Wondering why people stalk? A A Gill explained in GQ.
Going stalking means far more to our intrepid shot than just shooting deer. It's about Highland heritage, his grandfather and the 'melancholy and bereft' landscape.
A house with no road. That's odd for a start when you think about it. Not just a practical business, but the metaphysical questions it implies. Letterewe, it's quite a big house. Seven or eight bedrooms, billiards room, dining room, study, sitting rooms, washrooms, drying rooms, walled garden and a gun room.
It has that turrety, crenellated, white-and-grey, hunched look of a place that's turned up its granite collar and is keeping a weather eye. It's typically Scots, a home for boots and tweed and tappety barometers; with deep, gimlet windows and blind corridors.
A place that rubs its knuckles over smoky fires. From the eves, glassy, dust-lidded eyes catch the firelight and follow you with a mournful, flickering disinterest.
You get to Letterewe by boat, from a little jetty on Loch Maree.
A long, Stygian, black lake that's separated from the green, Hebridian sea by a strip of battered land, Maree was once famous for its salmon but the fish have grown shy. There are islands where the Vikings briefly forced an uneasy steading. They say a Norse princess is buried here under a strand of storm-gnarled pines, the victim of some, improbably operatic, love-tryst.
The house is not on an island. It squats on the farther shore.
It has no road because there's nothing to tether the other end of a road to. Here is an A but there is no B. Behind it rises thousands of acres of wilderness, traversable only by foot or hoof. Long, crumpled miles of crag and gully, hump-backed mountains, springy, sodden moor, burns and cataracts, high lochans and mossy corries inhabited only by ptarmigan, raven, hawk, the wind and the deer.
I'm not sure quite what this story is about. On the face of it, it's about stalking. Here we are in Letterewe, a stalking lodge.
Shortly, we'll go out, walk a lot, crawl a bit, spy a stag, kill it, hump it down the hill and sell it to Germany. That's stalking.
But that's not the half of it.
I know what this story isn't. And you should know before you pull on the waterproofs and yomp through miles of heathery prose.
It's not funny and I don't think it's terribly exciting. It's not postmodern Hemingway. Or nature notes. I think it's about smoking.
And typing. And my grandfather.
My mother's father died before I was born. He was a dentist. He wanted to be an engineer but took to teeth - which must have been a worry for his patients. I have his WWI dog-tags and a photograph of him in a swaggery officer's uniform. His tag shows that he was a non-commissioned motorbike messenger. He has a slightly buck- toothed smile (that must have been another worry for his patients).
All I know of him is that he loved to shoot. To stalk.
He would spend all his spare time up here on the hill and he wanted his only child to be a boy. When she failed to grow into one, he lost interest. When he dropped dead in an Edinburgh street, his hunting friends took his ashes away to the Highlands, failing to tell his widow or child precisely where.
My grandfather was French and very proud. After he died, they discovered he was actually half-Indian and plainly not so proud.
That's my grandfather: a Frenchman who was an Indian; an engineer who was a dentist; an officer who was a private; a sporting gent who lived in a lower-middle-class suburban bungalow. I never think about him. I didn't know him. Apparently, no one did.
I shot my first stag nearly 20 years ago. A bloke I was staying with came down to breakfast, forked a wheel of black pudding and said, "Do you fancy shooting a stag today?" And I said, "Why not?"
And I did without thinking. It was August, hot and sunny. The stags were still in velvet, and as the stalker gutted him, for the first time I caught that smell, that heavy, delicious, repellent scent of cud and blood and through it, wrapped in it, came this image, a feeling of my grandfather. It was so intense, so insistently present that it made me start.
I'm not really that sort. The sort who gets vibes and feels things. I don't do "otherworldly". I've never been in touch with all that stuff that people always tell you you should get in touch with. But there he was, as plain as the scent on the wind in my face. I didn't talk to him. Nothing weird and wickery. But I took to stalking. I'd go every autumn and shoot a stag and sometimes grandfather would be there and sometimes he wouldn't. And then, one year, I couldn't get up a hill. Well I could, but it took me so long, boys had grown beards.
By the time I reached the top, making a noise like a boarding house Ascot, feeling worse than Florence Nightingale's in-tray, I couldn't breathe. I was drowning 2,000 feet above sea level. It was the fags or the stags. I couldn't do both.
So I retired from stalking. Occasionally, I'd look out of the window at the questing metropolitan traffic wardens and hum, "My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here. My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer." But I'd take a drag and think that I'd made the right choice, that urban, cultivated choice, and go back to typing.
And then the damnedest thing happened. I gave up smoking. Just like that. I've loved cigarettes with an unquestioning adoration since I was 15, bum-sucked 50 of the little darlings down to their tight brown bottoms every day for 30 years. And I fell out of love just like that. I was shocked. It was borderline psychopathic.
