The Angry Corrie 24: Sep-Oct 1995
Six short films about killing
At the time of going to press, three episodes of the BBC series The Gamekeeper have been broadcast. The basic storyline will be familiar to most TAC readers: cameras follow Charlie Pirie, head keeper with Atholl Estates, as he goes about his supposedly hard-but-blissful existence. He strides the hills (usually in a Land Rover); eagles fly; the sun mostly shines; mists occasionally swirl; Beinn a'Ghlo forms a big-time backdrop. The supporting cast consists of a couple of young YTS trainees (Alastair and Paul), Charlie's more-or-less permanently housewifing wife Sandra, occasional glimpses of estate factor Andrew Gordon and the grand old Duke himself, and various bits of wildlife - some of it living, most of it dead.
All this should be of more than passing interest to TACers, since Atholl Estates has featured often in these pages over the years by dint of various moneygrabbing schemes such as charging visiting walkers a fiver to drive up the bottom bit of Glen Tilt (shamelessly shown here in episode two). This in a world where the Tilt beat of the Estate, at 20000 acres, forms less than 15% of the total concern, and a world where visitors pay £1000 a day to shoot grouse.
The series is clearly intended for the easily-wowed network audience. The usual Celtic misty-tosh music swirls and fiddles incessantly. (Credited to "The Iron Horse", but surely Moira Kerr must be in there somewhere?) Charlie frequently chips in with such as "City dwellers havenae got it" - too right they haven't: Atholl is one of the wealthiest estates in the land, and what they have over and above most city dwellers is loads and loads of dosh.
The scenery, as would be expected, looks brilliant: you want to be there. Production values are high too. Take the moment when Charlie finally does away with the verminous fox in episode one: whatever one thinks about the killing, the director's Nic Roeg-like camera cutting does add a genuine sense of suspense.
There are moments of absurd comedy: the Duke's doddering, large-bellied private army briefly appears, making your average Morrisman look as mean as Judge Dredd. One of the YTSers describes his previous supermarket post as "the most boringest job I've ever had". Charlie describes stalking as "like a game of snooker". A stalker has a gralloched stag's innards ritually smeared over her face like some kind of grotesque stagepaint. And sad absurdity too: a shepherd seriously opines that sheep are "economically very important ... to keep the community together". Eh? What was that about the Clearances?
The programmes are, on the face of it, gently sympathetic towards Pirie. This is fair enough. Although clearly an old-fashioned disciplinarian of the Jim McLean / Brian Clough school (witness his "no fun" stance toward the £30 per week trainees), he obviously knows his stuff and does what he does well. Any really probing ethical questions shouldn't fall at his door, rather at that of his genuinely landed bosses and the succession of disturbing and pathetic paying guests. These are an education in themselves - take for instance the middleaged Northern Irish lads over for the 12th August and the annual grouse massacre. Paying a grand for a grand day out, they straggle across the heather moors like at the end of Dad's Army, blasting the genitals off anything that dares to flutter. They then repair to the local hostelry to congratulate themselves on being such pinnacles of evolution and civilisation. Smug barbarians, the lot of them. Is the satisfaction they get out of their shooting at all the same as that we get from our own version of a good day on the hill? This reviewer for one took to wondering how they spend the 12th day of the month previous to August...
The twenty-strong group of Europeans over for the stalking are even less endearing. Led by a remarkably cold-eyed Belgian who speaks of "being born a hunter", they include a first-time stag-shooter who shoves a clump of heather in the dying beast's mouth "to show respect for what has happened". Yeah? To cover for the perfectly normal sense of unease more likely, as is so often the case with grim little rituals such as this.
Arguments against commercial shooting are brusquely dismissed. Charlie suggests it's no more barbaric than "hooligans throwing cans and pennies at bobbies at football matches" - thus revealing naivety, low-level snobbery and a certain lack of logic. (So the one-in-umpteen-thousand "penny-throwers" is okay then?) Thus far, that other brand of hooligans - hillwalkers - have scarcely featured, apart from seven admittedly stupid (if only for their own safety's sake) line-of-sighters during the stag shoot - including one who performes a bizarre Olga Korbut-style somersault off a peat hag. Charlie's understated reaction might, you feel, have been somewhat richer had the camera not been there.
Quite whether the series is really substantial enough, the characters riveting enough, to stretch to six episodes is unclear. Charlie Pirie is no Fred Dibnah, no salt of the earth. Sure, all six episodes will be eminently watchable, will make good TV. But the series will only really work if the more subtle questions receive a genuine airing. The other worldliness, the kid-on remoteness needs to be cut through: okay, so delivery firms are iffy about coming up five miles of estate road to Forest Lodge; this doesn't stop it still only being an hour or so's drive from the Dundee housing schemes of Whitfield and Mid Craigie, the real "real world". And the absurdity of moaning about low grouse numbers when the only reason for wanting higher numbers is to reduce them with grapeshot. Shooting an overpopulous, tree-munching deer might be one thing; popping at a harmless, heather-hiding grouse is another.
The mega-rich Duke of Atholl and his confidantes are ultimately playing a game, packaging their wealth in such a way as to dissuade the world at large from objecting to their well maintained and not-so-little niche. The likes of Charlie Pirie - presumably far from wealthy himself - are, it could be argued, willing victims in this charade. Pirie could clearly go a long way toward running his beat himself without the haughty patronage. Indeed, the Estate could be run in various ways other than as a commercial shooting concern - the John Muir Trust, for one, have shown this elsewhere. And if one more programme promotes the line about shooters boosting the local economy... The bulk of what they pay goes straight into the Duke's coffers, whilst your average Shearings coachload of tourists surely puts a sight more money into the general swirl of incoming cash.