Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Sports and Pastimes of Scotland
Chapter IV. Fox Hunting

With hunts up, with hunts up,
It is now perfect day.

* * * * *
Ace cursed fox lay hid in rocks
This lang and mony a day,
Devouring sheep while he micht creep,
Nane might him schape away.

Wedderburne's Ballads.

IT has been truly remarked that "in Scotland, where, from the character of the country, fox-hunting is often impossible, it never has become a national sport to the same extent as in England." At an early period the Scots did not reckon the fox among their beasts of chase, and neither did the English. For other sport was afforded by the pathless forests, the brown moors, the bosky glens, and heathy mountain of the north, where the "mighty hunters" of old, who contended with the wild white bull, the wolf, and the boar, and revelled in the chase of the deer, disdained to pursue the mean and cowardly fox—the madadh ruadh, the red dog, as it was called in the language of the hills. By skill in hunting, the young chief of a clan gave the first proof of capacity to head his tribe; but the red dog was not the quarry against which he bent his adolescent energies. The fox, which abounded in the the country, proving most destructive to flocks and domestic poultry, was counted as vermin, and was trapped and otherwise distroyed by the rural population who suffered severely frorn its ravages. Hear what Roderick Dhu said—

"Though the beast of game The privilege of chase may claim, Though space and law the slag we lend, Ere hound Nye slip, or bow we bend, Who ever reck'd, where, how, or when, The prowling fox was trapp'd or slain.

Unlike the wolf, however, the fox never had the honour of being denounced by statute, but in various quarters dogs were kept specially for its extirpation. Thus, for example, the Register of Tacks of the Abbey of Cupar Angus, which had extensive domains in Glenisla, contains leases, dated between 1539 and 1559, in which the larger tacksmen were severally held bound to maintain and feed a leash of good hounds, with a couple of raches (sleuth- (logs) for tod (fox) and wolf, and shall be ready at all times when we (tile abbot and convent) charge them to pass with us or our baillies to the hunts;" and the smaller tenants were in like manner bound to keep "one hound for tod and wolf."

Hector Bocce, in his History, tells a marvellous story of how the inhabitants of Glenmore (in the shires of Inverness and Moray) protected their fowls against the wily plunderers. "The wolves," he says, "are right noisome to the tame bestial in all parts of Scotland, except one part thereof, named Glenn-more ; in which the tame bestial get little damage of wild bestial, especially of tods. For each house nourishes a young tod certain days, and mixes the flesh thereof, after it be slain, with such meat as they give to their fowls or other small beasts, and so many as eat of this meat are preserved two months after from any damage by the tods, for tods will taste no flesh that tastes of their own kind and be there but one beast or fowl that has not tasted of this meat, the tod will chase it out among a thousand." No comment on this mode of protection is needful.

At what period the chase of the fox came in favour with Scottish sportsmen cannot be ascertained with any exactness. \Ve know how ardent a votary of Diana and St. Hubert was King James VI., but buck-hunting was his ruling passion in the field. An early notice of fox- hunting as a sport, however, on the part of the upper class, is given in the Black Book of Taymoulk, occurring in the shape of a letter, dated in 1631, from the Earl of Mar, while residing at Stirling, to Sir Cohn Campbell of Glenurchay, whose father had died that same year :-

"To my very loving cousin, the Laird of Glenurchay.

Loving Cousin,

"Being come in to stay in this town a good part of this winter, I think my greatest sport shall be the hunting of the fox, therefore I will earnestly entreat you to send me with this bearer a couple of good earth dogs. This is my first charge since your father died, and I pray you use me as familiarly as I do you; for without ceremony, cousin, you shall not have a friend over whom you have greater power than over me. Your loving Cousin to do you service.

"MAR. "Stirling, the 5 of November, 1631.

"What you send me, let it be good, although it should be but one."

Doubtless Sir Colin sent a leash of his best dogs, with which he had scoured the hills and glens of Breadalbane, and the Earl could scarcely fail finding good sport around Stirling.

Captain Burt, in his amusing Letters, speaks of fox-hunting as he saw it in the highlands. " There are numbers of foxes," he says ; "but they take to the mountains, which are rocky, and sometimes inaccessible to the clogs, of which several have been lost by falling from precipices in the pursuit ; for the fox in his flight takes the most dangerous way. But when we happen to kill one of them, it is carried home, through the blessings of the people, like a dangerous captive in a Roman triumph." It was common, indeed, to nail a fox's head to the door of stable or byre, along with a horse-shoe, as a counter- charm against the mischievous pranks of the fairies and the malicious spells of the witches. The Captain writes again that one of the chief complaints of the Highlanders, after being disarmed in 1725, was "that they were deprived of the means to destroy those noxious animals," foxes and wild-cats, which did them " much more hurt in their poultry, etc., than they yield them profit by their furs; and the eagles do them more mischief than both the others together." But in this complaint the Highlanders the Captain, because in obeying the order for disarmament, they had only given up their worst weapons, the others being carefully concealed fora future rising.

