Stalking The Highlands

Hunting for red stag in Scotland is a gentleman's pursuit. Bill Heavey went anyway, and discovered a mix of forbidding country, refined culture, and guiding skills that border on the divine.

Field & Stream Online Editors

I'M NO STRANGER to unusual stalking situations, but this is definitely the first time I've had whortleberries in my pants. I am crawling down a 50-degree slope right behind my guide, Niall Rowantree. Right on my heels is gillie Steven Grant, 18, dragging the padded rifle case behind him. We are low-crawling through the heather or gorse or whatever the hell you call the wet, tundralike stuff covering the Scottish highlands, trying to keep from getting busted by the dozens of red deer scattered across this mountainside. I don't know about the others, but I'm doing more sliding than crawling. To stop, I have to stiffen my arms and shove them into the ground before me while flexing my toes to vertical and dragging them like anchors. Meanwhile, the farther we travel in this manner, the more vegetation finds its way into my clothes. Every time Niall (pronounced "Neal") stops to assess our progress and the disposition of the surrounding deer, we rear-end one another with all the precision of the Three Stooges trying to burgle a house. I use these occasions to retrieve handfuls of herbage from my pants. We are sneaking on a big red stag, an 8-pointer, lying on a bench several hundred yards below us. At least I think he's still below us. The weather was glorious this morning, when we were glassing the hills from the road below. Since then, curtains of mist and pattering rain have begun moving through from the southwest, reducing visibility to 80 yards.

A Land of Myths and Legends
I have come to Scotland on the advice of my dentist. He told me that for the price of an outfitted elk hunt, you could fly here, sleep in a clean bed each night, eat like a king, hunt the legendary highlands, and almost be guaranteed success on red stag. These deer, the largest land mammal native to the United Kingdom, are smaller cousins of the American elk.

For a long time, the beasts were reserved for royalty and landed gentry. Today, they attract English, German, and Scandinavian hunters, as well as an increasing number of Americans who, like my dentist, have discovered that red stag offer a challenging and satisfying hunt. I searched on Google, asked around, and eventually found Corrour (Ka-RAH-wer).

My first impression as I leave Glasgow and drive north into the highlands is one of disbelief. Given that the whole of the United Kingdom is a little smaller than Oregon, I figured the highlands would have the character of a good-size American theme park-you know, a few castles and golf courses, deep-fried Snickers bars (a national specialty, I've been told), and tacky little shops selling plaid T-shirts. Wrong. The "road" from the highway to the lodge and cottage where I'm staying, for instance, is 12 miles long and takes 45 minutes to navigate. One false move and you'd end up 400 feet below in a stream gushing along like a loose fire hose.

The estate itself is 52,000 acres and more isolated than you'd imagine was possible in Europe. Before the access road was finished in 1972, the only way to get here was by train via the tiny Corrour rail station, the highest and most remote in Britain.

It's not hard to see why. Big, stark, and strangely compelling, the countryside is nearly deserted, with a population density rivaling that of Papua New Guinea. This place zeroes in on your psyche and grabs hold. What I'm experiencing is not deja vu, the sense of having been here before, so much as the feeling you get when you meet another person and intuitively sense that you already know each other's stories. Maybe it's ancestral.

This is, after all, the WASP Mesopotamia, the place from which my forebears and those of millions of other Americans were cast out or fled when the highland clans, the last vestiges of the feudal system in Europe, collapsed in the 18th century. Niall says that nobody lived here year-round in the old times. The winters are too brutalIt was only in 1899, when the wealthy classes created by the Industrial Revolution took up the gentlemanly sport of stag hunting, that a grand estate house was built, complete with four stalkers' cottages.

"The clans would send their cattle up here to graze each summer, tended by the women, children, and old men. Younger men farmed the glens below. The Road to the Isles, the route people from the Western Isles used for centuries to drive their cattle to market at Falkirk, runs right through the property. Almost every hill here has a legend or myth associated with it. It's all stinking with history."

A Terrible, Yet Oddly Appealing, Scent
In the morning, through Niall's ridiculous-looking collapsible telescope, we see at least three groups of deer from the road, including a nice buck feeding alone and into the wind below a rocky bowl. The telescope is just window dressing, I'm sure, something to complement the stereotypical image of the rustic highland guide. I say so. Niall shakes his head.

"Pure practicality. I loathe high-power spotting scopes. It's always windy here and you can't hold them still. And they weigh a ton. Twenty-power is all you really need in this country. Plus it fits in my pocket." He shows me how to steady it-right hand resting on the bones of my eye socket and cradling the eyepiece, left hand holding the objective lens, a car door or shooting stick as a brace. Suddenly I can count the tines on an animal half a mile away. I hand it back, impressed.

