At the end of a day’s hunting, when I’m cutting the thread out of plaits, steam is rolling off the horses, the tack is clean and I can see my breath in the air; there is a certain drink, that given a hot bath or an armchair and an open fire, can do justice to such a day – and by choice I would ask for a glass of Pol Roger. Although, after a good day’s hunting I can’t imagine that just one could be enough….
I shoot, both images with a camera and game with a shotgun or rifle. It is my passion and an intrinsic part of my life in the countryside. I treasure my tweeds and things I have collected over the years. There’s something about wearing an old tweed jacket that has seen many more days than I have that is rather special. My prized sporting possessions also include my grandmother’s gold fox mask stock pin and hunting whip. She brings me luck when I take her out in the field. My father has always said that you have to dress like a gentleman to shoot like a gentleman – and for everything I do in the field, I try to do just that as a mark of respect. I leave the suits and ties to my brothers and stick to my tweeds, loden cape and two velvet ribbon-tied plaits. I value the people I meet on these adventures, the stories that are created and the places I see with them – as well as the evenings we spend together eating the game we have shot or stalked. I love being out in the field, even if it means waking up at 4:30 in the morning to turn out horses for hunting, feed pheasants with my brothers or to head out hind stalking in the February waist-high snow.
Many of the pictures I post on Instagram are taken at an opportune moment.
Technology is now of such a quality that I can rely on my phone to capture the delicate morning light or the shadows of the hunting field lining out along along a field margin as the day draws to a close. If I had a large camera waiting in a ditch for ‘The Shot’ it might never happen, and I’d prefer to be jumping it anyway. I see the most extraordinary things on the hill and through the ears of a horse. You are that much closer to nature and that is invaluable. I doubt that I would be able to hold a large camera, along with my whip and reins – even a phone can be a challenge when my horse isn’t behaving himself.
I am naturally competitive, and as the eldest of four children I have been given every opportunity to learn how to ride, shoot and fish from those closest to me. These have been the foundation of many of my passions and brought me close to people to learn from and aspire to. I will never shoot as straight as my brothers or my father, cast like my grandfather could, hunt like granny or even cook venison like my mother – or drink like my sister can – but I can try.
Aspiration is a very powerful thing and each of these special people play a very important part in what drives me.
The place where I am happiest, where I am most at peace and where my family has toasted every sporting milestone, fish caught and first blood with champagne, perfectly cooled in a burn, is the Highlands. I spend much of my time in the north and it is a place that we all hold dear to our hearts. I have some wonderful childhood memories of catching my first fish on the Dee. It might have been tied to the line by my grandfather – but that is by the by.
I spend summer holidays stalking, an hour north of Inverness at the most beautiful estate called Strathvaich. It is a place my family adores. The traditional ways still rule, when we are not on the hill time is passed with fierce card games and piles of books. We play old records, have great dinners in the evenings, there is no central heating, just open fires, and then there’s bath time; the water is demerara sugar brown.
The current Head Stalker, Donald, was brought up on Strathvaich and many people would contest that he is the soul of the place. We have all spent many spectacular days on the hill together, helping with the red deer cull. Along with the old Head Stalker Iain, they have taught me everything I know about the hill, the deer, how wind directions effect the herds and how to get into them. They have taught me how to shoot a rifle, where to aim, and how to drag beasts off the hill and how to work the Garrons (The ever stubborn highland ponies traditionally bred & used to take the stags off the hill). They have taught so many people through the generations. It’s a very important part of keeping the old ways alive.
Strathvaich holds some very special places, memories of past lives and promises of the future. There is Englishman’s Burn that cascades into a beautiful waterfall. It was named after the last surviving stag brought up to breed new blood into the Highland stock from Richmond Park. His antlers now hang in the lodge. After stalking we take friends to sit by the waterfall where he was found and put a bottle of fizz in the burn to cool.
An old Stalker, Red Murdo, had a bothy that still stands at the very end of what is now a large earth dam on the northern march of the estate. In the summer we corral the obstinate highland ponies from their pasture, with our piece and drinks, up to Murdo’s as a weekend ritual. The boys dash out to catch pike, forage for firewood and cool the drinks in the loch. We while away the hours by the fire and surrounded by the summer’s purple heather cloaked hill – then there’s a great race back to the Lodge before it gets too dark. The garrons are surprisingly speedy when they are homeward bound.
Another of my favourite places is called The Castle. It looks out over country covered in an ancient deer drive, a hangover from the estate’s high Victorian heritage. It’s quite a view down an entire Strath from the north western most point on the estate onto a hill called The Devil’s Seat and onto a corrie that keeps the secret of a rather large eagle’s nest. It is a four hour walk from the lodge but there is no finer view.
Lastly, I have to mention a Strathvaich ritual, The Drinking Tree. Yet again is requires garrons, an old flask that my parents gave me for my 18th birthday, homemade sloe gin, a bottle of champagne and a tree. It can be any tree but my favourite sits high up on a moraine in the Strath that runs through the centre of the Estate. You can see the Highland cattle grazing, the rains rolling in, and hear the stags roaring across the glen in the rutt. We sit up there for hours, putting the world to rights mulling over every fish and shot of the day over a bottle of champagne.
Shared experiences, especially those outside, are the ones that bind us – family, friends and communities alike. Whether you are soaked to the skin on a drive in a January deluge or basking in the afternoon sunshine having a post piece snooze on the hill, the countryside and shared times are there to be honoured. Sharing a bottle is just the same.