Hill stalking always provides grandeur and a test of lung power but never more so than when undertaken on the islands and West Coast of Scotland, says Graham Downing
If the essence of hill stalking is the hunting of wild deer in wild places, then there can be few places in Britain so wild or remote as the islands and West Coast of Scotland, says Graham Downing.
For more on stalking, take our advice on the essentials you mustn’t take to the hill without, read deer stalking: 10 things to take to the hill when stalking.
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That there have been deer on the Hebrides since ancient times is beyond doubt, though how they got there has until recently been something of a mystery. Arran stags are known to be able to swim the 5km or so to the Kintyre peninsula, so it is no surprise that the inner islands were colonised by red deer from mainland Scotland. But it would be a tough challenge for the strongest beast to make the 30km crossing from Skye to Harris in the Outer Hebrides. It has only been with the advent of DNA analysis of ancient deer samples that it has been shown that the red deer of the outer Scottish islands are the result of introductions by Neolithic people. Where these Stone Age folk brought the deer from, however, is still a mystery, as they were genetically distinct from those of the Scottish mainland.
On the single island of Lewis and Harris, deer have traditionally been confined mainly to the high ground of North Harris, a rugged, rocky place of mountain, moorland and sea loch that until 2003 was managed as a traditional sporting estate. In that year the Bulmer family sold the 25,600-acre North Harris estate to the local people under a community buyout scheme.
COMMUNITY STALKING CLUB
“The community was not interested in Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, so the estate was split in two and the castle was sold off with the salmon fishing rights and a small parcel of land,” says Gordon Cummings, manager of the North Harris Trust. “Our community stalking club now manages hinds across the whole of the estate. The area is split up into beats; there are about 30 club members and they operate an online booking system when they want to go stalking. The members take the venison for the freezer but really it’s all about getting the local community engaged in how we manage the estate.”
Amhuinnsuidhe, however, takes 30 stags a season from the North Harris Trust and offers guests stalking across North Harris. “We can accommodate up to 18 guests in the castle, which was fully restored 14 years ago, and we also have a cottage that sleeps six,” says Amhuinnsuidhe’s estate manager, Innes Morrison. “We can take two to three guest rifles out each day. The ground runs up to about 1,500ft and it’s very challenging stalking, but the scenery is spectacular and you can see right out to St Kilda. We have put in a new deer larder to process all our own venison and we export it to the mainland.”
While successful cooperation between the community Trust and the private sporting operation has largely prevented conflict over management of the 1,100 red deer on North Harris and Lewis, tensions have been much more evident on South Uist, where a similar community buyout took place in 2006.
“The original deer population was shot out and in 1975, 17 red deer were introduced from Fife, a mixture of hinds and stags,” says Sir Michael Strang-Steel, who owns a farmhouse on South Uist and has stalked there for many years. “The population rose pretty rapidly and today there are well over 400. The deer have been mostly in the high ground to the east but, unfortunately, there is now conflict because they come down to the crofters’ grazing on the machair along the west coast. The crofters see them in their small fields, which have been fertilised and shut up for silage or cattle grazing.”
Stòras Uibhist, the community landowning company that owns South Uist, Eriskay and part of Benbecula, has now agreed a management plan for the red deer. “The Board has been pretty anti-deer in the past, but I think that they’re taking a more sensible approach now and trying to manage the situation. But it isn’t easy, because the island is long and narrow, and until there are steps taken to hold the deer on the east side, such as burning heather, planting woodlands and possibly re-seeding, there will always be this conflict,” says Strang-Steel.
“There are some big stags and many have been taken at over 20 stone with magnificent heads. The east side goes from sea level to nearly 2,000ft pretty quickly, so you normally go in by Argocat and then after about an hour’s drive, you start stalking. It’s very steep but there are some lovely corries, which the deer really like, and I shoot quite a lot of stags in the area around Ben Corrodale. I have also stalked once from a boat, landing on the east side on one of the little beaches between Ben Corrodale and Ben Mhor.”
Stalking is still an important source of income for Stòras Uibhist, and the Board lets stags to visiting guests. Three keepers are employed, who will offer walked-up snipe, woodcock and goose or duck flighting as well as stalking.
Donald McPhee is now retired after 40 years as stalker at Dunlossit, one of the three private sporting estates that make up the southern Deer Management Group on Islay, the most south-westerly of the Inner Hebrides. “The ground rises up to about 1,600ft and there are some lovely glens going down to the sea, so some of the deer are extracted by boat where the Argo or quad can’t get to them. Mostly on Islay it’s open hill, quite relaxed and not overly hard stalking, but you’ve got to watch the weather. It can change so quickly, though if it’s bad in the morning, it can soon clear.”
