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Sketches of the Wild Sports & Natural History of the Highlands
Chapter XXXII

Autumn day on the Mountain Stags and Hinds A Bivouac Death of the Stag.

In the same ratio that steam-boats, railways, coaches, and every other kind of conveyance were crowded in the months of July and August with men, dogs, and guns, all travelling northwards, every road is now occupied by travellers to the south; for the cold blasts of the mountain, and the uncertain state of the weather in the Highlands, drive most of our English sportsmen back again to the more solid comforts of their own homes. Nevertheless, there is, perhaps, more variety of sport, and more objects of interest to the hunter and naturalist, to be met with during the autumn and winter months in the northern parts of Scotland than during any other season of the year. And, as for weather, after the first burst of the equinoctial winds and rains the climate is as good as in any part of Great Britain. The fine clear bracing frosts of the autumn are nowhere to be felt with greater enjoyment than on the mountains. It is not, indeed, quite so desirable to bivouac out, "sub Jove frigido," in the month of October or November, with no covering but a plaid and a heap of heather, as it is in July or August; still I have done so, and been none the worse for it.

Some years back I remember sleeping under a rock in the beginning of October with much satisfaction, and no ill consequences to myself.

The red deer had just commenced what is called by the Highlanders roaring, i.e. uttering their loud cries of defiance to rival stags, and of warning to their rival mistresses.

There had been seen, and reported to me, a particularly large and fine-antlered stag, whose branching honours I wished to transfer from the mountain side to the walls of my own hall. Donald and myself accordingly, one fine morning early in October, started before daybreak for a distant part of the mountain, where we expected to find him ; and we resolved to pass the night at a shepherd's house far up in the hills,- if we found that our chase led us too far from home to return the same evening.

Long was our walk that day before we saw horn or hoof; many a likely burn and corrie did we search in vain. The shepherds had been scouring the hills the day before for their sheep, to divide those which were to winter in the low ground from those which were to remain on the hills. However, the day was fine and frosty, and we were in the midst of some of the most magnificent scenery in Scotland; so that I, at least, was not much distressed at our want of luck. Poor Donald, who had not the same enjoyment in the beauty of the scene, unless it were enlivened by a herd of deer here and there, began to grumble and lament our hard fate; particularly as towards evening wild masses of cloud began to sweep up the glens and along the sides of the mountain, and every now and then a storm of cold rain and sleet added to the discomfort of our position. There was, however, something so very desolate and wild in the scene and the day, that, wrapt in my plaid, I stalked slowly on enjoying the whole thing as much as if the elements had been in better temper, and the Goddess of Hunting propitious.

We came in the afternoon to a rocky burn, along the course of which was our line of march. To the left rose an interminable-looking mountain, over the sides of which were scattered a wilderness of grey rock and stone, sometimes forming immense precipices, and in other places degenerating into large tracts of loose and water-worn grey shingle, apparently collected and heaped together by the winter floods. Great masses of rock were scattered about, resting on their angles, and looking as if the wind, which was blowing a perfect gale, would hurl them down on us.

Amongst all this dreary waste of rock and stone there were large patches of bright green pasture, and rushes on the level spots, formed by the damming up of the springs and mountain streams.

Stretching away to our right was a great expanse of brown heather and swampy ground, dotted with innumerable pools of black-looking water. The horizon on every side was shut out by the approaching masses of rain and drift. The clouds closed round us, and the rain began to fall in straight hard torrents ; at the same time, however, completely allaying the wind.

"Well, well," said Donald, "I just dinna ken what to do." Even I began to think that we might as well have remained at home; but, putting the best face on the matter, we got under a projecting bank of the burn, and took out our provision of oatcake and cold grouse, and having demolished that, and made a considerable vacuum in the whisky flask, I lit my cigar, and meditated on the vanity of human pursuits in general, and of deer-stalking in particular, while dreamy visions of balls, operas and the last pair of blue eyes that I had sworn everlasting allegiance to, passed before me.

