Leaving the track in single file, we faced up to the hill. Already some 2,000ft high, we had a steep, rough-looking climb ahead of us before the terrain began to ease. Our party zig-zagged up the incline behind stalker Asher Bowyer, who moved easily and silently out in front. From all sides of the glen deep roars announced the beginnings of the rut; below us the October sun shimmered on the vast expanse of Loch Lyon, the early-morning mist lifting to reveal the glens in their full glory, soaked in brilliant sunshine.
With the wind in our faces, we paused for a breather just short of the top of the first incline. It was hot work and my shirt and coat were more than warm enough. Creeping forwards, Asher peered slowly over the brow, glassing the dull wet grass beyond. Satisfied, he led the way to a flatter, more open area, one pitted with deceptive pockets of dead ground. Squelching as quietly as we could over the sodden ground and hidden burns, we were soon crouching beside him in a hollow. The air was still in its shelter, the only sound the roars of the stags reverberating around the steep-sided glens.
Asher crawled forward, pulled his binoculars cautiously from inside his coat and took in the hill. Sliding back into the hollow he whispered, ?There are some stags lying down just ahead. We?ll move up there to the left, but keep down and close together.? Thanks to the mild weather the deer were still lying high up, somewhere near the 3,000ft mark. Shoulders hunched and knees bent we followed Asher, keeping low as we skirted quietly up the side of a trickling burn. Gillie Les Campbell was carrying the rifle and ST photographer Paul Quagliana brought up the rear ? a single-file unit of four, we crept on into the cover of a small knoll, where we hunkered down on the sodden ground. Asher drove his stick into the earth and went to scout the ground ahead. Soon he was signalling for me to follow.
A benison for venison
Asher and I lay flat on the wet grassy mound, glorious sunshine warming our backs.?Look through your binoculars,? breathed Asher. ?You see where the ground rises up, just in the shade? At the bottom there?s a hollow?? I focused in on the spot and could make out a line of antler tips poking up behind a small bank. ?Just up there on the right there are two more stags lying in a hollow, a mature beast and a young one, but you can?t see them from here.?
We slid back down to where the others were waiting, catching their breath. Asher took the opportunity to position Paul on a knoll suitable for the purposes of picture-taking, while I lay back amid the moss and grass and tried to concentrate. Above me the stags roared and bellowed. They sounded so close ? I was beginning to feel the pressure. I had test-fired the Steyr-Mannlicher .308 earlier: my first two shots had been slightly to the right, but the third was dead-on. Les had shortened the stock for me by removing a recoil pad; everything was set. Please, God, don?t let me muck this up?
Before my prayers became audible Asher reappeared, pulling his cased glass over his shoulder and placing it on the ground beside his stick. Taking the rifle from Les, he attached the magazine, eased the bolt back and carefully slid it forward. ?Let?s go,? he said, as Les wished me luck. ?Keep down and close.? Out of the hollow and flat to the wet ground, we leopard-crawled through the long, grassy tussocks, slowly and deliberately. My already racing heart and lungs were working all the harder with the effort of creeping up the hill in Asher?s shadow, and my knees were soaked within seconds ? no matter. We moved slightly higher. Asher set the rifle in position and I slipped in behind it.
Stag in the sight
Before me I could see nothing but dull, yellowing grass and peat. I looked through the scope: more grass and peat. ?Do you see that patch of dark grass up ahead?? I nodded in response to Asher?s question. ?If you come forward and down to the right, there?s a long bit of peat. Between the left end of that peat and the edge of the dark grass is where he?s lying, in the dead ground. If you look in the middle you?ll be right. The young stag is lying to the right of that. ?We?ll just wait a while to see if he stands up. Remember the safety and do it with two fingers so it?s quiet,? whispered Asher.
Feeling as settled as I was ever going to be and with the rifle comfortably in my shoulder, my prayers were coming thick and fast ? I don?t mind whether it pours with rain or whether I?m out on the hill for hours, if it rains tomorrow or I get wet feet, just please let me shoot this stag properly! Minutes passed slowly. Time stood still. The other stags were roaring intermittently nearby. My still-hidden stag and his young companion added their voices to the chorus, but still would not stand up. Eventually Asher shifted. ?The young one?s up now,? he said. Indeed, there were the small uprights, head and shoulders of the young beast. ?Get ready. The stag will probably stand up too.?
I stared down the scope and a few moments later the wide-spanned single-pointed tips of the mature beast appeared from the grass. Inch by inch its antlers came into view. The stag was stirring, moving slowly out of the hollow. Soon its head and shoulders had blocked out the hill, then its whole body came into view. Suddenly there it was, proud and statuesque in my sight.
The sound of my heartbeat was thundering in my ears as I gazed at the enormous beast.?Wait till he takes a step forward, then take the shot,? breathed Asher. At that moment, however, the young stag?s head appeared at the right-hand edge of my scope. Entering the sight picture it broke my concentration. Practically side by side, both beasts began to move away to the left. ?Follow him! Follow him!? Asher hissed.
Wriggling around I repositioned myself. The stag stopped, his young attendant now several yards behind him. ?Take him now,? said Asher, but I still wasn?t quite right. I carefully positioned the crosshairs at the top of the white patch of hair behind the stag?s shoulder, the post of the crosshairs on the back of its front leg, and, taking in the slack on the trigger, I took the shot.
The beast lunged forwards, galloping a couple of yards. I think I swore. ?No, no, it?s okay,? Asher reassured me. ?It?s a killing shot.? We watched as the beast staggered to a halt at the top of the hill and collapsed, the tips of its antlers black against the skyline. We walked forward and a grinning Asher pointed out the entry wound: it was a heart shot at a distance of 80 yards. Relief flooded through me. It was my first stag.
Down from the hill
It was only 1.30pm. A couple of hours later Paul had the chance to swap camera for rifle, shooting his first stag on a Munro, those peaks so beloved by hillwalkers. Meanwhile, three other Rifles had been enjoying success on other parts of the two estates. Two beasts had been shot on the opposite side of the glen by estate owner Adam Besterman, with Clive Hopkins and stalker Hamish Cameron, who has been at Invermeran for 10 years; James Brodie had been successful on Auch, and Roger Ashby and Justin Blackwood, with stalker Finlay Clark, had each shot a stag on the March between Invermeran and Auch. With the stags Paul and I had shot, a total of seven beasts were taken off the hill and were in the larder by the evening.
Heading back across the March, the glens now bathed in fading light, I thought about my fine six-pointer. Nine or so years old and past its prime, it was going back and had only single points on top, making it a dangerous head ? a good beast to take. I knew I would be reliving the stalk in my dreams that night. My heart?s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer, said Robert Burns. I think mine is getting closer to the Border each time I visit.