Season 1871

The proprietor, to our very great surprise and astonishment, intimated to us and to the tenants of the arable farms on the Fife estates, that, on the expiration of the current sporting leases, they should have the right to kill ground game on their arable farms, how and when they liked.

This was a knock down blow. I am inclined to think that the factor had an inkling of it when he pressed us to renew; that he wanted to make his sporting leases safe, so that they should not be affected by it.

There were forty tenants in Glenmarkie who would have the right to shoot, and, naturally, I did not see my way to preserve game on the low ground in the teeth of that, so, with great reluctance, we told our good factor that we should have to go.

He offered considerable reduction in rent—anything to induce us to stop, except rescinding the ground game fad, and that he could not do.

The only reason that could have suggested such action on the part of the proprietor must have been political, probably to outbid M'Combie, the Radical candidate for Aberdeenshire; but so it was, and there was no way of getting over it.

The stock of grouse upon the ground was very large, and the late Mr. O. joined us in the grouse time, and after the first two days he and Fred shot together.

In the first two days shooting together Fred and I made over the same dogs over one hundred brace a-day. The total bag in the two days was two hundred and ten brace of grouse, and some sundries; and I have but little doubt that, if I had been bent on a swagger bag, shooting by myself, commencing at 8 a.m. in place of 11 a.m., I could have made a hundred brace in one day to my own gun.

After that I managed the birds pretty well by myself, and when they became skittish, by starting about from 12 to 1 o'clock, and hunting the wild ground into good sitting ground, taking time for lunch, and beginning to work the birds about 3 to 4 o'clock, I made pretty shooting.

I had to work the dog myself, the gillie keeping down in the heather out of sight.

Old Rap was gone, I hope to where good dogs go, for he deserved it if dogs can deserve it.

His two sons, Duke and Prince, did my work. Duke was a nice-mannered, tractable, gentle beast, but Prince was a rank tartar.

So soon as you loosed him from the couples, he would do some rank trick, get on the foot of a hare, or what not; then come in to the whip, get it hot, wag his tail, and then for some time go to work with a skill and courage far beyond Duke, then again to the whip, and so he went on to the end of his days.

One afternoon I had a laughable sell—the laugh was against me, though. My chums were not going out, so I drove my birds carefully into sitting ground, that was principally on what was their beat.

I got a fine lot of birds into good ground, and at 3 p.m. rose up from lunch to make what I knew would be a good afternoon's work, rather out of the common.

As I got up, who should I see but David and the two chums coming round the shoulder of the hill, into the ground I had carefully filled with birds. They had point after point, and made an unexpectedly fine afternoon's shooting, about twenty-five brace of birds. They had not the slightest notion how it came about. I said nothing, not I, as I had rather stretched a point by driving into their beat, but David knew that something had been done to get them this good shooting, and worked it out of my gillie after we got home, and a pretty laugh there was, and no thanks.

Of course I got no shooting that afternoon; perhaps a brace or two before lunch, and a brace or two after.

It was a charming season; exceptionally nice weather, no gales, plenty of sun, and just enough rain to keep things pleasant and scent good.

My own bag was three hundred and ninety-one and a-half brace, and one hundred and fourteen brace of partridges in October, besides a lot of brown hares, plover, snipe, &c.

Altogether we had a good way over six hundred brace, and a special good time with the low ground in October.

The snipe shooting was far better in the earlier years of our lease. It was, indeed, very good, especially in one swamp of a few acres, that was too soft for cattle to tread it, and there the snipe bred in large quantities; but an enterprising farmer came along with some large pipe drains, and settled the snipe. It was a sad pity, but you cannot hammer into proprietors that the value of the snipe shooting far exceeds the couple of pounds extra value of grazing caused by draining, in fact, that snipe shooting would with some men be the turning point of whether they took the shooting or not.

It was getting time to look about me for another shooting, and, making enquiries, I had the offer of a celebrated moor not far away, up in Strathspey.

