With a nod and a wink
BY RUSS LUMPKIN
THE DRIVE FROM GLENEAGLES TO THE DRUMMOND ESTATE wound through tight roads and a rolling terrain that foreshadowed some of what lay ahead. Simon Barr kept his eyes on the narrow highway, and from the passenger seat, I examined the Scottish countryside. Flocks of pheasant occupied nearly every opening among the trees, and their carcasses littered the highway. Hares the size of small dogs fed warily in the open fields, and just as we turned to meet our guides, a fox stalked along a distant hillside. And immediately inside estate grounds, a roebuck barked at us before turning and disappearing in high grass. It seemed the wildlife moved by collective compulsion, and their brazen appearances in daylight made me optimistic about the impending hunt for red stag.
Their movements also reminded me of a conversation my father had with me when I was a boy. He often took me fishing, and anytime we saw rabbits or deer or other wild animals moving about, he’d say, “The fishing should be good this evening.”
Once I asked him, “Why do you say that? What’s the connection between deer and fish?”
He replied, “If conditions are right for some wild animals to move and risk being out in the open, it seems conditions are right for other wild animals too.”
With hope in my soul, we soon entered the estate and a landscape nearly bereft of trees. Simon parked in the one-lane dirt road near a fence, where one fellow held a white pony, and a man named Jock led a black pony. Our stalker, Paul, called me over and asked me to fire a couple shots at a rock about 125 yards distant. I stretched out on the wet grass and rested the rifle on a small rise. I fired one shot. Satisfied with my first round, we moved on. Paul said Jock would saddle the ponies and bring them if we needed them to haul out a deer.
Simon drove a short way and parked in front of a bothy (a small stone hut) near a wide spot in the road. In front of the cottage, a landscape of low hills rolled to the horizon and beyond. Behind it, the Scottish Highlands stood in the near distance with beauty spartan and rugged. Everything looked natural to the environment save the modern vehicles. The garron ponies, too, Ed and Hamish, looked as if they had been sired by the hills, foaled by the earth, and bred for characteristics—patience, strength, endurance— borne of this place. Even the profile of the deer saddles— short and squat and utilitarian—bore resemblance to the double-chimney bothies that dot the Scottish landscape.
Less than 20 hours prior, I had landed in Scotland and checked in to my accommodations at Gleneagles, an historic and five-star hotel that opened in the 1920s not far from Edinburgh and that has seen major renovations in the last 40 years. I had arrived as a guest of the hotel but at the request of Tweed Media, founded and owned by Simon and Selena Barr, who had invited me to take part in a traditional Scottish hunt for red stag. As such, the most impressive stags are allowed to live and breed, and hunters cull the herd of males either past prime or with misshapen antlers. It’s a management hunt designed to maintain the health and collective strength of the herd. Further, the meat goes to local restaurants and is included with the fine dining offered at Gleneagles.
The preparation for the hunt had been several months in the making, and I took advantage of the time to prepare myself for the moment of truth. I practiced shooting from a prone position, and similar to my days of playing basketball, developed a routine prior to squeezing the trigger—like shooting a free throw. And I exercised. I generally try to maintain some semblance of decent shape just in case a good pig walk or hike comes along, but I knew this hunt would involve lots of up-and-down walking. So I prepared by walking stairs, mostly over and over the flight leading to the attic in my home but also in a 19-story office building in downtown Augusta. I knew, just to have a shot, I’d have to earn every step.
THAT TRAINING PAID OFF IMMEDIATELY, as we set off behind the bothy alongside a stone fence about 9 a.m. and walked a hill that rose a thousand feet into the cloudy Scottish sky. On rare stretches, the landscape plateaued and we’d stop to take a breather, but only momentarily before we resumed hiking a sheep path that angled often greater than 45 degrees for long stretches and crossed over loose rock, through wet grass, and into and out of purple heather that just had begun to exhibit touches of autumn. When we reached the top, we simply followed the rounded spine of the ridge, which fell off steeply to the left and right into valleys green and intricately cut by small and ancient trickles.
About 10:30, Paul stopped to glass a wide valley off to the right. I pulled my binoculars, and even with them, I could barely make out individual deer in a herd with dozens of hinds and stags. Between where we stood and where the animals either fed or lay in the midmorning sun, there was not a stitch of cover, but we wouldn’t stalk them anyway. We needed to find deer on the left side of the ridge, where Jock led Ed and Hamish.
