Monday, 14 December 2015

Highland Deer Stalking: A Week On The Hinds

“ must have a good pair of legs. If automobiles, elevators, and general laziness have not ruined your powers of locomotion, you may follow the dogs; otherwise, you had best stay at home.” 
Saxton Pope

This trip is Bucket List and one that the Bambi Basher and I have talked about for a coupe of years. Time, tide, and the rubbish that is modern life have conspired to keep us 'south of the wall', until now. Readers over 40, enjoying ‘ middle youth’ will know that there comes a time after which your birthday is all about doing what other people tell you you will enjoy, usually a choice suspiciously similar to things they want to do. This year the Bambi Basher came to my aid; with an invitation to a week ‘on the hinds’ highland stalking during the Hind and Doe cull. Even better we’d be based in a cottage with no Internet or phone signal. For once what the other person wanted to do really was what I wanted to do!

Cast and Crew
The Bambi Basher - blogger, firearms dealer, and my introduction to deer stalking in the UK
Mr Grendel - BB’s mate, military history / firearms buff and BB's pun-tastic sparring partner.
SBW - your humble scribe, shambling along with a bad back, beset by loneliness and heartbreak.
The Ghillie -a‘Highland Professional” taciturn representative of Scottish/Wildling culture, alternating between contemptuous rage, and droll wit.

A break in the weather, obviously on the Sunday when there is to be no shooting

After our long drive north. We pull up at the cottage, its dark and surrounded by rapidly freezing  mud. A mountain Hare bounds past. cloud cover is blowing in, its very dark. Inside its not a lot warmer than outside but there is electric light. Much to Mr Grendel’s dismay the Bambi Basher and I dump our mountain of stuff on the first bits of clear floor we come to. He stow’s his kit with the kind of discipline I’d associate with a submariner. I start lighting a fire in the grate and BB busy’s himself turning the ancient storage heaters on. Storage heaters aren't too bad once they reach operating temperature, but it can take 24 hours. Its cold enough in the house that the thermostat isn't going to turn the fridge on, we turn in for the night.

On the first day we’re up before dawn, Mr Grendel says he'll take the opportunity for a day’s rest at the cottage. I set to frying a mountain of meat products for breakfast. BB announces a fondness for powdered egg, I’ve heard of it, I thought it was the kind of thing people ate in WW2 prisoner of war camps, but assumed it hadn't been made since the 1950’s, to prove me wrong he produces a large bag of yellow dust and announces that Mr Grendel is the worlds leading practitioner of making ‘scrambled eggs’ with it. My cynicism is uncontained. Mr Grendel is quick to disassociate himself from the wonder of powdered egg, but does rustle up one panfull of what looks a lot like ground up loft insulation, BB’s delight is almost uncontained. Mr Grendel and myself eat a few mouthfuls to be polite. That's another one ticked off the bucket list.

With our sandwiches packed and us wrapped up against the weather BB and I head out of the door to meet The Ghillie.  The mud outside the cottage is frozen into sharp black ridges, the steps traitorous with ice, but the dawn breaks on a new day. The next hour is probably what will define our stay.
We have to meet the Ghillie, who will size us and our capabilities up and plan our shooting accordingly.

There is a piece of advice given to those being trained to lead at Sandhurst Officer training school (the UK’s equivalent of Westpoint), which is also a good pointer for all travellers visiting the UK, and  it defiantly true for sassanacs  venturing north of the wall.

“If you are treated with any kind of deference at all you’re fucked, if they take the piss without mercy you’re ‘in’ with them, or will at least be tolerated.”

Ghillies, Keepers, or in the modern parlance, Highland Professionals  are central to the sporting experience; they get you on to the hill, get you within range of the beasts, gralloch and then get you and the beasts safely off the hill at the end. They are hard as nails and honor-bound to keep up a gruff scotsman act while you're within earshot during the hours of daylight. Around the fire or in the pub they are raconteur's of the old school, accomplished naturalists, crack shots with rifle and gun, they fly cast like the gods themselves, often they've been on many of the other bucket list hunts, to Africa and Alaska. As there isn't much else to do in the evenings they hold rivalry's with their contemporaries on the next estate that border on blood feuds.  If you've taken the trouble to go there in the first place they know that you think they've got the worlds best job. Its a thought that keeps them warm while trudging up the glen for the thousandth time that week.