The moor was noted for swagger bags on the first few days, so I sent David to inspect and report, which he did faithfully and fully. It was a grand place, and the rent moderate.

He was given every information, and shown the game books with a record of twenty-five years (that takes us back in the records of disease for nearly half-a-century). On the average, it showed but three good seasons out of seven.

I was very much surprised, and I did not feel inclined to face that, but many to whom money is no object, and who can shoot elsewhere as well, would say, "Yes, we will pay seven years' rent and expenses for three years of extraordinary sport in the three good seasons." It ended in my declining it.

Some two or three years previously I had been in Caithness for a fortnight's salmon fishing at the end of February, on the Thurso. If I remember rightly, Mr. R. L. Price had given me his rod on the river for that time.

Braal Castle.
Braal Castle.

Then, at Braal Castle I made the acquaintance of William Dunbar, an acquaintance that lasted so long as Dunbar lived, and still continues with his widow, and his daughter, Mrs. Sutherland.

Dunbar was a very remarkable man in his way. He made his living by taking shootings and fishings from Caithness proprietors.

Acting under his advice, the proprietor opened up the main strath, by making a road from the county road at Strathmore, past Dalnawillan and Glutt, to join the road at Braemore on to Dunbeath, and so open up access to Glutt and Dalnawillan from the south, without going round by Wick or Thurso.

He also built Strathmore and Dalnawillan lodges and keepers' houses, kennels, &c.

Dunbar leased from the proprietor the whole of the fishings and shootings from the sea to the Sutherland march, and in addition many smaller shootings in the Wick and Watton districts from other proprietors, who all knew little or nothing about sporting subjects (and, as a matter of fact, they and their factors know as little now), still less how to make them available for, and how to introduce them to, southern sportsmen. As it was, Dunbar was really a perfect godsend to the various proprietors, and to the county of Caithness generally, from the large sums of money brought into the county by his shooting and fishing friends and tenants.

The Ulbster shootings, which constituted the main strath when I first knew Dunbar, were divided as follows, or thereabouts, including about 5000 acres leased from other proprietors:—

Braal 10,000
Strathmore and Achlybster 19,000
Chullacan and Bachlas 6,000
Dalnawillan 18,000
Glutt 15,000

The Thurso salmon angling was let to six rods, and the anglers lodged in the early months at Braal Castle, and later on at Strathmore Lodge.

In those days the lower beats fished well in February and March, the fish running from 8lb. to 10lb., with an occasional big one; but now in the early months they run about double the weight, few and far between, and make up almost at once for Loch More and the upper beats. The reason for the change is not far to seek.

Dunbar had a happy knack in letting shootings and fishings. He understood sport, was frank, truthful, and kept back nothing. It did not need an old hand to read between the lines of his statements.

He was pretty keen in making his bargains, but once made he did his best to make things comfortable for his clients. He went for a connection, and he made one. There was not a grain of meanness or littleness in his composition; whether in the bond or not he did the fair thing. He knew how to deal with gentlemen, and men felt safe in his hands, and voids in his shootings and fishings were rare.

He was popular in Caithness with all classes.

Fred elected not to continue grouse shooting, and our pleasant partnership came to an end, and I had to decide what I would do.

When in Caithness, I had picked up all the information I could gather as to Caithness moors.

In all ways they were the very opposite to Glenmarkie. Grouse sat well for quite a month, rather more on the hill moors, and rather less on the low moors, and nowhere did they pack, except in heavy snowstorms when the ground was all white, and they made away to the lower grounds for food.

There was nothing like the quantity of grouse that I had at Glenmarkie, but the ranges were larger—wide ranging dogs and good walking imperative; but when dogs got birds they sat well.

There was also a considerable quantity of wild fowl, wild geese, ducks, and blue hares; very few on Glenmarkie. No low ground shooting, in fact, no arable on the hill moors.