Still we sat down for a short rest. We drank water and took in nourishment, and Paul smoked a cigarette in quick time. A young man, Paul wore his hair in a buzz cut. He couldn’t have been beyond his early 30s. He wore breeches, a vest, and a tie, all of wool and of the same tartan pattern, which featured a ruddy streak that matched his complexion.
Back on foot, we continued deeper in the hills and passed sheep, some that scampered off and others that stood their ground and viewed us as a curiosity. Our progress pushed up ravens in regular occurrence, which left their perches with a ronk. To a lesser degree, we scared up red kites, which cut into the wind with typical aerobatics.
As we probed deeper into the hills, the terrain grew rougher. Scree, which had been absent early on, became a constant impediment underfoot. Coupled with the loose footing, the undulations of the ridgetop grew steeper. But we plodded on—at least I plodded; Paul hiked. Eventually, the ridge took a left turn and then entered a boulder field with rocks the size of houses.
By this time, noon had passed. If we didn’t have a deer by 3 p.m., they’d call it a day—we still had a three- or four-hour walk back to the bothy. I had not yet begun to fret (I’d have another chance the next day), but we had already had an arduous walk. I wanted to get a stag in short order.
ABOUT THAT TIME, Paul reported that Jock had radioed from the valley with some intelligence. There was a herd below us—dozens of deer including hinds and stags of breeding quality and plenty of culls. We walked carefully over scree and slick footing a few hundred yards, and Paul motioned for Simon and me to stay back. He peeked over the ledge, then disappeared over it.
Momentarily, he reappeared and motioned. I joined him, and we huddled between a couple huge boulders. He told me to hold tight while he crawled toward another overhang. In position, he got his binoculars and looked over. From his movements, he appeared to be studying the herd.
He slid back, stood, and moved toward me. He explained that we needed to move another 500 yards along the top of the ridge to have a shot at either older stags or bucks of lesser horn. The first move, though, required scaling a steep hill that rose nearly straight up.
He moved upward in goatlike fashion, sure-footed and swift, the rifle scabbard slung over his shoulder. When he reached the top, I clambered up, often digging my fingers into the flesh of the earth to help maintain upright balance. It must have been 100 feet up—or felt like it. When I reached the top, he had half finished a smoke. As I caught my breath, he inhaled the last half. And off we went.
With undulating terrain that sometimes moved away from the valley and sometime loomed over it and at the same time rose and fell, it wasn’t easy to tell when we had gone 500 yards or so. But we stopped on the shoulders of a creek bed that was 10 or 12 feet wide but held only trickle. We walked back a few hundred feet, and Paul began to move stealthily downhill. If he found stags to cull, he’d also find the best route to a shot. Soon, he came back.
“Did you see stags?” I asked in whispered tones.
“Aye. There are several. We’ll have to use the terrain for cover. For a short distance, we’ll use the creek bed. Place your steps in my footprints. It’s soggy ground.”
Here, I began to ignore all that I had been trying to notice. I no longer noticed the birds and their sounds. I paid no attention to the sheep and their bleating. I concentrated only on moving as silently as possible toward a goal of making a clean shot.
As we eased into the creek bed, I nearly froze. Two hundred yards below, where the creek entered the valley, several hinds rested peacefully. I assumed a much larger herd remained hidden by the terrain, but if just one of those hinds happened to turn and look up, we’d be busted.
I did my best to step into Paul’s footprints, but in such soft and shifting sands, it was hard to tell where he had stepped. Further, the steep angle of the creek required me to crawl like a crab, feetfirst, hands below and behind me. The soft sand absorbed the sounds of my movements, but on more than one occasion, I dislodged rocks, which I feared would roll past me and tumble into others or strike Paul in the head. Once, I sat on a rolling rock and pushed it into the sand, and a few feet farther down, a softball-size stone moved beneath me, but I caught it with my hand just before it dropped onto another. It was a slow, painstaking stalk and fraught with peril. Fortunately, we moved downhill with the wind in our face.