We pull up in a farm yard and mooch about looking for the Ghillie. There’s no answer at the cottage so I wander down to the kennels, there’s a fella feeding the dogs, I call out a greeting and receive the dismissive nod that is the hallmark of customer service north of the wall, where the wildlings make sure you know the inconvenience of your presence will be tolerated the very moment they get past more pressing matters; like staring into the middle distance, or scratching their arses. Its very similar to the greeting ritual used in English builder's merchants but less aggressive.

After a while the Ghillie wanders over, the BB reintroduces himself and yours truly, and tries that simplest of bonding ceremonies, one that usually overcomes cultural and linguistic barriers. Wherever in the world you go sportsman all speak rifle calibers.

BB “I’ve brought a 7x57, a .308 and, a Ruger No. 1 in 25-06”
The Ghillie ‘Aye. Is that right? Where you put ‘em is quite important too’

Its decided we’ll skip the zeroing part of the mornings plans, and we pile into the Landrover and head up the glen. The glen is a picture perfect example of the savage beauty of the highlands, the greens and browns of the heather, tiger striped by the recent snowfall. We clamber out of the Landy and BB loads up, the ghillie looking on with eyes as unpitying as the hillside. He jerks his head up the glen and puts a step on, we follow. At a more sedate pace.

This is not woodland stalking. There will be no relaxing ambling along, dozing in highseats, or shooting from the comfort of a covered hide. The hillsides are somehow both steep and boggy simultaneously. Beneath the snow your feet will sink knee-deep into the clinging black mud. The Ghillie will seem to float effortlessly moving across the snow, as though he’s walking across your living room carpet. In the south where the nearest house is never more than a few hundred yards away we carry our rifles muzzle-down, north of the wall they carry muzzle-up to keep heather and snow out of the barrel, within a hundred yards I’ve hung the rifle across my back to have both hands free for balancing and grabbing at the heather to avoid tumbling arse over tit. Again.

The ghillie strolls on, hands in pockets, `I keep expecting him to light up a cigarette. I struggle on behind him panting, wheezing and sweating. By the time I’m stable enough to think of anything other than my immediate survival the Bambi Basher is disappearing into the distance behind us.

Both BB and myself have dressed for a big adventure on steep snow covered and traitorously tussocked terrain. Layer upon layer of fleece, high waking boots, NomadUK smocks and breeks. Within about twenty minutes I’m soaked in sweat, and lightheaded with exertion. The Ghillie on the other hand is in wellie-boots and is dressed for a short walk in his back garden which in a way is, just what he’s doing.

We stand on a slither of flat-ish ground and glass the hillsides, the wind sandblasts our faces, the Ghillie is barely breathing, I’ve just about stopped hyperventilating. The view is picture-postcard Scotland, the strange cartoonish sound of the Grouse Lekking is heard as the wind blows towards us and is cut short as the wind turns. Far above us Ravens circle some unseen carrion. Or are making a mental posit note of the last time we were seen alive. Sunlight punches an almost perfect circle in the battleship grey cloud and a shaft of sunlight set to stun beams down briefly warming some far away piece of sodden earth.

SBW: I like your office a lot more than mine
The Ghillie: Aye. Is that right?

Further conversation is rendered impossible by the wind, the Ghillie takes his hat off. I hook my Buff over the top of my ears, which feel as though someone is hacking at them with tin-snips. The Bambi Basher hoves into view and joins us on the slither of flat ground, he’s paced the walk up the hillside and looks relatively composed, I’ve almost stopped hyperventilating but am now smeared in mud and the stubble of my beard is speckled with rain drops. We are less than an hour into it. I'm reliably informed I look as though a snowman has farted in my face.

We try another tack, but rounding the hillside I stand up in an involuntary attempt to make the searing pain in my back ease up, in doing so I silhouette against the skyline and the Hinds flash their tails and are gone.

