Go in by the hatchery and keep going right for a couple of miles.? These were my instructions for renewing an acquaintance that had begun some 30 years ago, and I was soon negotiating the gravel track through tall pines that led to the rural idyll that is Sandy Macarthur?s croft. I had lost touch with Sandy over the years, but a few weeks ago had been chatting to a mutual friend about stalking and the subject of deer saddles. ?Have you ever seen the ones Sandy Macarthur makes?? asked my friend. I hadn?t, and had no idea that Sandy?s talents ran to such lengths. Craftsmen of this kind are few and far between ? in fact, Sandy knows of only one other maker of deer saddles working today.
?You made it then,? was the bucolic greeting from the muscular man of the hills wringing my hand. Adorning the rough grass ?green? was a gallimaufry of countryman?s gear: a boat awaiting ?seeing to?; a venerable tractor; other odds and ends necessary to the life of a working countryman. Behind all this was what I had come to see: Sandy?s workshops.
Sandy Macarthur is a Highlander through and through. He is inured to the rigours of living and working in the high hills of Ross-shire. A Forestry Commission ranger-cum-stalker for the past three decades, initially in the far west at Lochaline before being transferred to Ross-shire, Sandy was born in Newtonmore, 54 years ago. He spent the first years of his working life learning the skills of a stonemason, but after a few years realised his heart was with the deer, ponies and hills.
As a 10-year-old he had been captivated by the Highland ponies belonging to that world-respected authority on the breed, Cameron Ormiston, animals used for trekking in the summer and hill work in the season. ?There was an old man there,? Sandy reminisced. ?Dochy Macpherson. He did all the repair work to the saddles and I used to sit in the shed watching. That?s where I picked up all the tips I know.?
Though a mere 10 years in the deer harness business, Sandy?s work is of an extremely high standard, something achieved through natural flair and experience. As a craftsman of high esteem, he will only use the very best materials; to this end he buys all his leather from the south, using the backsides of cows both for the saddle and straps, though the straps are tanned by a different method. His suppliers know Sandy now, so all he has to do is pick up the phone for his materials.
I asked him to run through the process of making a saddle, but a thoughtful silence ensued. ?I don?t really make one saddle at a time,? Sandy replied. ?I?ll maybe work a couple of hours at a time, when I can. You see, it takes less time to make two or three at once than simply one. I can cut out all the leather in one go, which saves quite a bit of time, and can get the right piece for a particular job, especially the skirts ? I like to have them 5mm thick and made in two pieces, stitched along the top.?
Sandy makes every part of the harness himself, ensuring no item is compromised in any way. The padding is important, for it has to be comfortable as well as weight-bearing. Here the traditional ways hold sway, as indeed they do in all aspects of deer saddle manufacture: wheat straw and wool flocking are components of the pad, with the straw next to the animal?s skin to keep it dry. The padding is covered with a thick wool cloth, traditionally checked.
The whole harness is hand-stitched, the only concession to modernity being the braided nylon used in the stitching. Custom dictates that blue canvas be used for the three girths (brown for gamebags), something that is strictly adhered to. In the old days Sandy used to treat the leather with a concoction of mutton fat, beeswax, neatsfoot oil and linseed oil, all melted down and mixed together, but now he uses a proprietary brand. Before starting on a saddle, Sandy always likes to see the horse. ?Modern horses are fatter than those in the past,? he told me. ?Now they really only work in season and keep their fat, whereas in the old days they would work on the croft all year round and so stay slimmer.?
There is not a big demand for deer saddles these days ? Sandy has made five or six in the past three years ? nevertheless, he has a steady trade trying to sort out the old ones. ?You have a job to find a decent bit of leather to put a stitch into among the patches,? he chuckled. ?But some I get must be more than 100 years old and are fit for a few seasons yet.?
Traditionally, there are three types of deer saddle: the Glen Quoich, the Glen Strathfarrar and the riding saddle. As Sandy succinctly pointed out: ?The Quoich and Strathfarrer are saddles made for carrying deer but that can be ridden (with surprising comfort) while the riding saddle is one made for riding but that will carry a deer.?
A bit of Celtic mythology apparent here, I think, but Sandy thinks the Glen Quoich, coming from the west, is slightly smaller to fit more modest ponies than is the Glen Strathfarrar, from the east, where the ponies tend to be larger.I wondered how the Highland pony would compete with the ubiquitous ATV in the future. ?Well now, there?s a question,? responded Sandy. ?Everything has its place, but I feel the ponies are dying out on the hill. A lot of gillies aren?t interested in them and some are scared of them. A horse will sense this and will not settle.?
As I left I asked Sandy what his hobbies were ? shooting, I suggested? ?That?s a job!? he cried. ?I enjoy fishing and making things, especially sticks, but I?ll tackle anything.?
For information about deer saddles, contact Sandy Macarthur, Rogie Farm, Contin, by Strathpeffer, Ross-shire, Scotland