Here's the thing with giving up smoking. Everyone tells you how good you are, how strong-willed, how sensible and decent. But it's nonsense. It's not like that. Giving up on fags is giving up on immortality. It's not strong will. It's the spirit submitting to the body. It's the triumph of fear. It's middle age. Stopping smoking is a milestone on the road away from golden, fire-breathing youth towards Crown Green bowls. And I knew it. I felt bad. I could breathe but that's small recompense. So I gave myself a consolation prize. I'd go back to the hill and the stags, which is how I came to Letterewe.
The first rule of stalking is the first rule of life. It's all in the kit. And of all the kit, in all the world, Scots outdoor kit is the bonniest. Stalking actually begins weeks and miles before the Highlands with an intense track round the gun shops and Outward Bound fantasy-mongers of the metropolis, where you can frot waterproof, breathable fabric with labels that are short novels; leer over inflatable stoves and mosquito-repelling wristwatches, while all around you is the siren call of the wild, the slow rending of Velcro. There are boots and gaiters and belts and knives and jackets and fleeces and plus twos, plus fours and the delightful anticipation of new hats. All essential.
The most imperative bit of kit, though, is a cook. A good Scots cook; no snorting, gummy chalet girl with hips like sandbags and 37 Saucy Things To Do With Pasta. We want porridge made with pinhead oats and salt. We need oatcake farls and underage grouse and plump partridge and fat-backed bacon and barley for broth and scones for tea and mutton and rowan jelly and venison and claret and whisky.
And Mars Bars. We demand The Full McMonty.
And then all of a sudden it's the airport and Inverness and Jackie from - would you believe - "Hy Jack Cabs" (the plural is an exaggeration). And the drive across country to Wester Ross and Loch Maree. Which is where we came in. Suddenly after all the fluster and humping and tickets and lists is just the dying light, the silence and the cool, clean air.
I've shot at lots of things in lots of places. But nothing is like stalking. I can't remember a single pheasant drive with any clarity. I can, though, remember every stag I ever stalked. I can place each one with minute detail. Each is a story, a coherent narrative complete and different. But they all start with the box. "Do you mind having a go at the box straight away?" asks the stalker. The box is cardboard, placed a hundred yards off with the target Sellotaped to its side. There's a bit of grotty carpet on the grass "for your nice clothes". "OK. In your own time, just to get a feel of the gun. Take it easy, no pressure." I lie on the damp lawn outside the gunroom, still in my London clothes. The stalkers stand back with their fingers in their ears; a brace of pony boys feign indifference. One rests a telescope in the doorjamb and squints. No pressure. The telescopic sight isn't the crosshair type of spy films and book jackets. It's the more difficult post site. A blunt, black arrow points up from the bottom of the circle. Where it touches space is where the shot will fall. The stick quests across the tree line, the box bobs as if it were at sea; the target's an indistinguishable dot, a full stop in search of a sentence. The barrel gets heavier, breathe in, then half out. I can feel my heart jarring, everything is made of rubber. Squeeze the trigger like an orange, like a nipple, like a pimple, like it's glass. The tip of the finger, stroking the bottom of the curling tine. There's a tiny, coy resistance, then black noise. The gun jerks up, the report is a startling flat, hard slap like a huge fist punching the air. I look round at the man with the telescope. He searches. "Och, yeah, bottom left. "Have another go," says the stalker. "Take your time, no pressure."
Three shots scattered at random. "That's fine," he says, "Just fine. As long as you're within the outer circle, that'll kill your beast."
It isn't really fine. I'm not a great rifle shot. I can't produce those neat little clusters of holes but it'll do. And the stalkers know what to expect.
At this point, we ought to do the man-to-man hardware talk: the gun stuff, barrels and triggers, noses, charges and trajectories.
But I'm not really interested. I can fake the chat. I just can't remember any of the numbers. Some people care; Germans and Belgians care. They bring beautiful, huge guns that nestle in foam rubber, with calibres that can punch holes in history. But stalking isn't really about rifles. Or, actually, shooting. Not for me anyway.
It's about something else. Something that's just out of the corner of my eye, that's shy of explanation.
But, I should tell you what to expect in the death department.
You should try to shoot a stag at about a hundred yards. Closer if you can get there, a bit further back if you have to. But a hundred yards is quite far enough. You'll shoot it broadside, standing still. You'll be lying down. You trace a line up the inside edge of the foreleg and continue halfway up the body. That's where you aim.
It's not a heart shot. The heart is too low down in the chest.
You'll miss or shatter a leg. You aim for inside the diaphragm, anything mucking about there at speed will be mortal. The stag will take a step or two, maybe run a few yards, but it's not going anywhere - except Germany.