The Ghille sets off like a racing snake and we struggle after him. Suddenly he crouches down and we do the same, he still moves at exactly the same speed, the gap between us grows, he makes an irritated hand gesture which I interpret as ‘bend down further and walk faster’. Before I can catch him up he’s turned and is slithering downhill on his belly. I try to follow him starting on all-fours, sinking elbow deep into the mud. Something between a wriggle and a slide brings me alongside the Ghillie who is making a hand signal I infer as ‘put your rifle here NOW you sasanac time waster or i’ll knot the barrel around your feckin’ neck.’ I have no doubt that he could and would. 

Lying wedged between a cluster of tussocks and rocks covered in melting snow I try to slow my pounding heart and heaving chest, my eyes lurch in and out of focus, my inner ears pound like rain on a tin roof, the crosshairs dance over the Hind. I manage to pull it all together and between beats start to squeeze the trigger. Nothing happens. I’m wondering it a stick or stone has become wedged behind the triggers blade. I’m pretty sure the deer isn't going to wait around much longer so I apply the kind of force you’d use to crack a walnut shell. The trigger breaks. The first round is a clean miss, “Feckin reloud" snarls the Ghillie, I work the bolt and send the second one sailing over the Hind’s shoulder, a third makes the same trajectory. Pictures of smashed bullseyes at the indoor range dance before my eyes, but-but-but my confidence is slumping, BB looks on with kindly concern, the ghillie’s ill-concealed contempt hangs in the air. We trudge on, fording a stream or six. The wind scours, snow swirls, and along with the tops of my boots, my ebullience starts to take-on water.

The warm welcome awaiting us back at the cottage

In the UK our deer seasons are sexed, when Red hinds are in season so are Roe does. Further down the glen the next opportunity presents and another pair of rounds sail over a doe’s shoulders. The Ghillie’s withering contempt is more abrasive than the winds that blast the hillside. We trudge on, I feel like the worst kind of time waster imaginable. Now despondent I mention my dismay at missing five times in a row.
The Ghillie “If you’re looking for sympathy its somewhere between shit and syphalis”
SBW “Aye is that right?’
I console myself that he not calling me 'sir'.  As we near the Landrover the Ghilie asks for my rifle, empties the chamber and squeezes the trigger, a palpable air of disgust threatens to strip the varnish from the rifle's stock, he repeats the procedure, "that's such a nice trigger" I must have looked shocked because he adds "erhm being sarcastic" Equipment failure may have earned me a partial reprieve from charges of sassanac uselessness. Partial.

Back at the Landrover, I heave myself and the huge weight of my bog-encrusted boots in, the Ghillie flicks a switch firing up what appears to be a small jet engine repurposed as a heater.
SBW: “I’ve never been in a Landcover with a heater like this!”
The Ghillie: Aye. Is that right?
The Bambi Basher rocks up and clambers in after us, he smiles happy to be out of the wind, and in the warm blast of the industrial clothes dryer.
BB “ This heater didn't come with the Landrover! I’ve never been in a Landcover with a heater like this!”
The Ghillie: Aye. Is that right?

The ghillie drops us off at the lodge, a sort of wooden summer house with a kitchen sink and a big woodturner.Its installers, concerned that it’ll want to take Dorothy and Toto on an unwarranted trip to Oz, have  ratchet-strapped the roof to four blocks of concrete.

You might think your target board has seen a lot of action, but...

Future generations will mine lead and copper here.

We take the 7x57 down to the the range, I clamber up the slope and pin the paper on the board. As soon as I'm behind him again BB takes position and starts to splatter rounds over the backing board. The central black dot remains untroubled. Now BB looks perturbed, first it turns out the moderator isn't screwed on as tight as we might have liked, he gives it a twist, dials in some windage clicks and puts two rounds onto the top right hand corner of the paper. He calls me over. I settle behind the rifle. As I’m wriggling into position the rifle rattles, when I says rattles, it rattles like a supermarket trolley on a cobbled street. WTF! I put my hand on the S&B scope, its barely moored to the rifle at all. Now filled with the glee of exoneration I saunter back to the ghillie’s house, all smirking set to stealth mode.

SBW: Hi, I’m wondering can we borrow a flat head screwdriver?
Ghillie: Sure what size are you needing?
SBW: Rings. Scope’s not tight to the rifle
Ghillie: Aye. Is that right?

With the scope now reattached to its moorings we're able to pouch some holes in the black dot, and whistling Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song' retreat to the fireside.

More in part 2
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