"Right," he says, collapsing the thing and tucking it in a pocket. "Feel like stalking him?" He doesn't have to ask twice.

To get in position, the three of us drive on down the road well past the deer, get the Argo eight-wheeler off the trailer, and ride it bucking and kicking up the mountain to get altitude and the wind in our favor. It takes several hours-and some rough -walking. The ground is so uneven that I have to play the age card and commandeer Niall's ram horn-handled walking stick or risk a fall.

"Hell, you do this every day," I growl, doing my best David E. Petzal. "Besides, you're barely 40." While I'm appropriately dressed in a Cabela's Dry Plus rainsuit that performs admirably when vertical, we're not spending much time upright. When the mist lifts momentarily, we see stags and hinds not 150 yards distant. Red deer can spot a man a mile away, Niall says, and they know it's hunting season. Every move we make is careful and slow. When Niall freezes, Steven and I do, too.

All this crawling gets to be warm work after a while, and when a slight updraft hits, it wafts a mixture of my own familiar b.o. and the aromatic scents of the crushed flowers and plants inside my duds. I smell not unlike a wet mule sprayed with herbal bathroom freshener. It's a scent that might appeal to a certain kind of woman. But she would probably look like Petzal.

Why the Kilt Was Invented
Niall has stressed from the outset that this kind of stalking requires close, careful travel. "The only animal that walks abreast is man. An alarmed red deer runs a long way. If we go single file, one that just gets a glimpse may take us for another deer." He should know. The Rowantrees have been in this part of the highlands for centuries, since the days of the -warrior-clan subsistence farmers. A nearby crag even bears the Gaelic version of the family name.

He motions behind his back with two fingers for me to slide up even with him, then hands me the binocs. "He's facing us," he whispers. "About 160 meters. Get ready." It takes me a while to pick out the stag, but he's there, alone and bedded, the wind at his back. Steven uncases the Sako .308 with an 8X scope and a Reflex T8 suppressor at the muzzle. (The sound-reducing device is the law here, required to protect the eardrums of working guides. Niall says it also improves accuracy and reduces recoil without affecting range.)

I set up the rifle on its bipod at my feet and twist around to get the stag in the scope. "Don't shoot until he stands," Niall whispers. "You've got a so-so kill shot, and you'd chew up too much meat. Standing will give you a better angle on both counts. We'll wait. When you do this right, they never know what hit them." I can't help but respect the man. It's obvious that he loves to hunt. He could easily end his day's work now by allowing me to take a killing shot, but ethical shortcuts, however slight, don't appear to be part of the deal.

Downhill and feet-first is an awkward position to shoot from, not to mention a good way to put a hole in your foot. Also, my pants are steadily sliding up as the minutes pass, creating a massive whortleberry-scented wedgie. I'm wondering if it wasn't precisely this situation that led to the invention of the kilt, which suddenly sounds eminently practical.

The stag, it seems, has very few appointments today, for he stays bedded. While we wait, Niall breaks out sandwiches, and we pass around his thermos of hot tea. Somehow, he and Steven both manage the trick of wearing tweed knickers and matching Sherlock Holmes¿¿¿style deerstalker hats without looking as if they've wandered off the set of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The fact that Niall is built like an oak might be part of it. Frankly, I don't know how Steven pulls it off. He's a quiet boy; it's his boss who tells me Steven was raised on a farm and is an expert sheep shearer and champion highland dancer. He passed up a good paying job on an Australian sheep farm to come here. One day he hopes to be a full-fledged stalker like Niall, and to count one of the four stalking areas-or "beats"-on Corrour as his personal kingdom.

How Scotland Nearly Died
The weather clears a bit, though the wind remains. To take my mind off how wet my butt is, I ask about the land's history. The Scottish Highlands, my guide explains, are, for all their beauty, a collapsed ecosystem. As late as 600 years ago, they were covered in Scots pine, aspen, juniper, and oak. Not so long ago, European brown bears, wolves, and lynx kept the deer populations in check. There were also beaver, hares, wild boar, and polecats. Over the years the forests were cut down and the predators disappeared.

After the English troops came and the clan system collapsed, the destruction escalated. The feudal commons became private land. Local small farmers were forcibly evicted and their homes burned down in the infamous "clearances" to make room for profitable sheep farms. The livestock quickly overgrazed what was left. The decayed vegetation became acidic peat, which supports only a narrow range of plant life.

The heyday of gentlemen's sporting lodges didn't arrive until the 1890s and was and reduces recoil without affecting range. During those glory days, wealthy European sportsmen arrived by private railcar, then boarded a steamboat and motored 3 miles down Lake Ossian to the lodge. Currently the estate is owned by a publicity-shy Swedish couple who did rather well designing and marketing cartons of milk and orange juice. They are interested in trying to balance continued hunting with restoring the biodiversity of the highlands.

