beast.
Ghillie: Oh aye that's what we’ll do, we’ll wait ‘till it gets dark and is snowing before we go and look for twelve pounds worth of venison”
Suddenly I cant help but see the pantomime of him guiding us as we play at doing his day job.
The next morning I cant get up from the sofa, BB and G spend the day on the hill, as they meet him at dawn the Ghillie smirks “ I think I may have broken your pal the Bushwacker” if i’d been there all I could have done is feebly concur.