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Issue 51 - Big game attraction

Scotland Magazine Issue 51
June 2010


This article is 8 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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Big game attraction

James Irvine Robertson charts the history of hunting in Scotland.

The most popular recreation of the male social elite in ages past was warfare. In times when there was nobody obvious around to slaughter, hunting took its place because it required many of the same skills. Thus participants could keep sharp for the main event. For many centuries on the periphery of Europe, Scotland was regarded as a land of primitive barbarism by more sophisticated nations but its main exports of hides, skins and fierce mercenary soldiers gave a clue to its qualities when it came to the chase.

Bears disappeared before the historical record, but wolves survived until the 17th century. The latter were considered vermin and ruthlessly persecuted, not for the obvious reason that they were a threat to domestic livestock but because they predated the red deer and this, always, was the most prized quarry. Kings kept hunting seats throughout the Highlands and usually combined state business in remote parts of their realm with the chase.

More day-to-day hunting parks round such palaces as Stirling, Falkland and Holyrood were stocked with game where even that least martial of monarchs James VI and his court could enjoy an afternoon’s sport after the chore of ruling was over for the day.

Besides clan chiefs, who acknowledged no law but their own in their domains, only an earl and those who ranked above them were permitted to own deer hounds.

Poachers risked dire penalties if they were caught but it rarely deterred them. It was considered a natural right to take a deer from the hill or a fish from the river.

They and their betters would get together for the tinchels. On such occasions, great men gathered in a convenient location while the surrounding hills and glens were encircled by an army of beaters, the menfolk who would otherwise follow their lords in battle, and the deer herded towards the killing ground, usually a narrow glen. The beaters had to be careful because deer will break back through the line if hurried.

When the herd arrived, the hunters would break off from their feasting to rain arrows and musket balls upon the deer as they passed by, or set their deer hounds on them, or even stand four-square and hack them down with their swords. The last tinchel on record was that held by the Earl of Mar in 1715, but this was only a pretext to gather supporters for the Jacobite Rising of that year.

Two well recorded tinchels took place in Perthshire; the first in 1529 to entertain James V. On this occasion, the Earl of Atholl built a palace in the wilderness, floored with turfs and flowers and hung with silks and tapestries. He installed glass windows. He also dug a pond and filled it with fish for his guests. Every kind of drink was provided and the list of meats included goose, capon, cranes, swans, partridge, plover, duck, peacock, black grouse, red grouse, capercaillie and even turkey a few years after its introduction from the Americas.

The Papal Nuncio, the Pope’s ambassador, was present and he ‘thought it a great marvel that such a thing could be in Scotland considering it was named the arse of the world by other countries’. The King was there for three days; they killed 600 red deer as well as roe deer, wolves, foxes and wild cats. As the monarch left, the palace was set on fire to everyone’s satisfaction and the wilderness returned.

In 1564, Queen Mary turned up 2,000 Highlanders were employed for two months across Atholl, Badenoch, Mar and Moray to drive the deer to the designated glen where the great men and women were waiting. A couple of thousand deer, led by a great stag ‘moved forward in something like battle order’. The Queen, whom nobody could order to behave herself, loosed her best hound prematurely and the lead stag broke back towards the beaters, taking his army with him. Several men were wounded and ‘two or three were killed outright’. In spite of this setback, 360 deer were accounted for, as well as some roes and five wolves.

For owners of estates, the wildlife was a food resource. Dogs were trained to point at clumps of heather where grouse were sheltering. The fowler would then tiptoe up and throw a net over the designated spot and wring the necks of the birds. With the increasing use of sporting firearms, landowners began to lease shooting and stalking rights to rich southerners. This reached its apogee in the 19th century when, for example, Walter Winans whose family made their money in the development of railroads in the US, leased shooting rights over 250,000 acres across the north of Scotland from the North Sea to the Atlantic.

In early August, King’s Cross station in London would be thronged with tweed-clad aristocrats and their gundogs travelling north in time for the opening of the grouseshooting season on the Glorious Twelfth.

Fishing, shooting and stalking deer in Scotland attracted the cream of society from all over the world and became immensely important to the Highland economy.

Highlanders learned to play the couthy peasant and extracted large tips.

What suffered most, however, was the more mundane wildlife. Anything that predated upon the precious deer, grouse or salmon was ruthless exterminated. An extraordinary list of vermin destroyed in Glengarry between 1837 and 1840 includes 78 otters, 462 kestrels, 15 golden eagles, 63 goshawks, 83 hen harriers, 27 sea eagles, 371 rough-legged buzzards, 275 kites, 18 ospreys, 3 honey buzzards, and 6 gyr falcons. The last eight species were wiped out by gamekeepers on mainland Scotland by the end of the century and only in the last couple of decades have great efforts been made by conservationists to reintroduce some of them.

Today, fishing for salmon and hunting deer and grouse still attract people and is worth nearly £100m to the Scottish economy.

It is not a cheap sport. A brace of driven grouse could cost you £140, a stag £300, and salmon fishing £100 a day – and you’ll be lucky if you catch anything at all.