Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 30.01.20

The last stag of the season. Photograph supplied by Iain Thornber
The last stag of the season. Photograph supplied by Iain Thornber

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When the last red deer lies dead on a Highland hillside, the victim of politically-driven blinkered conservationists, and what is left of their progeny in a few wildlife parks are being gawked at by tourists as the buffalo are in North America, not only will Scotland have lost one of its iconic and most important mammals, but they will take with them a unique and hardy race.

Few today are those men who were schooled and lived out their entire working lives in the same glen, revering the deer and hefted to the hill like some old ewe. They were naturalists par excellence, custodians of local history, experts in Gaelic placenames and, above all, men with a sound practical knowledge of deer and their ways.

As one retired stalker put it: ‘I never once went to the hill but the deer didn’t send me to university.’

James Henderson, the retired Glen Quoich head-stalker. Photograph supplied by Iain Thornber
James Henderson, the retired Glen Quoich head-stalker. Photograph supplied by Iain Thornber

The late Eric Parker, the shooting editor of The Field, sums up one of the old school of stalkers as well as any man. ‘He is take you up to one of those deer; what does he think of the day’s work? Is it work or pleasure? Does he, too, look at the sun and the sky, as you do, and thank Heaven for such a day? Not exactly as you do. To him, the sun and the wind means something else besides. They will decide the plans, they will control the end of the day; and the end of the day he hopes will be a good stag saddled on a pony – a heavy beast for the larder, a great head for the lodge wall. And you, too, are something else besides his “gentleman”; you are either a good or a bad shot, a pleasant companion or not, you will be lucky or unlucky, and you will make or mar his day for him. You are out on a holiday. This is his day’s work.

‘Not that he does not delight in it. To him, it is the supreme activity of the year, this business of stalking stags in the corries of this forest. There is the hind-shooting to follow in the winter, but it is only the stags that count.

‘And the stalking is but a short season. From the last days of August, when the heads are coming clean of velvet, to the middle of October, when the stags roar for the rut; and through those 10 weeks he is out day after day on the hill, with different plans for the approaching of different beasts, with different paths up the hill to his beat, different weather, different winds.

‘And how well he knows the ground! Since he was a boy he heard his father and other stalkers and ghillies talk of the forest and its deer; he has walked with the grouse-shooters on the low ground and the tops; he has learned the tracks of the shepherds and the lines of the fences along the march; he has found his way about the forest by day and by night, in mist and in snow, ever since he was first allowed to come out and help with the hind-shooting – hard work, that, with so many to be entered in the account books by February!

‘And now that he is a man, and himself takes men up to deer, he is proud of his knowledge and his skills. He has bought both by experience, and how long and how various his experience has been you may guess when he has picked for you the stag you are to stalk, and tells you how he means to bring you to him, and his hopes and fears of chances by the way.

‘This is the “old stalker”; this is the gifted and tested hunter of deer, whom every young ghillie, every boy who is allowed to take the hill for the first time would wish to be.’

A little-known poem written in memory of a retired stalker by Angus Mackintosh, Saskatchewan, Canada.

He sat by the door of his heather-thatched cot,
Unmurmuring bearing his frailty and lot;
Away in the distance he dimly could see
The bens that he trod when light-footed and free.

The eye that in manhood could see from afar
The stag in the corrie, the fox on the scaur.
Had dimmed, but bright visions that never would fade
Were his of the mountains, the forest and glade.

When led to converse of the stalk and the chase,
The glow of past days would illumine his face;
The light would return to his flickering eye –
Like the cloud-piercing blue of an overcast sky.

And then he would take you over streamlet and moor,
From the floor of the glen, to the crest of the scoor;
And tell of each corrie and tarn by the way,
Some old-world story, some proverb or lay.

Then raising the dun deer that crossed the divide ,
No more to go browsing along the ben side,
He would take you, in fancy, that sport to behold,
That glens have de-peopled, and hearthstones made cold.

The lights and the shadows would glidingly play
O’er the grand panorama before you that lay;
The way would be rugged, the walk would be long,
But all the more fitting the fleet and the strong.

Your locks would be stirred by the wind of that day,
When the dappled dun quarry in Corrievreac lay;
And taking for cover each hummock and stone,
In fancy you pressed., with your tale-teller, on.

A low ridge of heather – the wind in your face,
Afforded ideal conditions and place;
For spotting and shooting the best of the herd,
As startled they sprang from their lairs of green sward.

Then bang went the rifle, and high in the air
A royal stag sprang to fall back in his lair;
Another one, wounded, is straining to make
His way to the low-lying birken fringed lake.

The hinds as they flee like a shadow of grey
Away o’er the heather, and moss of the brae,
Soon gain the far summit, the line of the sky,
And o’er it still fleeing, are lost to the eye.

And thus the old stalker would over you cast,
The spell of the mountains that held himself fast;
And uplift your eyes from the mirage of gold,
To bens everlasting, majestic, and bold.

Iain Thornber,

iain.thornber@btinternet.com