Donald was employed in the more useful employment of bobbing for burn trout with a line and hook he had produced out of his bonnet that wonderful blue bonnet, which, like the bag in the fairy tale, contains anything and everything which is required at a moment's notice. His bait was the worms which in a somewhat sulky mood he kicked out of their damp homes about the edge of the burn. Presently the ring-ousel began to whistle on the hill-side, and the cock grouse to crow in the valley below us. Roused by these omens of better weather, I looked out from our shelter, and saw the face of the sun struggling to show itself through the masses of cloud, while the rain fell in larger but more scattered drops. In a quarter of an hour the clouds were rapidly disappearing, and the face of the hill as quickly opening to our view. We remained under shelter a few minutes longer, when suddenly, as if by magic, or like the lifting of the curtain at a theatre, the whole hill was perfectly clear from clouds, and looked more bright and splendidly beautiful than anything I had ever seen. No symptoms were left of the rain, excepting the drops on the heather, which shone like diamonds in the evening sun. The masses of rock came out in every degree of light and shade, from dazzling white to the darkest purple, streaked here and there with the overpourings of the swollen rills and springs, which danced and leapt from rock to rock, and from crag to crag, looking like streams of silver.

"How beautiful!" was both my inward and outward exclamation. "'Deed it's not just so dour as it was," said Donald; "but, the Lord guide us ! look at yon," he continued, fixing his eye on a distant slope, at the same time slowly winding up his line and pouching his trout, of which he had caught a goodly number. "Tak your perspective, Sir, and look there," he added, pointing with his chin. I accordingly took my perspective, as he always called my pocket-telescope, and saw a long line of deer winding from amongst the broken granite in single file down towards us. They kept advancing one after the other, and had a most singular appearance as their line followed the undulations of the ground. They came slowly on, to the number of more than sixty (all hinds, not a horn amongst them), till they arrived at a piece of tableland four or five hundred yards from us, when they spread about to feed, occasionally shaking off the rain-drops from their hides, much in the same manner as a dog does on coming out of the water.

"They are no that canny," said Donald. "Nous verrons," said I. "What's your wull?" was his answer; "I'm no understanding Latin, though my wife has a cousin who is a placed minister." "Why, Donald, I meant to say that we shall soon see whether they are canny or not: a rifle-ball is a sure remedy for all witchcraft." Certainly there was something rather startling in the way they all suddenly appeared as it were from the bowels of the mountain, and the deliberate, unconcerned manner in which they set to work feeding like so many tame cattle.

We had but a short distance to stalk. I kept the course of a small stream which led through the middle of the herd; Donald followed me with my gun. We crept up till we reckoned that we must be within an easy shot, and then, looking most cautiously through the crevices and cuts in the bank, I saw that we were in the very centre of the herd: many of the deer were within twenty or thirty yards, and all feeding quickly and unconscious of any danger. Amongst the nearest to me was a remarkably large hind, which we had before observed as being the leader and biggest of the herd. I made a sign to Donald that I would shoot her, and left him to take what he liked of the flock after I fired.

Taking a deliberate and cool aim at her shoulder, I pulled the trigger; but, alas! the wet had got between the cap and nipple-end. All that followed was a harmless snap : the deer heard it and starting from their food rushed together in a confused heap, as if to give Donald a fair chance at the entire flock, a kind of shot he rather rejoiced in. Before I could get a dry cap on my gun, snap, snap, went both his barrels; and when I looked up, it was but to see the whole herd quietly trotting up the hill, out of shot, but apparently not very much frightened, as they had not seen us, or found out exactly where the sound came from. "We are just twa fules, begging your honour's pardon, and only fit to weave hose by the ingle," said Donald. I could not contradict him. The mischief was done; so we had nothing for it but to wipe out our guns as well as we could and proceed on our wandering. We followed the probable line of the deer's march, and before night saw them in a distant valley feeding again quite unconcernedly.

"Hark ! what is that?" said I, as a hollow roar like an angry bull was heard not far from us. "Kep down, kep down," said Donald, suiting the action to the word, and pressing me down with his hand; "it's just a big staig." All the hinds looked up, and, following the direction of their heads, we saw an immense hart coming over the brow of the hill three hundred yards from us. He might easily have seen us, but seemed too intent on the hinds to think of anything else. On the height of the hill he halted, and stretching out his neck and lowering his head, bellowed again. He then rushed down the hill like a mad beast: when half way down he was answered from a distance by another stag. He instantly halted, and looking in that direction roared repeatedly, while we could see in the evening air, which had become cold and frosty, his breath coming out of his nostrils like smoke. Presently he was answered by another and another stag, and the whole distance seemed alive with them. A more unearthly noise I never heard, as it echoed and re-echoed through the rocky glens that surrounded us.

