A scar of pale blue tore across the dark October sky, bringing with it the first hint of morning. Eighteen-year-old Hugo Campbell, gillie on the Clunes beat of Atholl Estates in Perthshire, had already been up for an hour, organising himself for the day on the hill. This usually demands a leisurely nine o’clock meet, but a number of stags recently entered a commercial plantation on the estate. Hugo was charged with the task of culling them. As a gillie, there is no paid overtime or days off in lieu you just have to get it done in the daylight available.

Hugo set off up the forest track at the double, rifle over his shoulder, as the earliest birds trilled in the receding gloom. Four stags had already been removed, but as each one was despatched, another would be attracted by the hinds that had taken up residence in the trees. “There’s a big lad in these woods that I’ve seen a few times recently,” Hugo had explained earlier in the estate’s new Defender. “If I can get in on him, it will be the perfect start to the day.”

The track drew up steeply and the gillie stopped to glass the adjoining grass fields for deer on the woodland edge. It was

now light enough to see the pocket of reds 300 yards away; a group of hinds with Hugo’s big lad in attendance bellowing to confirm his position. From the distance there was a feeble reply. “There’s another weaker stag here, a switch. It depends which one gives me a shot. It’s not a question of herd management, but culling, so I can take either one.” Hugo moved off alone to skirt round the deer and crawl in for a shot. Within 15 minutes there was movement as the hinds began snaking their way through the woods with their calves at foot. I heard a call like a hungry sea lion and then a shot. And then another shot. Eventually, Hugo called me over to join him.

The big stag lay still at his side. It was not yet eight o’clock and Hugo had already shot a beast that a recreational stalker might dedicate a day and several hundred pounds to bag. “That worked okay,” he said, modestly, removing his knife from his pocket to gralloch the 18-stone 10-pointer. “There are definitely some benefits to this job. When I got within range, he started running up and down the fenceline, chasing the hinds into the forestry. You probably heard my pathetic attempt at a roar. It did succeed in stopping him and I got the shot off. I knew it was a good chest shot, but he’s a big deer and once they get into the woods, they can be almost impossible to find without a dog. On the hill, it’s less of a problem, of course, but in here it can pay to keep shooting until they drop. I’m pleased with him, though. This must be the biggest stag I’ve shot. He’s got a mane like a lion.” Hugo dragged the gralloched carcase up to the side of a fence, so that he would be able to find it in the dark that evening, when he was free to return on the quad. There was no time for that now.

A quick breakfast

As Hugo snatched a well-earned bowl of Coco Pops, I had a quick snoop round the bothy where he, and many gillies before him, began their career as Highland gamekeepers. I had heard horror stories of gillies’ bothies, with draughts whistling in through cracks in the wall and cold water gushing through the roof; where there is a kettle for Pot Noodles and not a lot else. But Hugo’s bothy was snugly warm and well-equipped. Fending for himself has provided challenges, though he quickly worked out how to roast a chicken, which usually dictates the menu for a few days at a time. Around the cottage were telltale signs of the tenant’s profession: skulls and antlers on the wall passed down from gillie to gillie; a fox mask from an undisclosed source; plastic tick removers; an SGA sticker on the window; knives, empty cartridge cases and boots.

The wooden walls bore a reminder of the many inhabitants that preceded Hugo. Each gillie had etched his name in the wood, with the earliest legible entry being Archie Gray, in 1912. Of course, it was not just men who frequented the bothy. Jane, Elaine, Carol, Nicole and Kim had each marked their territory with their curvier scroll; all adding to this unique slice of social history.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Hugo did not arrive at his first job through the North Highland College at Thurso or by working on the estate in his early teens. This summer, he left Glenalmond College, near Perth, with a view to taking a year out before university. He wrote to 20 Highland estates and received an offer from Clunes and Milden in Angus. “Milden is primarily a grouse estate and I wanted to be involved with deer,” Hugo said, making his piece for the hill. “Some of my friends thought I was crazy to do this, especially as they will be lazing about on a beach in Australia, but I truly wanted to do this. I’ve enjoyed it so much it will be hard to leave it for university.”

Ronnie Hepburn, headkeeper on Clunes and Hugo’s boss, is a fifth-generation keeper with an excellent reputation in the region. He has been hugely impressed by Hugo’s work ethic since arriving. “It makes no difference at all what your background is,” he said, over a cup of tea before the stalking clients arrived. “You get judged on results, and Hugo is incredibly keen. His attitude is spot on. We’ve had three lads come and go in the past year because they could not hack the pace. Some lads arrive thinking it is a glamorous job, with lots of lamping and snaring, and a bit of stalking thrown in.

