The 11,000-hectare Ben Loyal estate in north-west Sutherland lies beside Loch Loyal, just north of the village of Altnaharra, and ex-tends to the Kyle of Tongue in some of the most spectacularly beautiful scenery in Europe. The dominant and stunning feature of the estate is Ben Loyal itself, the queen of Scottish mountains, with its four granite peaks rising dramatically from the boggy ground south of Tongue village to a height of 763 metres. On a clear day, those who struggle up to the highest peak, An Caisteal, are rewarded with views of the Kyle to the north with Rabbits and Roan islands at its mouth and the ocean beyond; Ben Hope, the northernmost Munro, looming in the west; the great mass of Ben Kilbreck to the south; and the Ben Griams in the east.
This wild and lovely property was purchased in 1989 by Count Adam Knuth who, with his eldest son, Count Christopher, has extensive farming, tourism and sporting interests at Knuthenborg, the family home in Denmark, including the Knuthenborg Safari Park, the largest wildlife park in northern Europe. Ben Loyal is a hind forest described by Captain P Wallace in his Sporting Directory of 1921 as ,”One of the most desirable places of the size in the county of Sutherland and ought next season to provide ample sport of an excellent nature.” Today, it carries 1,050 hinds and followers and 300 stags, of which 60 stags and 250 hinds and calves are culled. There is some superb woodland stalking in the 400 hectares of natural birch, rowan, holly and juniper on the western slopes of the ben and, occasionally, roe and sika in the 700 hectares of un-fenced commercial forestry on the Altnaharra end of the estate. In September the first migrant greylag start to appear, building to a roost of about 500 on the sandbanks out on the Kyle and flighting inland to feed on the grass fields of Ribigill Farm near Tongue.
Woodcock banks of gorse, bracken and birch scrub on parts of the low ground provide some wonderful ‘cock-shooting
in December and January and, between 15 March and 7 October, there is fly-fishing for the wild, fighting brown trout in one of the many lochs. In other words, Ben Loyal is a sportsman’s paradise, and at the end of September 2008, I was sharing a length of drystone wall with a cock robin, peering into the dawn light as I waited for geese, at the start of what I hoped would be an “autumn Macloyal”- a goose, a stag and a brown trout, on the same day.
This and the alternative, a winter Macloyal – a goose, a woodcock and a hind – are the brainchild of Jean Smart, the estate manager and wife of Ian, who has been the stalker on Ben Loyal for 20 years. Until that season, the sport had been the preserve of the Count and his guests, with the occasional day’s stalking let to help out neighbouring estates. Fishing for brownies is now available during the due dates, as is stalking on a limited number of days through the stag and hind seasons, to which can be added brown trout, geese or woodcock, depending on the time of year.
Guests are advised to stay at the Tongue or the Benloyal hotels, old-fashioned sporting hostelries with enviable reputations for the quality of their food and well used to catering for shooting parties. I was fortunate that the Count and his son were in residence at Loch Loyal Lodge, one of many built for sporting tenants by the Duke of Sutherland in the mid 19th century, where they kindly had me to stay.
According to Ian, who had been studying flight paths every morning the previous week, geese had crossed regularly between two low hills and over the section of wall where I was lurking, between seven and a quarter past. However, geese were late this year and although numbers were building, there were still not very many of them. This meant, of course, that I would probably get one chance only and needed to be on my toes. Dawn broke to reveal dark grey storm clouds over the Kyle and, just after the hour, the robin, which had been hopping along the wall, suddenly retreated to the depths of a stunted birch tree. Almost immediately a heavy, drenching squall of rain swept in from the sea to be followed by two greylag, “ang-anging” high overhead. There was a lull of a few minutes, then Ian, positioned higher up the wall, hissed “geese coming”. And so they were; a skein of about 50, coming straight at me, low, fast and silent. There was just time to haul back the hammer on the 8-bore and take a shot as they passed overhead.
For an awful couple of moments, it looked as if my Macloyal had stumbled at the first fence. I was convinced I had hit my bird but the skein appeared to fly on unscathed until, mercifully, one broke away and spiralled slowly down into a field behind the derelict mansion of Old Ribigill. Thanks to the delay caused by picking the bird, breakfast with the Count back at the lodge was a hurried affair. Ian and David Price, the gillie, were at the front door with the 4×4 and an Argocat on a trailer, ready for the hill at 10 o’clock. Dark storm clouds hung on the tops and blustering rain buffeted the truck as we drove beside Loch Loyal towards the bothy of Inchkinloch House, where we were to unload the Argo. From time to time we could glimpse groups of hinds moving elegantly among the crags and corries of Creag nan Cat, high above the lodge and that wonderful sight of stags silhouetted on the skyline. From Inchkinloch House we took the Argo across boggy ground past Loch Coulside, the headwater of the Borgie, towards Loch Haluim, Ian’s favourite brown trout loch. Here we parked and started the long, diagonal pull up the Haluim face to gain height for a spy.
A DECENT BEAST
We formed a stalking party and climbed upwards in typical equinoctial, rutting weather, with a strong, gusting, north-westerly wind in our faces and frequent heavy showers. Great banks of grey nimbostratus rolled in from the sea and when we stopped for a breather and looked back across Loch Haluim to the broken Flow Country south of Ben Loyal, all the hill burns were running white. At the base of An Creagan, Ian went forward on his own, crawling stealthily the last few yards round the shoulder of the hill for a look, and although there were deer tracks, dung and recent signs of thrashing, the beasts had moved on. We climbed higher and followed a steep contour back round An Creagan towards the Glas Coires where Ian expected to find deer among the shallow corries, but, again, while the deer grass and sedges had been cropped close earlier in the day, the area was empty.