Stalking in the Outer Hebrides has been popular for many years. Documented on a simple Kodak camera, Anthony Milbank's great-great-grandmother took the photographs that inspired him to follow in her footsteps.
Stalking in the Outer Hebrides has been a wonderful tradition since the mid Victorian period. A day on the hill can be a truly memorable experience and a red stag silhouetted on the horizon is a magical scene to capture on camera. The Field’s article on Red deer stalking in the Highlands is a great read for some solid Scottish stalking information. See also The Field’s recommendation for the the best rifle kits for stalking.
STALKING IN THE OUTER HEBRIDES
My interest in stalking in the Outer Hebrides was aroused by photographs taken by my great-great-grandmother, Alexina Milbank, in the early 1850s with a Kodak camera. Photography was the latest craze to hit the Victorians and she hastened to take stylised images with her new purchase. My rascally great-great-grandfather, Frederick Milbank, had taken a lease in 1851 on Athline, a 9,000-acre estate on the edge of Loch Seaforth on the east coast of Lewis. She photographed him stalking in the Outer Hebrides with his ponies and gillies; her family in long, flowing skirts and petticoats at the water’s edge; deer with their antlers silhouetted against the sky; a widow outside her “black house” and many others.
Grandfather Fred would take Sir James Matheson’s new steamer service up from Glasgow to Stornoway, then proceed by horse and carriage the 25 miles across to the edge of Loch Seaforth to the lodge looking down towards the Minch on the bounds of Harris and Lewis. With him would often come his family, together with their head nurse, Celery, and headkeeper, Birtwhistle. Once there, they would stay throughout the months of August to November. At his leisure Grandfather Fred was able to walk-up grouse, snipe and woodcock as well as fish in the sea lochs and lochans until he was obliged to return reluctantly to his Parliamentary duties. He was Liberal MP for Richmondshire in North Yorkshire for more than 25 years.
In 1863 he began to widen his tenure when stalking in the Outer Hebrides, proceeding over the boundary into Harris by arrangement with his friendly neighbour. In 1865 he acquired the lease of 25,000 acres on the eastern edge of the vast Amhuinnsudhe deer forest and a newly built “state of the art” shooting lodge, Ardvourlie Castle. He bought a small yacht, the Heather Bell, that enabled him to sail to Seaforth Island or to the park on the other side of the loch, visit Scalpay sea lochs or even the Shiant Islands. He now had access to the deer forests and sheep grounds of Harris and Morsgail and to Lochs Langavat and Ruavidh, their myriad enticing, deep lochans and few spate rivers. Fred’s skills with a gun and fishing rod were legendary. I have his gamebook with me here, scrupulously filled in at the end of every day. Grouse, woodcock, a few snipe – just he and a friend walking for miles, covering the ground with pointers or setters. What heaven they must had been in. Remarks are few but illuminating: “Capital day’s sport”; “40 snipe – very good”: “102 grouse – only 105 shots”: “ 8 ptarmigan – splendid day”.
To improve the grouse stocks, Fred instigated a widespread programme of vermin control. He also constructed two stalking tracks in the deer forest, introduced rabbits to the property (he loved shooting rabbits) and built a couple of stalking bothies. His best year for grouse was 1855 when 1,281 birds were shot. On his best day, 7 September, 1859, he shot 207 grouse, walked-up to his own gun over Gordon setters on what was known as the Neutral Ground – an incredible feat given the shotguns of the period. His Ardvourlie Castle Fishing Book, 1864, gives an idea of how prolific the rivers, lochs and lochans were in those days. On 22 August, 1864 he and his brother caught three salmon and 70 sea-trout on Loch Washamit and, on Loch Langavat, 30 sea-trout to one rod. The salmon were fairly small and hard to catch. Brown trout in the lochans were easy. There was hardly a day during those months when he wasn’t out fishing, grouse-shooting or stalking. His love of the latter came when he moved into Ardvourlie.
He became exceedingly good at it and developed an uncanny relationship with his head gillie, Murdoch McCaulay, killing a record bag of 57 stags in 1869 and, in 1870, 18 stags in one day with 18 shots. On Larggrath he shot a 14-pointer – the largest stag shot there up to that time. His gamebook for the period ends in 1870 with the wistful line “last of the Lews” and how much it must have hurt him to have to leave his idea of paradise. His lease had run out and he was suffering increasingly from the effects of gout, which dogged him for the rest of his life.