And, I ought to tell you what we're stalking. The red deer is the largest indigenous animal in Britain. Even so, it's half the size of the same species across the channel. Its natural habitat is forest. Indeed out of respect, they call these barren, treeless hills a forest and once it was but now it's peat.
The Scottish red deer uses most of its energy keeping warm. All its natural predators are extinct so, as it gets smaller, it grows more numerous and ranges ever further.
The deer are a serious problem in the Highlands. Hinds have a calf each year, the mortality rate in the long winter is high.
Stags and hinds live separately until the rut, when the stags come down to gather harems and fight. The rut is set by the weather and perhaps the moon that is now huge and bright and full. And the stags are starting to bellow. That's the Attenborough bit.
The red stag is also stupidly handsome. He moves with the sure-footed lightness of a boxer and the stateliness of a king. He carries cupped in his bony head the weight of his artistic, mythological, poetic and heraldic heredity with an elegant, imperious assumption. Deer are magical beasts. You never shoot one lightly. We don't stalk for trophies. This is important. We aim at the weak and the old, particularly switches - stags whose antlers form a single, lethal dirk.
Letterewe is one of the biggest and, by universal consent, one of the best-managed and environmentally sensitive estates in Scotland. But, it'll wait until tomorrow. Now, it's dinner and a sleepless bed. The moon shines over the loch, the pines sway black across the pewter sky. And the cry of the loon eddies from the island Valhalla.
7.30 am. Breakfast.
Porridgeeggsbaconsausagesblackpuddingtoastcoffee. But no kippers - they follow you around all day, like the Ancient Mariner.
Stalking is also about conviviality; an individual sport, at best, boasted about to a team. But it's not high-testosterone. A lot of women shoot. They shoot better than men - more accurate; unsurprisingly deadly.
For this trip, I've invited along two chaps who've never stalked before. Carlo, an urbane Italian dealer in very modern art with a severe dose of the English wannabes. He's kitted out like Lord Peter Wimsey. And the actor Ross Kemp, whose top half looks like it's going to garrotte towel-heads and his bottom half is going to a gymkhana.
Outside the gun room, the stalkers - David and Norman - and the pony boys and eager-beaver terriers and the frightful midges wait patiently. Stalkers are singular men, like the captains of ships.
You employ them as servants, but, out on the vastness of the hill, their word is iron law.
A stalker says what you shoot and when. If he says lie down and crawl, you crawl, even if you are wading a burn. They have an almost uncanny knowledge of country, a sensitivity to wind and the best of them think like stags. They all have soft voices and hard hands and in rural communities they are held in high regard, though their pay is Victorian, their work medieval and their prospects gloomy - rheumatism, arthritis, bent backs and a long, shuffling retirement in a cold bothie, collecting firewood. I've met stalkers that I didn't like, but never one that I didn't admire.
On the first day, Carlo went for his stag and came down the hill caked in gore. It's tradition: after your first stag, you are turned into Driller Killer. Usually it's just a stripe on the cheek but Carlo copped a couple of pints because of his impeccable neatness. Norman informed him with a fearsomely straight face that he had to wear it until midnight or have bad luck for ten generations. And being Italian - and therefore more superstitious than a convention of clairvoyants in a ladder factory - and not wanting to flout protocol, he kept it on for dinner, cracking and peeling like an Old Master.
The next day, I shot my stag, an old chap we found sitting on his own on a high plateau. He looked a long way off, but through the sight I could see the individual hairs on his neck, the sweep of his wide head. The tension before you shoot is as extreme as anything I've ever known and there's a moment when you really see what you are about to do. You stare and will the bullet home.
There's the double thud, the echo that arrives in the splitting of an atom as the shot strikes. The beast jerks and tenses, absorbing the massive shock, walks a few steps, stands and sways, head dropping under the weight of his crown, flanks heaving, straining at the bubbling wreckage of lung, bone and muscle. And gently he settles onto his haunches so that from the firing position all we can see are his black antlers, slowly they slide sideways, like the masts of the sinking ship.
David, crouching, crabs forward, takes his thick-bladed knife and jabs it into the base of the beast's head. Searching for the axis at the top of the spine, he works the steel back and forth, edging it between the bones. The deer doesn't move, its tongue lolls, still with the fresh grass on it. The soft muzzle shivers with faint breath. David taps the dark eye with the flat of the blade.
I'm always astonished that even in so violent and sudden a death, how gentle and fragile is the departing of life. You can sense it stealing away, evaporating with the slightest whisper. He slits the cheek to age the teeth and he's about ten - younger than he looked. Must have had a hard winter. I gralloch him, slitting the stomach from sternum to pizzle. I reach into the hot cavity, feeling through the slimy entrails for the spleen to grip the top of the stomach and reach the whole 99 yards out onto the heather for corbies (crows) that are already circling and cawing. David sits and smiles and says, after a bit, "My but that's a fine and expensive watch you've left in there."