After the middle of last century, when the country had settled down from the disasters of the Rebellion, it came to pass that the people of districts infested with foxes engaged and paid a class of men to root them out. This system prevailed in various parts of Scotland clown to the earlier years of the present century. The remuneration of the hunters was sometimes a fixed salary, and sometimes rated at so much per head of the slaughtered foxes, ill both cases being provided by a general assessment oil the district. When Dr. Johnson was in the Hebrides, in 1773, lie found that in the Isle of Skye the head of a fox was worth a guinea to the killer of the animal. The Old Statistical Account of Scotland conducted by Sir John Sinclair, gives interesting details of the working of the hired- hunter system at the time the work was issued, namely from 1791 to 1799: and a few extracts may be made

In the united parishes of Lochgoilhead and Kilmorich, Argyleshire, "foxes were formerly very numerous; but since the land has been chiefly stocked with sheep, the destruction of these animals has become an object of great attention. For this purpose, two, three, or more parishes, according to their cxteiit, join in supporting a fox-hunter, and a pack of dogs. The fox-hunter receives a fixed salary: he is continually perambulating the country, and lives upon his employers; every tacksman and tenant being obliged to entertain him and his dogs, a specified number of nights in the year, according to the extent of land which he possesses. In consequence of this establishment, a fox is seldom seen."

In the parish of Kirkpatrick-Irongray, Kircudbrightshire, when foxes " begin to kill the sheep any where in the parish, the huntsman, who is paid by the country, is sent for, and lie seldom fails to unkenncl a fox on that hill, or in the woods around it."

In the parish of Lochlcc, Forfarshire, poison was used in addition to the operations of the paid huntsman: this being done, "in the winter season, by dragging a piece of salted fish well spiced with powdered nux vomica, along a hill side, and leaving it near water. If the fox comes upon the tract, he soon finds the bait, cats it, drinks and expires instantly. The only difficulty lies in finding open water in time of a severe storm, and without this, the nux vomica does not kill."

In the parish of Western, Perthshire, "the foxes, before the year 1760, made great havoc among the sheep, goats, &c.; but from that time, regular fox-hunters have been employed at fixed salaries, by whose diligence and skill vast numbers of foxes have been destroyed; so that their number is now greatly reduced."

In Golspie parish, Sutherlandshire, " the fox has still a footing ... But, much to the honour of this county, upwards of 100 sterling is yearly expended by it for the purpose of extirpating that noxious animal. Every man that chooses may become a fox-hunter: and for every grown fox killed, there is a premium of 5s. out of the sum above specified; for every fox-cub 2s. 6d.; for every female fox having milk in her teats, or being with young, 20s. When a fox-hunter kills a fox, he is obliged to come immediately and present the dead animal to the sight of a Justice of the Peace, or the Minister of the parish; and to obtain an attestation, in terms of his own declaration, of the parish and the name of the place where he killed the fox, specifying also whether it is male or female, old or young ; and if a female, whether or not it had milk in its teats, or was with young. After this ceremony is over, the huntsman cuts off the ears of the fox, in sight of the inspector, and carries them away carefully, to be kept in retentis till the 30th of April, on which clay the premium is to be paid. On time 30th of April, unless it falls on a Sunday, the Commissioners of Supply and Justices of the Peace meet in the county burghs, chiefly for the purpose of transactinq the fox-business, where all the fox-hunters in the country attend, and produce before the court all the fox-ears they have, with the attestations aforesaid and after every examination that may be thought necessary, and their deposition to the truth of the facts contained in their attestations, they receive their money in full. The man that kills the greatest number receives a premium, over and above the modified allowance for each fox."

Dr. Charles Rogers tells us that, in the times of the hired huntsmen, "several days were occupied annually in the pursuit of the fox, when the entire inhabitants of the district turned out. In Forfarshirc these gatherings were convened by the parish beadle while the congregation left church. An ancestor of the writer heard a beadle in Strathmore summon a dispersing congregation to attend at the hunting field, in these words:

Ilka man and mither's son,
Come hunt the tod on Tuesday.

