The 12,500-acre estate lay at the foot of the Grampians, where grouse were always walked-up and dogs essential. A friend who was unable to attend had presented me with the opportunity to apply as ?lady with working gundog?, my first invitation to a grouse moor. They say all things come to those who wait.
First, however, I had to pass muster with my host, and though Jessie, my Weimaraner, was experienced on pheasant and partridge, I confessed I had never worked a dog on grouse. To my delight, though, we got the job and arranged to cover the last few days of August. The adjective ?spectacular? fails to describe the Scottish scenery. Completing the 550-mile road journey, I rounded the last curve of the 15-mile track from road to shooting lodge. Bathed in afternoon sunshine, this was to be my base for the next four days. I knew it would be the experience of a lifetime and I wasn?t disappointed.
The first person I met was the resident stalker, who informed me that the party was still on the hill, then showed me my room in an annex. Having walked and fed Jessie, I went in search of a cup of tea and joined the staff in the homely kitchen. They had travelled up from my host?s Kent house two weeks earlier, in time for the Glorious Twelfth. Through the hatchway to the dining room, I could see a large table laid for tea. With tiredness catching up, I gratefully accepted a sandwich, while freshly shot grouse were prepared for the evening meal.
As I was finishing, the shooting party returned. Following introductions by my host I wearily slipped off to bed, torch at the ready. Once the generator was switched off, there would be total darkness until dawn. I spent a restless night, uncertain what to expect.
Hitting the hill
Day one on the hill and I woke to blue skies. I slipped into the kitchen at 7am then, with not a soul around, left to feed Jessie. On my return the house was a hive of activity. Trays of bacon and sausages sizzled in the AGA and huge pots of tea were lined up on the hatchway in preparation for breakfast for 21 guests. There was also a table groaning with ham, rolls, fruit, chocolate bars and cartons of fruit juice for a picnic lunch. I breakfasted simply on cereal and toast while the house party ? family, friends and young adults ? enjoyed a full Scottish breakfast in the elegant dining room, then nervously waited in the courtyard while the amiable group assembled. Guns were put in sleeves, cartridge bags filled and lunches packed for transport via pony and pannier to the moor. With dogs milling around our feet, we set forth up the hillside, scattering flocks of wild sheep.
The vision of my Weimaraner working ahead of the line and holding a classic point was naïvety on my part: this was walked-up grouse and I soon realised the necessity of staying in line ? the sudden explosion of grouse immediately in front meant it was unsafe for dog or handler to be anywhere else. I was amazed at the distance covered, crossing valleys and hillsides into the far distance, where Guns became specks on the landscape. It took Jessie a day to learn the scent and habit of grouse. Many flushed underfoot without her pointing, but she was steady to their flight and ignored the hares that bounded away on our approach.
Anxious to do the right thing I kept her close at heel, which is alien to a hunting dog, but she quickly adapted to quartering between the neighbouring Guns. When the opportunity came for her first retrieve she did not hesitate. Marked accurately, as soon as the line stopped she was off across the heather and made a perfect retrieve to hand. I was elated. Taking the grouse from her, I felt a warm glow of satisfaction. Now I could relax a little. I took little in of the beautiful landscape that first day, too busy watching my dog and learning the manners of the moor. The weather was perfect, with a slight breeze and light cloud cover, and liberal insect repellent protected against midges. Walking in knee-high heather demands stamina and, though I regard myself and my dog as fit, we had trained by hill running. I was glad to have brought along my beating stick, ideal to probe for hidden holes.
The arrival of the keeper and pony carrying our lunch was a welcome sight. We ate sprawled amid the heather, taking in the scenery. With the grouse loaded on to the pony, we set off homeward. The line was halted on numerous occasions as birds were flushed, shot and retrieved by the dogs. Jessie and I had been initiated into the marvels of the moor. Back at the lodge I was invited to join the party for a lavish tea, when my host made it clear that I was expected to join them for all future meals ? I now considered myself an upstairs person! Soon it was time for relaxation. My bathwater, though brown, was hot and exceedingly welcome.
In the evening I rejoined the party for drinks and dinner, then, wined and dined in congenial company, walked by torchlight in velvet darkness to my room. Too tired to think or write, I wrote in my diary, and was soon asleep.
The second day dawns
The weather was misty the next day, but with blue skies forecast for later. In walking boots and gaiters we set off to a different area of the moor, joined by a team of black cockers that appeared on the distant mountainside like black ants. It was a fantastic morning and Jessie made the retrieve of a lifetime, the kind that stays in the memory forever. We halted for lunch, keeper and pony appearing over the ridge as though summoned by telepathy. There was little action in the afternoon, but a covey was flushed within sight of the lodge and one grouse shot.
The nearest dog to the bird, Jessie was sent to the point of fall, but failed to find. The Gun was adamant it was dead. Two Labradors were tried unsuccessfully and called up, then the team of four cockers, but all returned with empty mouths. Finally, the Gun who had shot it gave a triumphant wave and flourished the bird aloft. It had obviously run and he was standing almost on top of it. We returned to the lodge in good humour, the Gun the hero of the day, having eyewiped seven dogs.
Day three dawned cool and cloudy, but was to clear and become very hot. Our party had by now dwindled to seven; we formed small groups and chatted as we walked uphill, lining out after one and a half hours. As the day got hotter, more layers of clothing were shed and the mountain streams came into their own. The keeper had told me earlier not to worry about taking water for the dog, reassuring me that the moor would provide. It was true: I soon became adept at spotting the deep rivulets amid the heather.
On the long homeward trek, a peregrine falcon was spotted, indicating game was scarce. We all relaxed and slowed in the heat, admiring the clouds and their fantastic shadows sweeping the hillsides. It was the last day for grouse on the estate. We had walked miles across some of the highest, most spectacular moors with few shots being fired, but no-one was complaining.
That evening we dined on grouse soup and shepherd?s pie. The household was packing up to return to Kent. I, too, packed my bag, then took a final walk in the silent landscape. It had been a privilege to join such a pleasant house party. Having signed the visitors? book, the following morning I drove home with a tired but happy dog, reminiscing with each passing mile about our moorland experience.