Taking the welfare of the land itself into consideration is a relatively new concept here, a break with the long tradition of exploiting nature for immediate benefit and damn whomever comes next. It means not only harvesting large numbers of deer but also reinvigorating the herds by taking animals other than the largest and healthiest, another break with traditional trophy mentality. That idea has led the owners to build a state-of-the-art processing facility on the premises to market its own Taste of the Wild brand of gourmet venison. The idea is to capture more of the profits and jobs of the local economy.

Hunters Make Good Soldiers
Looking over this country, you can't help but wish them well. For all the indignities it has suffered, this remains a magnificent hunk of earth. Wild brown trout, native pike up to 30 pounds, and otters swim in the lakes. The moors still hide red and black grouse, ptarmigan, kestrels, and golden eagles. There are still foxes and pine martens. Distilleries that produce some of the worlds' most sought after whiskies, Oban and Talisker, are nearby. I'm already hooked, wondering how I can come up with a way to stay longer than I planned.

"This country has always been good at raising three things: bards, poets, and warriors," Niall tells me. Both his father and grandfather were stalkers. His grandfather also served as a sniper in World War II in the famed Lovat Scouts, a force composed of highlanders. Circa 1900, the British Army thought it was taking a chance on accepting the rough Scotsmen into its sophisticated ranks. It soon discovered, however, that with generations of experience in fighting, stalking, and thriving in rough country, the men made superb soldiers. They gained a reputation as legendary warriors, scouts, spies, guides, and horsemen.

The Lovat Scouts were the forerunner of the elite British SAS. Niall's own father was sent into the Navy to learn a trade, "but he didn't' like it, so he came back to the highlands to be a stalker." I ask what he did in the Navy. "Well, actually, he got a PhD in nuclear physics." When I look at him skeptically, he shrugs. "We're not a dumb people," he explains. "We just never had a lot of money." Niall works seven-day weeks for months on end as head guide and manager of the estate, and suffers more than the occasional fool client in the process. It's the only way he can stay on the land he grew from.

"It's not always easy, being a rich man's plaything," he'll confide over several wee drams of the Cragganmore single malt that I found out he likes from Jane, the office manager, before coming. (Always a good idea to keep your guide happy.) "But we highlanders have long been dispossessed in our own country."

The Winter of '89
My scope is still on the deer, but he's on stag time, happy to lie there and chew his cud. Niall doesn't want to try anything tricky like throwing a stone to him to stand on the shot. He's a pro, and a pro knows how to wait when the situation calls for it. To pass the time, I ask when he knew he wanted to go into the family line of work.

"I've been obsessed with deer since I can remember," he says, ever since he saw his father bringing stags down out of the mountains after dark on specially bred hill ponies. Deer have been his life. He took whatever work he could find to stay around them, working as a forestry ranger and then as a contractor controlling deer populations for both private landowners and the state.

He tells me about the winter of 1989, when hundreds of deer died from starvation and exposure, the result of overgrazing, destruction of the forests where they sheltered, and populations spiraling ever upward. Ironically, to save the animal he loved, he killed an average of 1,000 of them a year for the next six years.

"It was sad, but it had to be done." His gun of choice was a .308 Mannlicher SSG, and he speaks admiringly of cartridges like the .300 WSM and .338 Lapua for long-range work.
"It was a bloody way to learn, but learn I did: how to tell what they're going to do next by what they're doing now and how they're doing it, how to identify the dominant stag or hind in a group at first glance, which way and in which order they'll run when alarmed, the best way to use the ground to your advantage, tricks about the wind…" His voice trails off, as if he's revisiting things he'd rather not see again.

Ninety minutes later, after my limbs have gone to sleep and come back several times, the stag finally stands, shakes itself dry, and then, as if offering himself, turns broadside. I squeeze the trigger, and when I recover my sight picture he's down. "Good shot," says Niall. I remove the magazine, clear the chamber, and hand the rifle back to Steven, who cases it and hustles off for the Argo.

Niall and I make our way down. We gut the animal, leaving the heart and liver in the carcass, which will be logged in and individually tagged at Corrour's processing plant. I admire the lyre-shaped antlers, smaller than an elk's, bigger than a whitetail's. He's handsome and hardy, with a belly round from fattening up for the coming rut. A stiff red fur ruff encircles the throat as if to protect that vulnerable area from the stag's primordial enemy, the wolf. Niall estimates he weighed about 220 pounds on the hoof.

Stroking the stag's side, I murmur my thanks and my apology for having stolen his life, and again admire the graceful antlers. My guide says this one is between 7 and 9 years old, a bit past his prime, a good candidate for the hunt.