The setting sun threw a strong light on the first comer, casting a kind of yellow glare on his horns and head, while his body was in deep shade, giving him a most singular appearance, particularly when combined with his hoarse and strange bellowing. As the evening closed in, their cries became almost incessant, while here and there we heard the clash of horns as two rival stags met and fought a few rounds together. None, however, seemed inclined to try their strength with the large hart who had first appeared. The last time we saw him, in the gloom of the evening, he was rolling in a small pool of water, with several of the hinds standing quietly round him, while the smaller stags kept passing to and fro near the hinds, but afraid to approach too close to their watchful rival, who was always ready to jump up and dash at any of them who ventured within a certain distance of his seraglio. "Donald," I whispered, "I would not have lost this sight for a hundred pounds." "'Deed, no, its grand," said he. " In all my travels on the hill I never saw the like." Indeed it is very seldom that chances combine to enable a deer-stalker to quietly look on at such a strange meeting of deer as we had witnessed that evening. But night was coming on, and though the moon was clear and full, we did not like to start off for the shepherd's house, through the swamps and swollen burns among which we should have had to pass, nor did we forget that our road would be through the valley where all this congregation of deer were. So after consulting, we turned off to leeward to bivouac amongst the rocks at the back of the hill, at a sufficient distance from the deer not to disturb them by our necessary occupation of cooking the trout, which our evening meal was to consist of. Having hunted out some of the driest of the fir-roots which were in abundance near us, we soon made a bright fire out of view of the deer, and after eating some fish and drying our clothes pretty well, we found a snug corner in the rocks, where, wrapped up in our plaids and covered with heather, we arranged ourselves to sleep.

Several times during the night I got up and listened to the wild bellowing of the deer: sometimes it sounded close to us, and at other times far away. To an unaccustomed ear it might easily have passed for the roaring of a host of much more dangerous wild beasts, so loud and hollow did it sound. I awoke in the morning cold and stiff, but soon put my blood into circulation by running two or three times up and down a steep bit of the hill. As for Donald, he shook himself, took a pinch of snuff, and was all right. The sun was not yet above the horizon, though the tops of the mountains to the west were already brightly gilt by its rays, and the grouse cocks were answering each other in every direction.

Having discharged our guns, which we did close to a steep and very noisy cascade in the burn, so that the report could scarcely be heard beyond the place we were in, we dried the locks as well as we could, and after a meagre breakfast on the remains of the trout and some very wretched remnants of oat-cake, we proceeded on our journey. The deer had moved from the valley where we had left them the previous evening; but Donald, who knew every mountain and glen in the country, having ascertained exactly the way the wind came from, led me off in an easterly direction. The sun was well up when we came towards the summit of a hill from which he expected to see the herd, and his anticipations proved to be correct; on looking carefully down into the extended valley below us, we saw the whole of them. They had apparently finished feeding, and were retiring to rest on a hill-side which faced the morning sun; the hinds were in a compact body, while the largest hart kept a little to their rear, and constantly employed himself in keeping off a number of smaller stags who were moving about; occasionally one of these would make an impatient rush into the centre of the herd of hinds, but was as quickly driven out by the large stag, who then returned to his post in the rear. When they had ascended to near the summit, the hinds began to drop one by one into the long heather, until they were all lying down, with the exception of five or six who kept constantly fidgeting about, turning their long ears, and snuffing the air in all directions. The old stag walked quietly about, going round and round the herd; now and then lying down for a few moments, and then rising again, to see that no other stag intruded too near. The smaller stags kept continually circling round the whole herd ; occasionally two of these youngsters would meet, but after a few tilts at each other, separated again and continued their watchful march. I saw no chance of getting near the big-antlered leader, though one of the smaller stags could easily have been shot. After consulting with Donald, I sent him to make a large circuit, and when he got quite round them he was to show himself in the distance to the deer. We reckoned on their leaving the glen by a particular pass, close to which I stationed myself. I kept both gun and rifle with me. From my position, though I could not see Donald, I had a good view of the deer. After waiting for nearly an hour, I saw one of the smaller stags suddenly stop in his rounds, and having gazed for a moment or two in the direction in which I knew Donald was, he trotted nearer to the hinds, still, however, halting occasionally, and turning an anxious glance down the valley. I saw by his manner that he had not quite made up his mind as to whether there was an enemy at hand; not having got the wind of Donald, but probably having caught a glimpse of some part of his cap or dress.

The stag then stood motionless on a small hillock, with his head turned towards the suspected quarter, though none of his rivals took any notice of him. The hinds, one and all, kept a most anxious watch on his movements, evidently aware that he suspected some danger. In the meantime, Donald seemed to have got a little more to windward of the deer. Presently one old hind got up and snuffed the air, then another and another, till all were on their legs ; still they were not decided as to the danger. At last a general panic seemed to seize the hinds, and they all trotted together a short way up the hill; the large stag had got up also, but seemed not at all disposed to make off. The hinds came to a halt near the top of the first slope of the hill, and were joined immediately by about a dozen stags, who, collecting together, galloped up the hill to join them; this seemed to arouse the old fellow, and he trotted up after them. The hinds only waited for his joining them, and then the whole herd set off towards my pass. They had to cross a trifling hollow, during which time I lost sight of them. When they emerged their order had quite changed ; first of all came eight stags in a body, jostling each other as they hurried up through the narrow passes of the rocks; then came the whole lot of hinds, mostly in single file, but breaking into confused flocks as they passed over pieces of heather and open ground; next to them came the object of our manoeuvres, and at a small distance behind him the rest of the stags, four or five in number. On they came, sometimes in full view and sometimes half concealed from me. Donald too, now showed himself, waving his plaid. The hindmost deer halted on seeing him, and then rushed on to the main herd, who now all got into rare confusion as they hurried on to the pass through which they left the glen. The foremost stags were now passing one by one within forty yards of me; just at that point they had to make a spring over a kind of chasm in their road. I kept quite motionless, and they did not observe me, half concealed as I was amongst the grey rocks. Now came the hinds, with a noise like a rushing stream; amongst them were four or five stags; they were trotting quickly past me, when an unlucky hind caught sight of my rifle-barrel as a ray of the sun fell upon it; the rest of the herd took the alarm from her manner, and they all rushed through the pass in the most mad confusion. The difficult part was only a few yards in length, and once through this, they got into regular order again. But where is their lord and leader? I was afraid to look over my ambuscade for fear of turning him. Just as I was about to do so, however, I heard his step on the stones, and in the next moment he was in full view passing broadside to me, but going slowly and undecided whether to proceed or turn back, having perceived the panic of the rest of the flock. When he came to the difficult point where the rest had leaped, he halted for a moment, looking round. The next moment my rifle-ball passed through the top of his shoulder, just too high; the blow, however, knocked him down, and before he was up I had my gun in my hand; the poor brute rose, and looked wildly round; not knowing where the enemy was, nor which way to go, he stood still, looking with anxious glance at his companions, who were galloping off up an opposite slope. Expecting him to drop dead every moment, I did not pull the trigger, but kept my aim on him. The way the rest had gone seemed too rough for him, and after standing for a minute gazing after them, he turned round with the intention, probably, of going down the hill to some well-known burn where he had been in the habit of bathing and cooling his limbs. He twice fell to his knees before he had gone five yards, and then walked slowly away. I thought he might recover strength, and taking a deliberate aim, I wed. This time he fell without a struggle, perfectly dead Donald joined me by the time I had bled him, and examined the shot-marks. One had broken the very top of his shoulder but just missed the large arteries; the other ball seemed to have passed through his heart. The Highlander was vastly delighted at our getting the stag we had determined on, but his enjoyment was somewhat damped by my not having sent both barrels into the middle of the hinds. "Aiblins your honour would have tuk down twa or three at each shot, and the brutes will all be off our march in an hour's time. Lord, sir, if I had only been where your honour was, with the dooble-barrel loaded with swan-post, I'd hae rattled it about their lugs; I fairly suspect I'd have put down half-a-dizen." I consoled Donald with a dram, and we set to work to prepare our stag for taking home, which, with the help of a shepherd's pony, we succeeded in doing before night.

Donald, though, professedly, he cared for neither wind nor weather, was in bed all the next day, from what he called rheumatiz, but what I called whisky-toddy, taken to counteract any bad effects of his cold bivouac; for my own part, I did not feel at all the worse for our cool couch, and was quite ready to renew the campaign.

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