Endless grouse, a vision to be bottled and stored forever in the cellar of memory
By Max Hastings for The Field
Wednesday, 17 August 2011
The grouse season is here. Max Hastings reveals why he adores grouse.
Around daffodil time every March, I feel the first stirrings of excitement about summer in the hills, matched by apprehension about whether anybody will invite me again. Did Michael notice that day in torrential rain last August, when I managed only a grouse for every six or seven cartridges on his moor, heaving with birds? Will I get to the glens of Angus again, where I have had some of the most thrilling shooting of my life ?
Forty years ago, I was able to rent a little Sutherland dogging moor for just £500 for the season. Today, when driven grouse sell for almost £200 a brace including VAT and agent's fees, I could no more pay for them than charter a yacht or open Lafite for weekend guests. "Folk must live," wrote Patrick Chalmers in the Twenties, "and you who come north to the shooting (pay you £50 or £5,000 for your fun) were ordained without distinction to be despoiled." This still being true - with the numbers multiplied - most upland tourists like me depend on the generosity of hosts.
What is it about grouse that makes them so special, which causes many men who say they would not care sixpence if they never shot another pheasant to go weak at the knees at the prospect of those soft-feathered, red-eyebrowed little birds in fluffy white gaiters ?
First comes the setting, of course: sport amid the high blue hills, the wildest regions of Britain. Then there is the tension, the irresistible thrill of waiting for a covey to explode over the horizon. Snaffles depicted a fence beyond a hunter's pricked ears as "the finest view in Europe", but shooters passionately assert the supremacy of a covey jinking and twisting towards the butts on a breeze.
I have experienced the highest highs and lowest lows of my sporting life among driven grouse. There were two shaming days last season when I scarcely touched a feather. Then followed three more in eastern Scotland where, for some inexplicable and miraculous reason, I could hardly miss.
At one drive, I was bottom gun on a sheer face. Almost all the birds favoured the top of the hill, as they always do. But then a single grouse flew along the line, climbing as it came, missed again and again. As it approached me, a mile up as it seemed, I felt obliged to make the gesture of saluting it. I aimed 40ft in front and fired. There was a discernible pause, then, incredibly, it dropped from the sky to land 200yd below.
I said to my loader, "I couldn't do that again in a million years." But a few minutes later, exactly the same bird appeared once more- and it, too, came down. The loader said, "You'll remember this drive for the rest of your life." And so I shall, especially when I am back scattering lead all over Scotland.
The lesson of that red-letter moment is familiar: like all sports, shooting is about confidence. Once you believe you can do it, point the gun with absolute conviction, it is astonishing what can be persuaded to come down. Conversely, if one has a bad patch, especially in the company of a loader who is a sceptical stranger, I do not think I am the only gun whose shooting collapses for the rest of the day.
The author of The Oakleigh Shooting Code wrote in 1836, "To the sportsman in training, full of health and strength, and well-appointed, it is of little consequence whether there be game or not. The inspiriting character of the sport, and the wild beauty of the scenery... holds out a charm that dispels fatigue."
I agree with him if one is walking or dogging in fine weather. There are heavenly days when the view alone is enough, and half-a-dozen birds in the bag merely a bonus. Like most shooters, I love working my dog. If Jasper achieves a long retrieve for a bird that fell out of sight over the ridge, the outing is made. Freaks are fun. One morning years ago, 500ft up a lochside hill, we shot a bird that staggered, then flew on. At teatime our fishing party brought it home, netted when it collapsed beside their boat a quarter mile from us.
Nobody likes to be mocked as a fair-weather sportsman, but most of us get pretty miserable pursuing slim pickings in the rain. I enjoy a cartoon of two Highland cattle standing in a torrential downpour on the mountain, one saying to the other, "This is the life, eh?" Not being Highland cows, however, it is dispiriting struggling to see birds through the wet - especially for spectacle-wearers like me, reduced to near blindness.
The misery of the bad days makes the good ones so wonderful. The Oakleigh Shooting Code dismissed meals as of no proper importance to a grouse-shooter: "Whoever on such an occasion is nice about his fare, provided it be clean, does not deserve the appellation ‘son of the hills.'" But most of us love lunch on the moor. While a stalker must make do with a piece in the pocket, grouse-shooting lunches are often sybaritic, and quite right, too. If one is fortunate enough to be participating in princely sport, a princely feast seems entirely appropriate. I know one moor where guests are doomed to disappointment if they dislike lobster. But those of us who revel in delicious crustaceans start anticipating those lunches in June. Serious shooters do not drink seriously in the middle of day. But having no expectations of excellence, I allow nature to take its course until the bottles are empty.
Now that I am 65 I walk more slowly, but it is still a treat to enjoy rough sport in Highland remotenesses. We would struggle today to match the variety achieved by Charles St John in Sutherland on 21 October 1845, when he killed six grouse, 13 partridges, a woodcock, a pheasant, a duck, four snipe, a teal, three curlew, four plover, two jack snipe, five hares and two rabbits. But on the right ground on the right day, it is amazing what a stockpot of game one can still put up.
I have never aspired to own a driven-grouse shoot but, gosh, I would love to have a few hundred acres of high wilderness to mess about on, dallying with the odd grouse and snipe, especially in the company of children and grandchildren. In my long-ago Sutherland dogging days, I once met- and missed - a covey of 16 on Tongue rubbish dump. There were rock pigeon on the coastal cliffs, endless bunnies in the fields, ptarmigan on the tops, a few blackgame in the heather beside a conifer plantation. Sporting surprises are almost always welcome, especially to young guns.
Until I was 40, on my few driven-grouse days, 50 or 60 brace seemed a great bag, for that was as many as we could afford. In recent years, I have been party to some 200- and even 300-brace outings, and cherish the memory of each. When both guns get hot under gloves, and an apparently endless succession of birds bursts over the line, one experiences an exultation no other kind of shooting matches.
High pheasants may be hard to hit but they lack the infinite variation of grouse, some soar-ing on oxygen, others clutching the contours, left, right, behind, skidding across the line. As much as the shooting, I remember neighbours in the butts. I have stood awed between the Northumberlands, husband and wife, who never seem to miss. Francis Stafford and Archie Stirling have in common that, in addition to being superb shots, they possess wonderful manners. I blush when they say, "You did well there, Max." We both know I did no such thing, but it is so consoling to hear it said.
James Percy is capable of dropping anything within range. But I have not forgotten a day next to him when not much came my way. I noticed that he spared anything marginal that flew between us - as many of the legendary killers do not. On one occasion when I was missing everything and my neighbours were mowing them down, I said to a friend at lunch that it hardly seemed worth putting
a gun up alongside the supermen. He responded, "Which would you rather: write books that sell, or be one of the best grouse-shots in Britain? As far as I know, nobody has yet found a way of making a living out of shooting." He was right, of course, and on my duffer days I console myself with that reflection.
One of clichés of shooting is the host who replies to a guest who apologises for heavy missing, "It doesn't matter a bit, as long as you've enjoyed yourself." In truth, of course, almost all our happiest recollections are of the days when we shot reasonably straight. And most moor owners want good bags in August and early September. If the line lets them down, unlike pheasant-shooting, a lot of the birds will not be "there for next time".
I am already dreaming of that first grouse outing, now so blissfully close, fantasising about how this time it will all come right. I bottle every sensation of those days in the high hills for the time when invitations really do stop coming. Then I shall withdraw them lovingly from the cellar of memory, to savour as supreme experiences of sport.
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