On the last day, Ross and I go for his stag. This is what I like best. The joy of the stalk. Someone else to shoot. We are going to search the distant march of the beat. Stalking is all about wind.
Stags have uncanny hearing, excellent sight in black and white; but their black noses are their most reliable long-distance warning.
You travel all day with the wind in your face. The wind constantly eddies and backs, bouncing off cliffs and down blind glens. Worst of all are the days when there is no wind, but they're rare in Scotland.
We start out at 8.30am, working our way up. First thing is always up. You have to be high to spy the deer. And high up is where the stags like to be, for the same reason. Up there, the wind is true. Up, up in slow lung-tugging zigzags: a thousand, two thousand feet in the first two hours. Now, there's a point on every stalk I've ever done where I think with absolute conviction that this is the very last time I'm ever going to do this. ˘
˘ Trudging up a one-in-two incline, with a drop beneath you and a summit that keeps retreating above, I think, "What a ridiculous piece of asinine, male bravado." And then you reach the top and breathing is less like sword-swallowing and you look up from your feet for the first time in an hour and it just takes your breath away all over again.
To say that Scotland is beautiful is to turn out a predictable truism, but it's the quality of that beauty. There is a keening melancholy in the emptiness. This is a sad place. A sad country.
I've often wondered if I'd enjoy stalking over some other landscape. But I've never had the inclination to shoot fat stags in German oak forests, or scramble up Switzerland for hairy goats.
It's the emptiness of the place. It's not an untouched, pristine emptiness. The Highlands are bereft.
We walk up and up and in the neck of a glen, by a sandy loch, a spellbinding place, there's the footprint of a croft. They are dotted all over these hills. I try to imagine the life up here, the savage winters, the unforgiving soil, the shin-splintering rock, the impossibility of comfort, the weeping loneliness. The families who once lived here are now probably bankers in America, shopkeepers in Canada or lawyers in Australia. Scotland's long history of disappointment, heroic failure and exodus has made this stoic, granite landscape a memorial to a million small, personal wars lost to despair, politics and time. Scotland is not that much smaller than England. It has a population of five million, four-and-a-half of whom live in the conurbation between Glasgow and Edinburgh. The rest of it is stone memories.
We walk on, up and up, a covey of ptarmigan fly beneath us, calling like someone winding a large clock. The day grows into a sublime wonder, the light dapples and sidles over the hills. The deer are always ahead of us. In their eerie corries, we can hear the stags roaring to each other; they're rolling in peat, painting themselves black, hanging garlands of grass and myrtle from their antlers. They're maddened and bold with pummelling hormones; too excited even to eat; their necks swollen to make their challenging bellows. Across a glen, we sight a river of them, five, six hundred stags raving across the hillside. Some are huge, holding their great heads up and back to support their crowns of bone. On and on we walk, drinking from tumbling burns. The ravens fly past, their wings creaking like starched linen. And then we're on a crag, a serrated spine of rock above the clouds. Far below are two bible-black lochs with cascading waterfalls. To the east, beyond a rainbow, this rolling, blasted moor flows into the green fields of Invernesshire. And to the west there's Loch Maree and the sea. And over the sea, the great Cuillin mountains of Skye and, beyond that, shadows in a glittering ocean, the Outer Hebrides, Lewis and Harris. I can see from coast to coast, from North Sea to Atlantic.
Ross finds his stag at about 5.30pm. He has a tricky, awkward stalk. At 6.30pm, there's a shot. Gingerly we make our way down and there he is, as red and bald as a pillar box, grinning fit to split.
We drag the stag down to a plateau where the ponies can reach it, heft it onto the complicated Victorian saddle with its dozens of belts and buckles, the head twisted up over its shoulder, leather pulled tight under its breast bone. The ponies are fat, stubborn garrons, the indigenous Scots horse. Sure-footed, unflappable, they pick their way through the bog and shale, carrying the great dead weight, dripping sweat and foam and blood.
Walking back is easier, the wind behind us, the setting sun ahead. I can't disengage my feelings for Scotland from this landscape. They're all one. I suffer the heightened sentimentality of all expatriates. I live in London. I sound English but I was born here. I have a feeling for it that's beyond words. This place is the only inanimate thing in the world that I miss. It's all wrapped up with history and my grandfather, the little, dark Frenchman who escaped here from Verdun. How astonishingly peaceful and grave and grand it must have seemed to him.
We get back to the lodge at 9pm, 11 hours' hard walking, 18 tricky and treacherous miles. That's Scots miles, mind, which are longer than your soft Sassenach ones. Then whisky as the moon rises, teasing and banter. A bath, a grouse, a bed. And tomorrow, London, where I can go back to being a Scotsman who sounds like an Englishman, a hunter who stalks with a keyboard.
Originally published in the January 2003 issue of British GQ.