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Issue 4 - Calling all the shots

Scotland Magazine Issue 4
September 2002


This article is 16 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Calling all the shots

Elizabeth Walton examines scottish shooting, from the thrill of the hunt through to the practical side of the experience

The silence is broken only by a faint susurration of wind through the heather and the cackling mockery of the grouse, the most difficult gamebird to shoot. A shower of rain has knocked the pollen from the heather and alerted the birds. The beaters are away in the distance and the horizons are appallingly close to the line of butts that follows the contours of the land: no quarter will be given by this quarry. All of a sudden, a tightly-grouped set of black spots are skimming low across the heather. Your heartbeat quickens, and you release the safety-catch on your shotgun. In a flash the spots become a twisting, flashing covey of birds hurtling towards the butts: the most challenging shot you can imagine.

It was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who established the Highlands as a Mecca for sportsmen. Longing to escape to a semi-private world, they discovered Balmoral in Aberdeenshire, and bought in 1848. Here the Prince was reminded of the valleys, lakes and rushing streams of his native land, and Her Majesty recorded her delight in ‘the wilderness and solitariness of everything.’ The beauty of the austere landscape where the elusive red grouse is found is the other reason why gameshots love the bird, and August 12th marks the annual pilgrimage to Scotland for the start of the season.

No self-respecting shot misses an opportunity to pit his skill against the unforgiving grouse. This quarry is wild; it has the will to live. The most fortunate guns will be invited to an outstanding private moor as a guest. Burncastle, say, in the Lammermuir Hills just south of Edinburgh, owned by the Duke of Northumberland. One of the UK’s First XI shots, the Duke confesses, ‘Half the fun of owning a grouse moor is letting other people enjoy it.’ Those most likely to receive an invitation are the guns who can reach a stellar bird to cartridge ratio of something like 1:21/2.

Failing a smart invitation, a sporting agency will organize tailor-made shooting trips to such venues as Lord Reidhaven’s 33,000 acre Kinveachy estate which offers first class sport. Furthermore, I can recommend being piped into dinner at Kinveachy Lodge, a fine place to be cosseted after an exhausting day on the hill. After an excellent dinner everyone
understands why Englishmen go north to be men, and women go north to watch them.

In the morning, before breakfast, you can look out across miles of furled mist suffused with the first rays of sunlight until they become luminous. But when the first covey races towards the butt, and you mount your gun, the trick is to be aggressive and ask yourself, ‘Where’s my bird amongst this bunch?’ then nail it. Getting on the line early, and getting both barrels off in front is the technique for success against the grouse. Sadly, this is easier said than done.

The grouse will storm out of nowhere, flick a contemptuous white underwing at you then slide away down a ravine to fight another day. It’s all over in the blink of an eye. At this point it occurs to even the best shots that a spot of coaching before arriving on the hill could have helped. The clay pigeons at Holland & Holland’s Shooting School, the most prestigious in the world, can tear past you, twisting and turning to simulate a covey of grouse to perfection. A lesson with chief instructor Ken Davies will be both an investment and a pleasure, and he will offer invaluable advice on how best to connect with Scotland’s testing birds.

Walked-up grouse shooting dispenses with the formality of a driven shoot. Instead of the regimentation of a line of eight or so guns waiting patiently, (perhaps impatiently), for the grouse to be driven towards the butts, a line of five or six will walk across the heather where the grouse are hunkered down. Safety is of the essence in either discipline.

In driven grouse shooting, swinging through the line to take a bird behind presents a very obvious danger. So too does shooting in close proximity to the beaters. In the walked-up version of the sport, tramping far and wide in search of the quarry over ground that turns all too quickly into gullies and peat hags can also be tricky when you are armed with a shotgun. Sliding unceremoniously into a sucking bog is a habit some of us seem to have acquired with no effort at all. Nevertheless, if you are lucky, walked-up shooting will involve the use of a pointer who will quarter the ground. To watch a dog work in search of a covey, and then flush it, is an additional privilege.

One of the widowed Queen Victoria’s most cherished memories of Balmoral was the evening Prince Albert brought home by torchlight the great stag he had shot. For sportsmen who prefer to use a rifle rather than a shotgun, heading for the hill to stalk red deer is considered the best hoofed animal hunting to be found in the world. Without doubt it is the very best way to appreciate the ravishment of privacy, stillness and grandeur of the Highlands. Again, it is wise to visit a shooting ground for some practice at the beginning of the season; a wounded stag spells disaster.

Each deer forest (no trees, but nevertheless a ‘forest’) will be different; the rounded, less punishing heather moors on the east of the country are quite different from the vertiginous hills of the west coast. Yet in its essentials the sport remains more or less unaltered since the Prince’s time. The party consists of the guest, the professional stalker and the pony-boy, and as a golden eagle drifts across the sky above them, the guest learns to do as he is told: the stalker is God. If he says lie in a freezing burn, you pretend to be a rock. If he says crawl through the heather base over apex, you crawl on all fours, muscles aching, lungs bursting. The weather will taunt you too: snow, driving rain, sweltering sunshine all in the same day. But the reward is the magnificent sight of 30 or 40 beasts.

Downwind, lying flat and invisible to the deer, in the heather, the stalker will ‘spy’ a stag that needs culling. He will tell you when you fire and what you fire at. The guest will stare down his rifle-sight and aim for a point behind the animal’s shoulder, certain of a clean kill. When it drops stone dead, the elation is tremendous and unforgettable. The stalker will gralloch (gut) the beast which is then carried off the hill by the pony; humans walk.

The Highlands and their sport are addictive. Next step is a Macnab, the popular term for a brace of grouse, a stag and a salmon all bagged within 24 hours. Fishing lessons anyone…?