But Clunes is primarily a deer forest. We have six days’ grouse and a week off between the stags and hinds, but aside from that it is hill work and larder work. It can be very repetitive, but rewarding at the same time. Hugo settled in quickly and is now one of the boys, because he doesn’t stop grafting. I’m pleased, too, that he got that big stag. He’ll not show it, but he’ll be dead chuffed. He’s been wanting that beast for weeks.”

Ronnie led the way with the client, while Hugo followed later to his designated spy-point on the hill. Ordinarily, we might have seen the coveys of blackcock that lek by the woods above the A9, but they were being camera shy. “There are times when they fly over you like small planes,” said Hugo, “as high as your highest pheasant. I never realised they flew quite so high. It’s no wonder that they were valued as a sporting bird.” In what spare time he gets, Hugo feeds the duck on a small loch on the hill, which have so far harvested an alternative to roast chicken, as well as gifts for other staff members on the estate.

The track itself was one of Hugo’s first tasks on arriving at Atholl in the summer, as all the keepers were put to work gravelling the worn ruts. It was hard labour, lugging bags and shovelling grit, but it earned Hugo his stripes with the other keepers. “We were all cut with blisters after that, but it was worth it,” said Hugo. “Then we started on the roebucks, so it was not uncommon to be out with a client at 4am in a high seat, do a full day on the hill with the reds, and then go out again in the evening for bucks. It has all been a wonderful experience.”

Once in position on the hill, Hugo fields queries on the radio, acting as an extra pair of eyes for Ronnie. Ideally, the client would stalk two stags, which Hugo then extracts on the Argo. If the deer are being problematic or their luck is out, Hugo might be waiting for several hours with nothing to do. If mist moves in, then everybody is forced to sit down and wait.

“It can be quiet at times,” he admitted, scanning the skyline with his binoculars for signs of life. A herd of 50 deer were grazing at the top of a slope that marched with the next door beat. “But there is usually something to keep me interested. I’ll chart the progress of the deer, ever-ready in case Ronnie radios in. From here, I can also see out across other beats, so the other stalkers might ask me for deer movements. There will be times when somebody can’t get a message through, because there’s a hill in the way, so they can relay it through me. You can get a lot of craic on the radios and it’s intriguing to hear how each stalker is getting on.”

When there is no chat on the airways, there is always music on the radio or mobile phone reception to catch up with school friends on their year out or at university. “I’ll get a moment to read ST or swot up for my DSC Level 1. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the old-time pony-boys without radios. The stalkers used to light a fire to show them where to find the deer.” Clunes is the only beat at Atholl Estates not to use Highland ponies to extract carcases, because the ditches needed to drain this wet moorland are too wide for the ponies to jump.

There was a crackle on the radio. “Hugo, are you there? Aye, we got a beast up by Meall na Maoile. Best you come get it now while we try for another one.” Hugo had turned from spotter to removal man. Driving an Argo is just one of the skills Hugo has picked up since arriving at Clunes. The estate also put him on a quad bike course before he was allowed to ride out. “I ought to warn you that I have bogged this machine before,” he said, as we set out for the carcase. “But not for a while! Ronnie was really good about it. He showed me how to winch it out and explained how to avoid making the same mistake. You hear about some stalkers that rant and rave, but Ronnie always makes the time to explain. I’ve been really lucky in that respect. He insists everything is done properly, but he will trust me to do it, which gives me confidence.”

The soggy ditches on Clunes make for steady progress in these bone-shakers; again the novelty factor of driving an ATV on the hill quickly recedes. It is a valuable job driving the Argo, but it can be tedious and repetitive, especially in the pouring rain or biting wind, when the gillie plays no part in the actual hunting part of deerstalking. “It is all about serving your apprenticeship, and learning the ropes so that one day you can be the one leading the stalk with clients, while the next generation sits on the radio, waiting for your call,” Hugo said. “Either way, I think I would rather be up here on a day like this than chained to a desk.”

Having retrieved one carcase, Hugo put his feet up for half an hour before the call came to find the next. By the time he had returned to the Argo’s shed, splashed out the plastic blood tray and loaded up the beast into the Land Rover, he was the

last person on the hill. From there, he drove to the state-of-the-art larder that services all the different beats on the Atholl Estates.

“The larder work is hard,” he said, dragging one of the beasts on to a pulley. “And depending on when you get here,

you could be waiting a while for your turn. It is a good time to catch up and hear what’s unfolded on the hill, though. Again, I’ve been fortunate to be taught by Ronnie, who is an excellent butcher. He’s also shown me how to handle a carcase before I would bear-hug it and be covered in tick.” As the other stalkers made for home, Hugo went to fetch the quad bike, so

he could retrieve the big stag from that morning, which would also have to be hung up in the larder. “Ronnie taught me to leave nothing for the next day if you can avoid it. Start each day with a clean slate. Besides, I’ve got just as much

on tomorrow.”

For more information about stalking opportunities on the Atholl Estates, visit www.atholl-estates.co.uk