The heather was short and stunted, with stretches of deer grass and flows; in fact, no good heather on the hill moors. Excepting on the burn banks and dry knolls, the ground was mostly peat bog, too soft to carry a pannier pony, and the birds had to be carried in panniers on gillies' backs.

The trout fishing in the upper streams and burns of the Thurso that fed Loch More was pretty good. The trout were plentiful but small, running about four to the pound, but they came quick and lively. The loch fishing was not much account; perhaps I should except one loch, that yielded heavy trout of fine quality, but very shy.

Glenmarkie was a Christian-like place, but the principal moors of Caithness were a howling wilderness, not a tree and scarcely a shrub; but it was a wilderness of weird beauty in changing lights. The outlook from the top of Ben Alasky on a wild stormy day, with changing sunlight and storms, over the loch bespattered land, backed up by the cliffs of Orkney, was one of the things to see and to remember.

To me this wild and weird land has great charms.

Well, I wrote to Dunbar in the early summer to say that my lease was expiring, and that I wanted a shooting for 1872, and on a long lease.

He offered me one or two small ones in the Watton and Wick districts, but I told him that I must have Glutt, Dalnawillan, or Strathmore. He replied that all were let on lease, and could not be had.

But in September he wrote again, saying that his tenant Col. C., from failing health, desired probably to relinquish the lease of Dalnawillan and Chullacan, 18,000 and 6000 acres respectively, and that they could be had jointly or separately at £400 and £160, for the unexpired term of the Colonel's lease, of which there was nine years then to run.

I sent Black down to inspect and report.

It culminated as Dunbar had foreshadowed, and at the latter end of October I went straight from Glenmarkie to Dalnawillan.

The railway was then open to Helmsdale, and from there I travelled by mail coach as far as Dunbeath, a lovely drive past Berriedale, the property of the Duke of Portland, but being night I could see but little of it on that occasion.

I slept at Dunbeath, and posted over next morning, 16 miles, the whole distance across the moorland, to Dalnawillan.

Angus Mackay, the Colonel's gillie, met me at the march with a dog, and, getting the gun out of the case, I shot up to the lodge.

The day was warm and sunny, and I was amazed and puzzled; I saw no birds. At Glenmarkie they would have rolled up over the sky line; but birds sat to the dog, and I killed three and a half brace. Three days before, at Glenmarkie, being the last day that I should shoot, I tried to get a few grouse, my endeavours resulting in one bird, but plenty of packs rising before me.

The next day was showery and gusty, and the birds did not sit well, but at Glenmarkie they would have rolled up in packs.

I spent two nights at the lodge with the Colonel's brother, who came over to meet me, and next morning was away to Thurso to meet the Colonel and Dunbar.

It was agreed that the lease should be assigned. I suggested a new lease from Dunbar, and that he should make it the full ten years.

"Take it to the end of my lease, seventeen years, if you like," says Dunbar, to which I assented; so it was settled that I should take the 24,000 acres of Dalnawillan, and Chullacan, and Backlas, at the rent of £560, proprietor paying all rates and taxes, and I paying my keeper and all other expenses.

This included a joint right of trout fishing on Dalnawillan, Strathmore, and Glutt, and salmon fishing, after June 1.

When I returned to England my shooting friends told me that I was crazy to take shooting in such an out-of-the-way, wild country, and tie myself up for such a term of years. I felt I had done right; I meant grouse shooting and fishing, and that, as railways had crept up, and were creeping up, that shootings were more likely to improve than get worse, in case of some unforeseen event occurring that should cause me to cease to shoot.

Black had made every inquiry as to disease. Dunbar told me plump that five years before they had had disease, but it was a mild attack, and did not stop shooting. As, however, the moor had not carried a good head of grouse until the year I took it, I expect that the tenants shot away, killing down the breeding stock that should have been nursed. It was admitted that the moors on the south and east had been badly hit with disease.

I took the place with my eyes open, and was prepared to take the fat with the lean, but I candidly confess that I had more lean than I expected or liked.

I looked for disease in 1874, but it came sooner.