The shoulders of the little creek stood about five feet above the slough, and when the creek took a left turn, Paul exited there. Though not exactly in his footsteps, I scrambled out there also and slid downhill on my stomach over wet grass and sheep droppings to where he had peered over an edge at the scene below. I didn’t yet look over the shelf but could see the valley ran far to our left before disappearing around a far bend. To the right, the valley ran only a short distance before being walled in on three sides that seemed to rise about 900 feet.
Paul slid back behind the ledge, and described the scene. “There are several dozen animals down there. So move slowly. Directly below us, closest to us, there are three stags on the lower left. The stag that is farthest left . . .” And with that, he gave an affirming nod and exaggerated wink.
I peered over the side and looked. Such a herd. With the binos, I studied the three males closest to us. They lay in the grass, all in a row. The stags on the left and middle bore antlers that looked much the same—angling outward away from each other. The antlers on the third rose in a graceful curve, and their uppermost points left and right nearly touched. I moved back behind the ledge.
“We’ll wait till they stand. Don’t shoot the stag in the middle. We want him to breed. . . . You can take one of the other two.”
I looked at my watch, which read 2:45. I whispered, “You said if I didn’t have a deer by three, you’d call it. Well, it’s a quarter till—”
He muffled a laugh. “Aye. We’re in it till the end now.”
We waited about 10 minutes before the deer on the right stood. I moved up to the ledge and watched with pounding heart. Within a couple minutes, the stag on the left stood while the stag in the middle remained prone.
I breathed heavily and slowly exhaled. I fingered the safety and basically aimed to shoot the deer’s opposite shoulder. I estimated the shot at 150 yards, just a touch longer than my practice shot that morning. When the last of my breath exited, I settled in the grass and ceased breathing at all. I aimed and squeezed the trigger.
At the report, the entire herd, including the stag in the scope, headed for the short side of the valley. I racked in another cartridge and began trying to find the stag through the scope. I found it just as it began to reel. I raised my head and watched it stagger and fall without a kick. Across the valley, the herd disappeared into the rocks, into some pass that remained unseen to us.
PAUL BEGAN THE WORK OF FIELD DRESSING THE DEER, and soon, Jock walked up, leading Ed and Hamish. Simon had brought some Scottish eggs and cheese, and we ate for the first time since breakfast. I looked at my phone and checked my steps. We had walked nearly 11 miles and 214 floors. Simon’s phone said more than 15 miles. Either way, I had earned that memory.
As Simon and I ate and relived the day, I noticed movement behind me and to the right—herd stags milled around on the edge of the valley wall behind us, silhouetted, in the style of a posse or Apaches in an old Western movie. Then they moved on.
Jock added our gear to Hamish’s load, and he and Paul explained that Ed feared the points of the antlers. They asked me to divert the black horse’s attention while they lashed the deer to the saddle.
I reached around Ed’s nose, which forced his right eye down the valley and his left eye to my chest. I fed him apple slices and kept saying, “Who’s a good boy? Ed’s a good boy.” At one point, though, he caught sight of an antler and thrashed his head and marched off downhill. In doing so, he lifted my feet off the ground and carried me a short distance. Our next attempt proved more fruitful. Relaxed and happy, I had forgotten we had a long walk back to the bothy, but my stair exercises had certainly helped.
That evening, Simon and I had a wonderful meal at the Strathearn, one of several excellent dining options at Gleneagles. He ate red grouse. I had delicious loin of red stag.
Russ Lumpkin is editor of Gray’s Sporting Journal.
IF YOU GO
I attended this hunt as a guest of Gleneagles (gleneagles.com), a five-star hotel near the town of Auchterarder, which is in Perthshire, Scotland. The accommodations and grounds of the hotel, which opened in 1924, are immaculate and include sporting clays and golf courses. Other outdoor pursuits, including angling and falconry, are available. The invitation to hunt came from Simon and Selena Barr, who run Tweed Media (tweed-media.com), which supplied the Sauer 404 in 6.5 Creedmoor and Leica scope and rangefinder. Stag hunts are offered in late August and early September. Be prepared for long, hard hikes. Be prepared for precipitation, and dress in layers. The work of hiking the Highlands will keep you warm, but wind and temperatures that vary from the valley floors to the tops of the hills can range widely. Wear comfortable, waterproof shoes. A pair of waterproof knee-high gaiters will also help keep your feet dry. A good hiking stick will be useful.