Almost exactly 140 years later I was invited stalking in th Outer Hebrides, on Harris, by a good friend, Andy Miller Mundy. His father bought the Amhuinnsuidhe estate in 1961 and he heard that it had been sold without his knowledge in 1968. In 1972 he and his wife, Bridget, took on the old post office on the nearby, almost depopulated Isle of Scarp, together with a goshawk and a Barbary falcon. From there he indulged his passion for painting, much influenced by the wildlife artist George Lodge. A small area of land, just to the north of his father’s estate had come up for sale, squeezed in between the dramatic cliffs of the Atlantic west coast and the vast areas of Lewis moorland inland. It could only be ap-proached by sea but offered a sheltered mooring, red deer for the taking, a small cottage and complete isolation. He became a lobster and prawn fisherman, which gave him endless time to observe the wildlife until his boat was wrecked in 1981 on the beach at St Kilda in a freak gale. He had augmented his income by taking tourists and daredevil rock climbers out there to climb the famous stacks rising 400ft straight out of the waves of the Atlantic.
In early December that year, Miller Mundy met me at Stornoway Airport in his old Toyota pick-up, towing a rubber dinghy with outboard. We drove south-west over the flat moorland of Lewis on a route similar to that taken by Fred in his horse and carriage many years before when he came stalking in the Outer Hebrides, albeit much improved. Taking advantage of a recently constructed estate road belonging to friends we then bumped and clattered for 10 miles farther south-west to the jetty on Loch Tamnabhaigh. We loaded provisions for a three-day stay into the dinghy and set off for a point called Aird Bheag upon which sat Miller Mundy’s stone-built cottage.
Having lit the fire we hung out the damp bedding to dry. It was getting dark but I could discern that we were on the site of an old township, with ruins of stone byres and low walls serving as field enclosures. Into the moorland above ran the outlines of lazy beds used for growing crops fertilised by seaweed laboriously carried up from the shore below. There was no rush in the morning as first light in those northern climes comes late. Breakfast and a trip with a spade out on to the moor for the call of nature and we were off up the hill armed with .275 Mannlicher, spyglasses and our piece. With Miller Mundy as sole stalker, our days were of a less ambitious nature than my great-great-grandfather’s. It was silent as we looked out over the moor but the sun was shining through the clouds, the visibility was good and it became a beautiful day – the sort you rarely find up there in early December.
We spied a group of six hinds. Far out in among a dark mass of peat hags we could pick out a stag. Then another. As my eyes grew accustomed to the view, I began spotting other hinds – there were quite a few. Finally, we spotted a small group of hinds that Miller Mundy thought were just possible. Creeping up over a ridge, I had a quick shot as they panicked away over the scree out of sight – but to no avail. We stopped for lunch watching an eagle giving one of its young a hard lesson in flying techniques. She was attacking the young bird, forcing it to take dramatic avoiding action, dipping and diving, up and over, twisting and turning to escape. Feathers flew before the young bird made off and mother called a truce.
Walking on we ran into a covey of grouse scuttling among the heather. Quite different to my Yorkshire grouse, these birds were most reluctant to fly. They had seen the eagles practising and now I began to understand how great-great-grandfather had managed to shoot so many grouse walking-up. It just needed the setters to put them up and he was on to them.
The following day we took the boat out into the Atlantic to explore the coastline and spy for more deer from the sea. The cliffs sported deep green patches, grass fertilised by the rich droppings from eagles’ eyries over the years. These sometimes proved tempting for random sheep venturing down the cliff only to find it impossible to clamber back. One such ewe looked as though she was starving to death there so we spent a while putting her out of her misery by shooting her from the boat. It is not easy with the boat bobbing up and down in the waves, but eventually we had a lucky shot and the aged ewe topple off the cliff and landed with a crash in the sea far below.
Tying up the boat, we would venture for miles inland spying, talking and revelling in the dramatic wildness of it all. At night we would sit up and talk. Miller Mundy’s knowledge of the west coast gossip, politics (he had been elected to Inverness County Council where he spoke out for the crofters and fishermen he represented), of wildlife and geography was abundant and his stories marvellous. He would insist that visitors have their profile drawn on a white wall in his small living-room, silhouetted by a Tilley lamp. We eventually managed to bring home a couple of hinds, one of which we butchered and ate, revelling in a barbecued fillet of venison by the sea as we soaked up the extraordinary sunshine in our shirt sleeves.
At Stornoway Airport we tumbled from the Toyota in time for me to catch the flight home. Miller Mundy insisted that I take a haunch with me, which he cut in front of some Pringle-dressed tourists disembarking from their bus. I had returned to civilisation with a bump. But I would be stalking in the Outer Hebrides again.