Wilderness – noun – definition – an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region.
On our small island that we call home, there are few, if any places you can truly call a wilderness. The cities and towns are forever expanding into the countryside with the government’s relentless obsession of building thousands of houses on productive farmland, the dog walkers who see the woodlands as an extension of their garden for their beloved pooch to run riot wherever it so chooses and not forgetting the ramblers who exercise their ‘right to roam’ as if their lives depended on it. For the game, and those of us who chose to pursue it, we’re coming into contact with other people more than ever.
However in saying that, the Scottish Highlands is, in my opinion, our last true wilderness and one that befits its definition. Uncultivated – definitely, uninhabited – mostly, inhospitable – more often than not. An area and landscape that should need no introduction, it still offers a truly wild hunting experience for those who wish to escape the crowd, be surrounded by utter beauty and work hard for their trophy.
My latest hunt took me to a remote and central part of the highlands where my friend from college is the head stalker on a 20,000 acre hunting estate. The vast open hills, lochs, rivers and forests make up this sporting paradise where the Red Stag is king, or monarch of the glen as he’s more famously known. The enchanting hills are steeped in Scottish history and folklore, once home to hardy and violent clans such as the Robertsons, Macdonalds and Campbells, they have in recent history been made famous by the location for films such as Harry Potter and was the setting for the dramatic finale to the James Bond film, Skyfall.
The stalk is a hard one, the terrain is difficult to traverse, the hills are steep and the weather is often miserable, but that’s what I love about it. You have to put in the hard yards and be willing to graft for your game. The sodden ground is energy sapping and the peat hags that crisscross the moor are an obstacle course in themselves. The deer, however, can cover the ground like it’s not even there. They lie up on knowles which provide great vantage points, meaning the final approach to your chosen stag is more often than not a long and wet crawl through the soaking moss, mud and peat.
The 8 wheeled Argocat, which handles the hills like no other machine, is probably the most unpleasant vehicle to ride in but you’re certainly glad of it after a full day on your feet. It is also the means by which the game is extracted from the hill. Ponies were always traditionally the method used to get stags back to the larder but they are time consuming and often extremely stubborn. There are many stories of pony boys who have hiked miles to retrieve a stag, only for the pony to slip its lead and bolt all the way back to the stable, closely followed by a cursing, irate pony boy.
We spent the first 5 hours stalking and glassing the wide expanse, only to come across several small groups of hinds and young stags. The south west side of the glen was facing a strong and bitter wind, so we hiked over the ridge and dropped down into the sheltered corrie looking for a shootable stag. After a further hour of bumping hinds we spotted a good stag which was bedded down on a knowle, surveying his land. The wind was right but his view spanned nearly every direction, so it took a further hour and a half of stalking and maneuvering the edge of the loch to get into a good spot from which to take the shot. The rut has just started and a few stags were jostling for dominance, sorting out who was the boss amongst them. My stag was still bedded down when a younger and better stag approached him for a challenge, upon getting to his feet, the shot presented itself and the .270 cleanly dispatched him. The stag, which was roughly 8/9 years old, was past his prime and was certainly going back, the right beast to take and a good representative of a Scottish hill stag. No match in terms of size compared with their lowland cousins due to the hard life and poor diet but every bit the worthy trophy.
For me it’s hugely important to explore, hunt and experience these wild lands. To reconnect with what it is that we enjoy and treasure about the sport. To refresh your enthusiasm for adventure and savour in the solitude of such a place that will hopefully, always remain, a wilderness.