Dunlossit lets around 40 stags and 70 hinds a year, along with a number of roebucks and does. Most stalking is let to small, mixed groups who stay on the island for a week or so. “The hinds are particularly popular, and at that time of the year we can mix it in with walked-up or driven game shooting, duck flighting or woodcock,” says Dunlossit’s factor, David Gillies.
“We have two beats and two stalkers, so we can get four rifles out every day. When they are not out stalking, our guests enjoy visiting the Islay distilleries, and because we work closely with Bruichladdich and supply the barley they can actually taste Dunlossit grown whisky.”
Although not a commercial stalking estate, nearby Ardtalla lets a week of stag stalking and several days at hinds. “We’ve got the steepest ground on the whole island and there are some hairy places that we go,” says stalker Callum Sharp. “The only way you can get into much of the ground is by boat, and sometimes we stalk the small islands around the coast. They’re only about eight or 10 acres, so it’s very easy to spook the deer. If you do that, then quite often the deer will start swimming.
“It’s unique stalking here on the islands. We’ve got big stags here on Islay, with half a dozen shot each year over 20 stone and quite a few over 25 stone. They have access to the seaweed along the beaches and that provides a lot of nutrition for them,” says Sharp.
In 2017, Juliet and Jamie Gibbs took over the running of Jamie’s family estate at Dougarie on Arran, the southernmost of the principal islands of the Inner Hebrides. Dougarie occupies the north-west of the island and shoots some 25 to 30 stags a year, plus a similar number of hinds. “We have a lot of royals and imperials on the hill, but our cull is a true cull and while you might get lucky and get a shot at a royal that’s going back, we don’t normally shoot beasts in their prime,” says Jamie Gibbs. “I’m a great believer in it being a cull rather than a trophy hunt, and we want to preserve and improve the bloodlines that we have.”
The Gibbs have thrown themselves into improving and renovating the accommodation at Dougarie, which can be let to stalking parties. For the stag season there is the House of Machrie, which sleeps 14 and is perfect for the larger party looking for five stags in a week, with sea trout, brown trout and mackerel fishing plus lobster potting available to those not out on the hill. For the hind season there are smaller options, such as The Towers, a listed keep that sleeps eight.
“Fitness is definitely required,” says Gibbs. “We’re on the bottom end of the Highland fault line and you start at sea level and go up to 2,500ft. There are amazing views and on a good day you can see the Antrim glens, Ben Lomond, Stranraer and into the heart of the central belt.
“Arran is Scotland in miniature. It has the hills of the highlands and the fields of the lowlands, plus we’re only an hour and a half from Glasgow, so we’re not all that remote.”
Moreover, for those capable of dispensing with the professional stalker and hunting on their own, Arran offers another unique alternative whereby BASC members holding or registered for the advanced stalker’s certificate DSC Level 2 and who have their own stalking rifle, can have the opportunity to stalk unaccompanied for an entire week. The BASC scheme operates in the south of Arran on Forestry and Land Scotland’s forest estate. A mixture of open hill and commercial forestry, the terrain can be arduous and physically demanding, and is a real test of stalking skill. Both stag and hind weeks are available on application, and all stalking is under the overall supervision of a coordinator who will supervise the briefing, deployment of stalkers and conduct of all culling operations.
Before the days of fast dual carriageways and air travel it took up to three days to travel to the Outer Hebrides from the south of England, winding up through the southern uplands and then making the crossing on a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry. Nowadays the journey is a far simpler one, with direct Loganair flights to Stornoway, Barra, Benbecula, Islay and Tiree, though with CalMac still operating car and foot passenger ferries right across the Hebrides.
“It takes a degree of organisation, especially for those not based in Scotland,” says Juliet Gibbs, who herself commutes weekly between London and Arran. “It’s a mental challenge getting here in that you really have to want to get to a destination. Ferries sometimes get cancelled, and we always advise people to take the ferry before the one they really must take. It’s not difficult, but it’s a matter of proving to yourself that you can embrace a place that’s really off the beaten track.”
For stalking on North Harris, visit www.amhuinnsuidhe.com
For stalking and accommodation on South Uist, visit www.grogarrylodge.com/shooting
For stalking and accommodation on Islay, visit www.dunlossitestate.com/activities/sporting or www.ardtallacottages.co.uk
For stalking on Arran, visit www.dougarieestate.co.uk/stalking
For the BASC Arran stalking scheme, visit www.basc.org.uk/deer-management/stalking-schemes
For air and sea transport to the Hebrides, visit www.loganair.co.uk or www.calmac.co.uk