September 25, 2018
By Simon K. Barr
A Scottish tradition completed with planes, trains, and sure-footed ponies
Modern technology has encroached on every aspect of life. It’s in our homes, our travels, our pastimes. A few exceptions, where tradition trumps technology, linger. The hunter is one of those few, using skills that have been part of the consciousness of man for millennia. Tradition, for the hunter, is the bread and butter, and while technology now enhances the skills taught to us by our forefathers, there will never come a time when an understanding of your prey, the wind, the territory isn’t relevant.
Hunting (or stalking, in local parlance) in Scotland is rife with tradition. So, when London gunmaker John Rigby & Co. launched its latest rifle, the Highland Stalker, what better way to celebrate than with a trip to the Holy Grail of hunting in the UK, the Highlands, to hunt the wild red stags that roam there?
The Traditions of hunting in Scotland came into being largely thanks to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who developed a passion and started a fashion for the northern reaches of Scotland. Following their lead, hundreds of English men and women travelled north for sporting holidays, enjoying the thrill not only of hunting stags, but also of fishing for salmon and shooting red grouse. Sticking with that tradition, Rigby’s trip started not in an airport but at a train station, Euston, in London. Fourteen sporting journalists had gathered, on the platform, ready to take a trip that would hark back to the glory days of the Victorian era.
The Journey to the Highlands
A nip of Rigby’s own brand of whisky, along with a copy of the famed John Macnab by John Buchan, was proffered to the guests before they found their berths. Soon, they were jostled to sleep by the steady rolling of the carriages, leaving the trappings of modern life behind the farther north it got. Arriving at Blair Atholl, in Perthshire, the darkness of night was lifting, revealing dark hills and wild skies. Drowning out the sounds of the departing train, the strains of a lone piper drifted across the valley, welcoming the shooting party to the estate. A fleet of custom Rigby Range Rovers received the still sleepy passengers and whisked them to the lodges to dress for the day’s sport.
Blair Castle, ancestral home of the 12th Duke of Atholl, sits in the Atholl Estates, covering 145,000 acres of Highlands, and is home to the only private army in Europe: the Atholl Highlanders. With seven stalkers (or guides, as they are called in the States), the estate takes some 320 stags each year. It’s as fine a place as any to relive the glory days of our sporting ancestors, when planes, phones, and computers had not yet encroached on our daily lives.
A Scottish Tradition: Highland Ponies
A brief interlude allowed the travellers to breakfast and change before they came to grips with the rifles, zeroing them under the watchful eyes of the stalkers and Marc Newton, managing director of Rigby. The plan was simple: Each stalker would take two guests out for the day. As each stalking party departed, another surprise was in store. Not only were they accompanied by a guide, but also, keeping a distance, were a garron and a pony boy.
In the areas where the slopes are too steep, the gulleys too deep, and the terrain too rough for vehicles to access, the Scottish tradition remains, and at Blair Atholl, with its wild hills, stalking parties must consider how the stags killed will be extracted. A Highland pony, known by its Gaelic name of garron, is the foot-sure transport provided. Strong of wind and limb, these ponies are docile and intelligent. They have been used for sporting purposes for centuries and were used, thanks to their exceptional nature and hardiness, on the battlefields of World War I.
Many estates have travelled down the path of modernization and now extract the carcasses of animals using ATVs, but at Blair Atholl, the tradition of the garron and pony boy remains alive and well, helping to ensure the future of the Highland pony.
As each party set off, the weather came in, a thick, soupy mist settling over the lower reaches of the valley, its tentacles threading their way into gullies and over the peat hags. Visibility reduced, the parties struggled to find deer, and if they did, it came upon them so suddenly that both hunter and hunted found themselves in close proximity, giving the stalkers few chances.
Some pockets of the vast estate had escaped the deadening cloud, and where there was visibility, there was a chance of success. Four hunters led by their stalkers managed to close in on their quarry and grass a stag by the end of the day, forming a triumphant procession back to the lodges by nightfall, where they were rewarded with steaming baths, roaring fires, and drams of warming Rigby whisky. As night enshrouded the valley, the party assembled to dine and swap their day’s adventures, the sound of stags roaring in the distance a reminder that tomorrow would bring fresh chances.
The day dawned bright and clear, a promising start, and allowed the hunting parties to try their luck once more, further afield and higher. As the tweed-clad stalkers led their groups away, the spirit of optimism was palpable. Dew sparkled on the last remaining heather flowers, their purple brash against the approaching autumnal shades that forecast winter. Traversing burns and climbing stony hillsides, delving down into small bowls, the parties each went their own way, led by stalkers who knew, intimately, where herds of deer would have spent the night and where, their testosterone pumping, their blood up, the majestic stags would be vying for the hinds’ attention. Over dale and down dells, working with the wind, each group climbed, crawled, and clambered their way to close in on the quarry, finding their paths over peat hags, bogs, rocks, and mossy outcrops to bring down the stags.
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