The section of Somerville's (base, which describes the English fox-hunting, is rivalled in spirit and graphic interest, in a forgotten Scottish poem, The Grampians Desolate, by a Perthshire poet, Alexander Campbell, of Tombea, published in quarto, at Edinburgh, in 1804. The author explains that " a mountain fox-hunting differs greatly from the ordinary exertions and pleasures of the chase in situations less elevated, or in an open country where horsemen can follow the pack in the doublings of the game they are in chase of. There are regular fox- hunters in almost every district, that are employed at a yearly allowance, collected as regularly as the minister's stipend." And the hunt among the hills is thus depicted:

The hunter to the upland wilds is come,
A welcome guest —each bothan is his home
His hounds and terriers keen, a yelping train,
The mountain echoes now salute again.
Far out of view, among the airy peaks
The wily prowler into covert sneaks
The wary cubs alarm'd, instinctive creep
Hard after, scarcely breathing, silence keep.
Ere peep of (lawn, all ready for the sport,
Forth from the airdhi to the wilds resort
And hunters, hounds, and shepherds' dogs rove wide,
From knoll to knoll, from hill to mountain's side
The heath-cock shakes his wing—'tis dawn of day
Halloo the hunt is up—away—away
He breaks full speed away—swift, swift he flies
The yell of opening hounds ascends the skies
Away, away o'er many a shaggy steep,
Fox, hounds, and huntsmen swift as lightning sweep;
Beyond the midway far, where cliffs meet sky,
See the sly villain doubling oft on high,—
The pealing pack at fault, impatient, keen,
Range o'er the mountain's brow,—unheard, unseen
The hunters follow, darling swift along,
And fearless bound the craggy wilds among:
From bending heights they far beneath the eye,
Deep in the vale below the thief descry.
Huzza again the hounds have gain'd the scent
Unheeding danger, on their prey intent,
They dash 'midst duly windings, shelving rocks,
And rouse the peaceful herds and roving flocks
The timid mountain-hare, the roe, the hind
Start from their shelter, secret haunts to find.
Ye harmless tenants of these mountains wild,
They thirst not for your blood—ye meek ye mild
Your crafty neighbour of the cavern-rock,
The foe bloodthirsty of the harmless flock,
The canine rangers, full of vengeful fire,
Fain would him worry in instinctive ire.
Lo, now close in upon his utmost speed,
The sanguine pack to mouth him now proceed
Without a groan the hardened culprit dies,
The hills resound the hunters' joyous cries
They pause—and panting (logs stretch'd on the heath
Repose the while, and soon regain their breath
And on a dark-brown knoll all now recline,
A homely feast is spread, on which they dine
Heart-cheering whisky, oat-cake, goat's milk cheese,
(High cheer that might an ancient hero please!)
Compose use hearty meal—they rest the while
Anon to urge anew the pleasing toil,
The huntsman gives the word—and up all spring
And to their holla mountain-echoes ring—
The game is up again—full speed they fly—
Ere night fall, hunted down, more prowlers die.

Four years after the issue of Campbell's quarto, an extraordinarily-protracted fox-chase came off in the Highlands. The story goes that on the 8th June, 1808, a fox and a hound, trotting at a slow pace, were observed coming southwards along the highway above Dunkeld, in Perthshire—the fox about fifty yards ahead, but both animals being so fatigued as not to be able to gain upon each other. A countryman on the road easily caught the fox alive, and took both it and the dog to a gentleman's house near by, where poor Reynard drew his last breath through sheer exhaustion. It was afterwards ascertained," says the narrator, "that the hound belonged to the Duke of Gordon, and that the fox was started on the morning of the King's birthday (4th June), on the top of those hills called Mona-/lad!,, which separates Badenoch from Fort Augustus. From this it appeared that the chase lasted four days, and that the distance travelled, from the place where the fox was unkennelled, to the spot where it was caught, without making any allowance for doubles, crosses, and tergiversations, and as the crow flies, exceeded seventy miles."

We have now seen the sort of fox-hunting that was so long in vogue in Scotland, and the paucity of early notices of fox-hunting as sport. It was not till about the end of last century that the first pack of hounds was formed for regular sporting purposes, after the English fashion, and this appears to have taken place in the "kingdom of Fife," as shown by Colonel Babington's Records of tile Fife Foxhounds, published at Edinburgh in 1883, Other counties followed the example. But it cannot be said that fox-hunting was ever a national sport north of the Tweed, notwithstanding the distinguished patronage with which it has been honoured.

Return to Book Index page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus