The Angry Corrie 9: Sep-Oct 1992

The Great Stalking Con(troversy)

There are, it has been said, three Great Mysteries in Life. Why have United never won the Cup? What does a bodacious actress see in the 'fish-like' Minister of Fun? and Who invented deer stalking? It would appear that TAC's new correspondent, 'Prospect', knows the answer to at least one of these...

The hills are ablaze with dying bracken, purple heather crowns the moors and the glens echo to the roar of rutting stags. Autumn is come to the Highlands. It's a peaceful time of year, when the first frosts whiten the tops and those twin pests of summer - the tourist and the midge - have gone. But a controversial time too. For it is now that a handful of wealthy foreigners commandeer the hills for the selfish pursuit of slaughtering the defenceless red deer. Poor love-lorn stag: just as he's at his randiest some bastard in a funny hat comes along and shoots him. What has he done to deserve such ruthless attention? Meanwhile notices appear forbidding access to the wilds, and ramblers too are not amused. Why, when we can wander at will over the hills for nine months of the year, can we not do so from mid-August to mid-October?

And yet stalking (cull, massacre, whatever you like to call it) is not a particularly pleasant task. Don't think for one minute that any normal, sane person actually enjoys shooting the deer. It's cold, wet, you crawl about a bit in the mud, then use the latest state-of-the-art hi-tech weapon to blast away at a large, stationary object standing on the skyline a couple of hundred yards away. Hardly a test of skill. Then you still have to haul the stinking carcass back to the argo-cat and endure a five mile drive down a bumpy track in the pouring rain to get it back to the lodge. Let's face it, nobody really wants to stalk deer. So why do they do it? How did it all start and why has it become such an integral part of Highland life? The answers to all these questions, and more, can now at last be revealed...

The story begins long ago in the seventeenth century with the famous Brahan Seer. Among his many and varied premonitions was one utterance which for long defied interpretation:

When all Alba's bens bear the name of one man,
Thousands from the south come, any way they can,
To place a tick in their book three hundred times,
And in each glen to leave their 'cursed signs.
Taking shelter in homes which others will build,
Caring not for the hills 'til their book be filled.
Take heed of these words, prepare for the day,
For great doom shall fall if you turn them away.

The Seer was on his deathbed when he said these words and when asked to explain them simply muttered 'Oh, go and ask Hamish Broon', then turned over and died. It was several years before Hamish could be found, living with his dog in a ruined hovel at the foot of the Ochils. But when asked what the Seer had meant he replied: 'Och, ye daft bugger, 'tis not me yerse want. He said Brown, laddie, not Broon, do I look like a bloody do-gooder mountaineer?', and slammed the door.

Thus it was left to others to decipher the rhyme. This was not easy, for in those days few people knew of books, let alone why anyone should want to put three hundred sheep ticks in them. Only the bit about coming from the south and living in other people's homes seemed to make any sense. Eventually, after many years of ponderous contemplation by the greatest minds that Rum, Eigg and Muck had ever known, it was announced that the Brahan Seer had predicted an armed invasion of the Highlands.

Not unnaturally the clan chiefs were a little concerned at this, especially when after the '45, some hundred years later, they were left with no means of defending themselves. The question of what they should do came up in the latter part of the eighteenth century when a number of prominent chiefs and landowners were gathered in a small and somewhat disreputable pub in Edinburgh, just along from the castle. There was a revolution going on in France and no doubt the thought of Froggies going around chopping each others' heads off made them more than usually nervous. All the Brahan Seer's other predictions had come true, only this one remained unfulfilled - surely it would not be long. But what could be done to prevent such an invasion (for it was now universally agreed that this was what the words referred to)? They could neither fight the invaders, nor provide them with land on which to settle, the Highlands were far too overcrowded as it was.

Suddenly, the Laird of Glendreary had an idea. If they got rid of the existing population (who were after all just a bunch of dirty, lazy, ignorant savages, not really humans at all), then there would be plenty of room for the invaders and no-one would need to fight. There was a moment's pause while the others considered his proposal and then the room erupted in a roar of approval. The Highlanders were of no use to anyone now that the clans could no longer fight, so why bother keeping them? Send them off to live with the 'Injuns' or 'Abos' or something instead! The brandy was passed round and glasses raised in celebration; then they stumbled back to their carriages happy in the knowledge that at last their great problem was solved.

The next day they set about the long but joyful task of burning all the cottars and crofters out of their homes and herding them off like swine into a leaky old boat. The Clearances had begun.

For the next hundred years nothing much else happened. The mountains were laid bare, sheep grazed amid the tumbled ruins of villages and farms, fertile straths turned into bog. And no-one came. Had they made a mistake after all? And if so, what should they do with all this empty land? By now of course there were no restrictions on the bearing of arms - for these were the civilised days of Victoria and the British Empire. And most of the landowners were English anyway, the old chiefs having sold their clans' land to pay their gambling debts and poll tax. So, still wary of the predicted invasion, a few started carrying guns around with them, and taking pot-shots at the odd sheep now and then, as a means of target practice. This soon bored them and they turned to less easy targets, like grouse and deer. The idea spread, and by the end of the eighteen hundreds everyone was wandering around the hills blasting away at anything that moved. (This would not only prepare them for the expected invasion, but also meant that when the First World War came along we had all the best marksmen and therefore stuffed the Germans.)

And so the great era of deer stalking began. No-one wanted to admit that their activity was instigated by the words of a seventeenth century soothsayer, and so the real reason was always kept secret. They were doing it purely for sport, they said, and later, when that became less fashionable, to conserve the deer and not for sport at all. But it was about this time that the Invasion did in fact begin, though not in any way that anyone had ever expected. For as we now know, the Brahan Seer's prediction was of the coming of Munrobaggers: his 'three hundred' is in fact the exact number of Munros - however the OS show several as being under three thousand feet out of spite because we keep criticising their maps for showing bridges which are no longer there when a flood swept them away last week. It took a while for the landowners to realise this, and even longer to admit it to even their closest friends. They had driven thousands of men, women and children away from their homelands, spent vast sums of money building lodges and footpaths so they could practise their shooting, and all because of a few filthy baggers! Imagine the humiliation! Many of the landowners were prominent politicians or members of the royal family (including, of course, the queen). What of the scandal, the ignominy? It was decided that the only way to save face was for the charade to continue; for stalking to go on.

And so the deception grew. Naturally, some lost interest in shooting, and most looked for easier ways of doing what had always, after the initial euphoria, been a pretty irksome task They built bigger tracks and charged foreigners - who knew nothing of the secret truth, but were extremely gullible and in fact are the only people ever known to actually profess enjoyment in stalking, God knows why - vast sums of money to shoot the deer for them. Of course this in turn meant keeping walkers off the hills when shooting was in progress. (Foreigners are notoriously bad shots, that's why we won the Second World War too.) The lack of popularity this caused amongst certain lower class elements was but a small price to pay. Lodges were abandoned and turned into bothies for the Munrobaggers (thereby fulfilling the Seer's words of 'taking shelter in homes which others will build'), who came, as predicted, in their thousands, leaving only their litter, 'their 'cursed sign'. And they took for granted the fact that the hills were empty and bare, little realising that had a madman's prophecy not led to the Clearances, great towns might have risen where instead we have wilderness.

So that is how the system of land ownership, stalking and access restrictions we know and hate so much was created. It serves today only to perpetuate itself, to prevent the discovery that the last three hundred years of Highland history have all been a bloody great cock-up. Yet for all its faults, we should be grateful. Were it not for the Brahan Seer, and the dedication with which the lairds of years gone by sought to heed his words, the Highlands of today might be a very different place.

TAC 9 Index