Tackling bogs with a garron or taking photographs as #TheHuntress, this producer, stylist and private PA says her heart is in the Highlands
Bryony Daniels was just three years old when she enjoyed her first taste of sporting success. A salmon – caught on the banks of the River Dee in a dress and frog wellies. She has gone on to shoot and hunt but discovered stalking to be her passion – and the Highlands have her heart.
Our new column celebrates seriously sporting ladies and offers advice and encouragement. For more, sport is very much a family affair for Lady Melissa Percy, who has just launched a new outdoor clothing line. And Zara Tindall explains why a career in eventing was a natural progression for her.
My earliest sporting memory takes me to the banks of the River Dee with my grandfather. Aged three – and dressed in a tweed flat cap, my frog wellies and the prettiest dress I could find (much to everyone’s dismay) – I caught my first, and only, salmon. I think my grandfather had a little more to do with it than I did but it remains my greatest sporting triumph and one that has proved elusive ever since. I felt I had dressed appropriately for such an occasion, my grandfather did not. He believed that you dress as a gentleman to shoot, catch, chase or stalk a gentleman.
I learned to hunt with my grandmother, shoot beside my father and cook the game we brought home with my mother.
My father introduced me to one of my greatest passions, stalking deer in the Highlands. I adore the unparalleled beauty of the hill, the insane light, the constantly rolling weather, the harsh peaks and vast distances you cover. I also love the challenge of a stalk, many of which end with us completely soaked, creeping back away from the beasts then home to the lodge.
It may look harsh and barren but so much wildlife exists around you. I’ve been joined by badgers, watched foxes hunting ptarmigan on the high tops and I’ve been swooped down on by golden eagles awaiting the gralloch. You feel a strong connection to the natural cycle of which you are a part, it’s a special feeling.
I also love working our garrons, traditional Highland ponies trained to carry deer off the hill. As a family, we brought ponies back into work 20 years ago and we continue to break, work and breed them on the estate in the traditional way. They are stubborn as they are wide but it’s very rewarding.
I stalked for seven years before I fired a rifle. The time gave me an understanding of the hill and sport that I would not have had I been handed the chance from the outset. As a woman, it can require a little more confidence to pick up a shotgun or a rifle in front of a group of people who are well versed and experienced (and usually all male). This is increasingly no longer the case and while still intimidating, fellow guns and rifles are now just as likely to be female as male.
The sustainable management of Scotlands’ wild deer population is vital to the natural equilibrium of the Highlands. At Strathvaich, hind season runs from November until mid-February although the later months are by far my favourite. The weather is much harsher and it’s usually snowing, which moves beasts into the Straths off the high tops to find shelter. Hinds are far more vocal and twitchy to stalk, they are always on red alert and will bark questioning the slightest movement – and then they are off. On the plus side, with the onset of winter you will not find a midge in sight.
The mist may lay low, it can take hours for the beast to stand, but once shot, walking the cull off the hill on a pony that I’ve helped break, then down to the larder and eventually to the plate makes me feel proud. To manage our wildlife is a duty that every custodian of the deer forest must undertake; ensuring that it is done in the correct manner is something each one of us can retain for future generations.
I have been stuck out stalking, knee deep in a bog with stubborn Highland ponies that were sure they knew the best way through. Inevitably, they do and that’s how, in the countryside, you learn. It’s all down to experience and being a part of it in any way that you can, no matter how young, old or able you are. It’s also not something that you can ever win or lose at. If you return from the hill empty handed there is usually more cause for celebration, because every beast you saw was too good, outwitted you or was not destined for the larder quite yet.
My heart will forever be in the Highlands, with the beasts, the wilderness and the lifelong friends I have made both out on the hill and in the lodge while listening to the record player by the fire with a stiff drink and mulling over our days out on the hill in rain, wind, snow and shine. It’s a beguiling place.
TOP TIP: Dress like a gentleman to shoot a gentleman. I love a deerstalker – they aren’t the most attractive things bowed under your chin but when the wind is howling and the rain kicks sideways on the hightops you will want for nothing more. Plus you won’t have to chase it when it takes flight from your head. I also always take a stick on the hill with me – it makes downhill a far more upright affair rather than spending half your time on your bottom.