Basin of the Bones
As we wait for Steven to bring the Argo, I notice a tree trunk half-buried in the peat and gesture at it. "That's a Scots pine, probably a thousand years old, from the forest that was once here," Niall says. "The peat preserves things." He shows me a knob on the blackened trunk where stags, which were originally woodland animals but have adapted to the loss of the forest, have rubbed their antlers, revealing the reddish wood beneath. The looks up at the rim of the mountains above us and says something g Gaelic.

"It means Basin of the Bones," he says. "The story is that a fellow stole some cattle belonging to one of the clan chieftains. When he heard the chieftain was after him, he claimed hadn't stolen them but knew who had, and would see they were punished and the cattle returned. He gave the cattle back, then murdered some people here and scattered bones so it would look as if they'd been eaten by wolves. Hence the name." It's a grisly tale, and faithful enough to human nature to make you believe there's at least a germ of truth to it.

Steven shows up with the Argo, and we swing the stag aboard. Driving back to the lodge, Niall makes a slight detour to show me Loch Treag, a 9-mile-long lake bordering Corrour. "The water level is up, or you could see part of a crannog, a fortified island made from piling up stones, where people built their houses to be safe from attack. This one dates from the Bronze Age." He points across the lake to a somewhat sinister-looking saddle with nearly sheer walls rising on both sides.

"This road we're on is one of the old cattle droves, and it goes right through there. Place named Black Mouth in Gaelic." It fits. It's a dark, creepy little passage. Niall asks if I've ever heard, the term blackmail. Of course, I say. "Well, you're looking at the place it comes form. There was a band of cutthroats who controlled this place. You paid a toll to go through or suffered the consequences."

One Stag? Coming Right Up
We're bumping our way back to the lodge in the Land Rover to check in the stag when the sun, absent nearly all day, focuses a shaft of light atop a far mountain. Some kinds of beauty pierce your heart like pain, and this moment is one. These ancient, stark hills may be the ruins of great forests, but they're lovely all the same.

The next morning, I'm around when Niall meets a just-arrived client, a wealthy man from the Netherlands and his son who doesn't hunt but wants to accompany his father. The man is upset because the airline lost his rifle. It's his favorite, a double in some elephant-killing caliber, very old and expensive. Also, his son needs to return by 4 P.M. to take an important conference call. Niall tells him he'll do his best, and when the fellow leaves, he offers up a silent prayer that the rifle is not found anytime soon. It may be hard fitting in with the suppressor, and the rifle will likely either be unscoped or knocked off zero by now. Much better to use the lodge's .270.

By lunch they are back with a large-racked 10-pointer, one that was apparently just over the hill as breeding stock, riding in the back of the Argo. The man is beaming and very excited, clapping Niall on the shoulder.

"Mein Gott!" he exclaims. "He is a devil, this one! We approached downwind. Downwind! And when I shot, they ran toward us before mine fell."

Niall takes me aside and draws me a quick diagram. The stags were indeed upwind, but grazing in a high saddle about a kilometer away. But he noticed that they were grazing slowly toward one side of the saddle.

"So they were moving into the area where the peaks of the saddle cause the wind to swirl. And they don't like swirling wind, don't feel safe there. I was betting they'd keep on going in that direction until they got to a steadier breeze. And in any saddle, there's a place where the eddies create a current of air flowing against the prevailing wind direction. That's what I was banking on.

"But we had to move fast, because you could tell by the clouds that a front was coming in as we got closer to noon. And so we only had a half hour or so before everything changed. I wasn't sure he could move fast enough, but the adrenaline kicked in when he saw the stags.

"It was a bit of a gamble, but not much, really. I knew the carry--the Scottish name for what the wind is doing in relation to you and the game. It was just a question of getting there quick enough, before noon. In Genesis, they refer to that as 'the windy part of the day.'"

He sees the slightly incredulous look on my face and says, "Oh yeah. Dad was always a big Bible thumper."

Actually, it's a toss-up as to what I'm more amazed by: the Bible as hunting reference book or the fact that he is playing the stalking game at a level I can only hope to reach. I find myself blurting out that he should to come to the States. He has to try hunting whitetails. He has to try bowhunting.

"Can't," he says simply. "I'm afraid I might not come back." I look at him and suddenly get it. He's as crazy for hunting as I am, maybe more. And he lives in a place where, by law, neither bow nor blackpowder firearms are used. If he got hooked on, say, ground-stalking whitetails with a bow, he might very well leave the whole package--family, job, and country--to chase his addiction. Ah, well. I tell him I'll smuggle a bow over next time and at least let him feel what it's like shooting a hunting compound.

"Officially, I couldn't allow it," he says loudly, then lowers his voice.

"Unofficially, how about next year?"