Shooting and Stalking

Many sportsmen regard Sutherland as one of the greatest shooting and stalking regions of Britain, and it is certainly the most peerlessly beautiful.   This is a place where field sports go back to what they once were- hunting, straining every limb all day in pursuit of wild quarry amid a towering wilderness.

I first experienced it all more one September than forty years ago, when at the age of 24 I almost ruined myself to rent a little dogging grouse moor named Borgie, which extended between Loch Loyal and the Borgie Forest.  Some of you ask: what’s dogging ?  Some of us would answer: the best sort of shooting there is.

A party of not more than four guns marches for hours over the hill behind a team of pointers or setters, which take it in turns to quarter the ground ahead across a front of three or four hundred yards, against the breeze.  Suddenly, the dog freezes- points or sets.  The guns abandon their gossip with each other and the camp followers, hopefully female and pretty, and hurry forward, guns poised.  A few moments of delicious anticipation follow, while the handler gently coaxes the dog forward- sometimes five yards, sometimes fifty- until suddenly grouse explode from the heather ahead.

That tableau- the dog with every sense alert, the covey bursting away, the guns dwarfed by the huge landscape- is for me and many others the loveliest imaginable.  There are fewer local pointers and setters today than there were back in 1970, but there are still places in Sutherland and Caithness where the old tradition is carried on.  If ever you get the chance to try dogging, which costs a fraction of what a day’s driven shooting sells for, don’t fail to give it a go.  Walking-up is almost as good, because one also gets the scenery, the birds and the exercise- only the pleasure of watching the dogs work is missing.

Nowadays, I collapse in a heap at the end of a day on the hill in Sutherland.  An old friend sometimes reminds me that forty years back as we climbed Benn Stumanadh, east of Loch Loyal, I said we should get never up the hill so quick again, and I was right.   But I can still do the walk in slow waltz time, and every time I pass through the hall of our home I am reminded of past delights by the sight of a stuffed ptarmigan I shot on Stumanadh, almost my first time up.

The stalking in Sutherland is among the best in this island.  I was never much interested in the killing of the deer, but loved the spy through the telescope, the march and crawl over the hill which enables a soft southerner to enjoy the privilege of watching the professional stalker, usually a master, practise his craft.  The stalker’s company is one of the pleasures of most days on the hill, because one learns so much from him about the country and the county, as well as about the quarry.  Nowadays I am happy to follow my son and watch him take the shot.  If stalking today is not cheap, it costs much less than most pleasures because many rich sportsmen are too fat or lazy to be willing to do the walking- a curse on those foreign visitors who occasionally demand to be carried close to a beast on an Argocat.

A final thought: anybody who is interested in Sutherland and its wild sports would enjoy a browse through some of the wonderful old books written about them in its Victorian heyday.  I have a shelf-full of my own, collected over the years.  There is, for instance, The Highland Sportsman and Tourist, published annually, but mine is the 1884 edition.  It lists every estate in Scotland including many in Sutherland, their rents and the bags of the game and the names of the tenants.

Stoddart’s Angler’s Guide for 1853, lists all the lochs and rivers and describes the mouth-watering catches achieved on them.   An English visitor named J.Edwardes-Moss in 1883 wrote a book entitled A Season In Sutherland, which details his sporting experiences as tenant of the Borgie estate between April and October.  Modern readers must not be too shocked by his mention of shooting seals off Tongue estuary.

Both Charles St.John and Tom Speedy wrote extensively about their experiences of roaming Sutherland with rod and gun, and I would especially recommend John Colquhoun’s classic The Moor And The Loch , which describes all manner of epic sporting adventures.  Over the years, my own delight in local sport has been hugely enhanced by reading about what others did on the same ground amid the same wild species, a century or two ago.

Visitors who want to experience some of the thrills I describe above- and most teenage boys take special delight in them, given the chance- will do best if they plan ahead of time, by ringing local hotels and estates and asking about what is available.  The easiest and cheapest option is winter hind-stalking, which I loved doing when I was young, minded the cold less, and could not afford anything grander.  Many estates are happy to let a couple of days at the hinds, and this is every bit as exciting as chasing stags, unless you are a rich foreigner, bent on a trophy ‘head’.

Grouse shooting is harder to fix, partly because so many people are bursting to do it (me included) and partly because there are fewer birds in Sutherland today than when I started, because there are fewer gamekeepers and more predators.   But a hotel or sporting agency may well be able to point you towards some birds- if not grouse, then perhaps winter snipe, or any sort of rough shooting.    If they do, go for it:  if you have a fraction of the glorious fun I have had over four decades, carrying a rod and gun across this most wonderful of all counties, then you have wonderful times ahead.  Good luck.