May 09, 2016
Waves splashed around "The Verle Anne," a leftover landing craft from the Falklands War. The well-trodden vessel rocked back and forth as it made its way to the private Isle of Taransay — an uninhabited island off the western coast of Scotland. I raised my camera to capture the moment shared with six other hunters — all of us unaware of what lie ahead once we reached shore.
Beginning our journey on the nearby Isle of Harris in five-star luxury — marbled bathrooms, Egyptian cotton sheets, and a five-course meal — all six of us were under the impression that our journey to the neighboring isle was to partake in a hunt for red stag. Little did we know that our five-star luxury was a cruel tease and we would soon be starving and learning to survive against the elements with all odds stacked against us.
There's something quite magical about hunting on an uninhabited island on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Something that awakens a primal sense of raw adventure. Dotted across the Scottish shoreline are around 140 uninhabited islands in total, but only one, Taransay, boasts a resident herd of red deer. The 3,500-acre island has a population of approximately 50 stags, 100 hinds (females), and 40 calves. The bleak, treeless island is pristine, with white sandy beaches, rolling meadows, and gargantuan volcanic rocks.
Once our small group had been deposited on the rocky shoreline, the organizers revealed the true nature of the trip. We were participating in a social experiment. We were now marooned on the island for three days and two nights with just the clothes we were wearing, a knife, and our rifles. No tents. No sleeping bags. If we wanted shelter, we would have to make it. If we wanted to eat, we had to hunt.
It was also revealed that one of my fellow hunters was not a hunter at all — he was one of the world's leading survival experts, Conrad Allen.
The group set out combing the isle for vessels for drinking water, items to fashion a shelter from, and a suitable place for our base camp. With the tail end of Hurricane Joaquin set to hit the island in a matter of hours, we had no time to waste. After combing the beach's rich spoils of flotsam and jetsam, we had enough driftwood to make a fire, some tarpaulin to make a basic shelter, and an old biscuit tin to use as a makeshift pot for boiling water.
Three hunters were assigned to hunting duty and set out to bag the first night's meal. The three hunted until the very last glimmer of light had disappeared, but it was in vain. The deer were pre-rut and extremely skittish, meaning venison was off the menu. None of us had ever felt so deflated. Then again, never before had our lives and well-being depended on our ability to hunt.
That night Hurricane Joaquin pushed storm-force winds over the island at speeds of 75 miles per hour. The rain lashed sideways into our makeshift shelter for hours on end. Our tarpaulin "roof" broke free of its main tether, leaving it to blow freely, roaring inches above with the sound of a jet engine.
With no light, there was no chance to rescue the shelter. We were at the total mercy of the weather. None of us had experienced raw elements like this before, and in honesty, we were all frightened, exhausted, and hungry. All we could do was grit our teeth and get through it — one hour at a time.
The Adventure Continues - Day 2
We awoke on day two to a base camp that looked like a refugee camp post-avalanche of Himalayan proportions.
Nevertheless, a new day brought renewed hope. Another hunting party set out to find well-needed protein, while the remainder of the group started a fire and began scavenging the shoreline for anything edible.
Today's mission was simple: Kill a deer so the group could eat. Weak and tired, this was not going to be an easy task.
Back at camp, a make-do breakfast was coming together. Limpets, small crabs, and seaweed were soon being boiled into a broth.
Its color, described only as ditch water, did not put off the desperate hunters as they quaffed something warm for the first time in a day and a half.
After five grueling hours of swirling wind and bad fortune, the hunting party would return empty-handed once more. Spirits were low.
A boost to our morale was needed, so Conrad moved us to a derelict fisherman's shack. The shack was a dilapidated ruin with half the roof missing. Even so, the thick stone walls would act as a windbreak and offer better protection against Mother Nature.
By the time we arrived at the shack, the light was beginning to fade. Yet again, the hunting team drew a blank, but there was renewed optimism for the new area as a large group of stags was seen at last light in close proximity to the shack. It was decided by committee that before first light, French hunter Julien Gingembre would get into position on the dunes above where the stags were last seen and spring an ambush.
Atmospheric Moment - Day 3
As dawn approached, the sounds of roaring red deer met our ears as we left the shelter of the shack. It was an atmospheric moment. Settling into position, the light revealed a large herd of reds, and corralling them was a lone stag. We were only 150 yards from him, and his roars sent shivers down our spines, his breath catching the early morning light.
Julien unfolded the bipod and positioned his rifle. He waited until the stag was perfectly broadside before squeezing off. The stag ran 20 yards, slowed, and fell with a crash to the ground. Julien looked at me with a tear in his eye.
As a man, it is a strange thing to see another grown man cry, but in this circumstance, it felt right. The emotion of finally bringing home the meat to the team was overwhelming. Cheers and screams of joy erupted from the shack behind us. Unbeknown, the rest of the group had been watching the spectacle unfold.
Sharing in the gutting and butchering of the animal we had all in someway worked for, we cooked it over a driftwood fire on the beach. So hungry, I ate some of the venison raw.
Instead of hunting for a trophy or herd management, we had been hunting as a necessity — surviving the cruel elements with nothing more than what we had on our backs.
In moments of need, human mentality can be tested, tried, and pushed to the breaking point. We had overcome all in the brutal Scottish wilderness.