Exploding from the heather like feathered dynamite, the cackling covey erupted and rocketed away across the moor in all directions. Desperately trying to pick a target from the maelstrom of accelerating grouse, my friend and I swiftly shouldered our guns, hoping that our reactions would be quick enough to allow us to connect with the king of gamebirds.
The Glorious Twelfth of August is famous the world over as the beginning of the grouse-shooting season on Scotland?s heather-clad moors. We had been occupied by other commitments on that date, so our grouse-shooting season would begin one day later, on the thirteenth. The vehicle, left some hours earlier, now resembled a tiny, distant, silver speck in the glen below. The early mist and drizzle had lifted as we climbed, and leg muscles grown used to a summer of inactivity now made their protest known. Breathing hard, we traversed the steep heather slope before us, always trying to keep an eye on the pair of pointers working with effortless ease, combing the purple moorland for the intoxicating scent of warm grouse.
A chance encounter
Alice, the vizsla, was easily seen as she was the colour of autumn leaves and stood out starkly against the purple heather. With her mouth as soft as duck down and a nature to match, I had learned, to my cost, over the years never to doubt her instincts. If Alice came on point, only a fool would fail to make ready for the flush of a gamebird. As I paused to wring more oxygen out of the Highland air and to take in the panoramic view, a shout of ?Dog on point? came to me from somewhere ahead. With calf muscles burning, I slogged higher up the gully-riven slope to find Tippex, the German wirehaired pointer, transfixed some 40 yards to my right. Mesmerised, her every muscle and sinew drawn taut as a bowstring, the young pointer stood like a slate-grey pillar of salt, nose into the wind, eyes fixed on the swathe of purple heather before her.
Marching forwards to reach the dog as quickly as our gasping lungs would allow, my shooting companion and I moved in with guns broken, trying to close the distance between ourselves and the motionless pointer. But the grouse would hold no longer and flushed wildly to vanish out over the moorland patchwork without a shot having been fired. Perspiring freely, we moved to either side of the still motionless dog and, with hearts pounding, rummaged for the yellow 20-bore cartridges in our jacket pockets. With guns loaded and muzzles held skywards, we gave the dog the order to flush, and our thumbs hovered expectantly over safety catches. On Tippex?s surge forwards, a large smokyblue mountain hare sprang from its heathery bed and bounded out across an open patch of yellowing grass. It was not our intended quarry, but the fleet-footed creature made a welcome addition to the gamebag, as my friend sent it cartwheeling into the heather with a single, well-placed shot. As Tippex made her short retrieve to hand, all thoughts turned to the wondrous smell of jugged hare that would drift from the kitchen later that week.
With the gamebag shouldered, we gave the dogs the command to hunt on and, with guns again broken, we continued our ascent. With the hill summit attained, the ground levelled out, soft reindeer moss underfoot making walking easier. On all sides, breathtaking views of Speyside unfolded. The mist was clearing and the Monadhliath Mountains loomed large and brooding to the south, while the rolling land of Moray spread out between us and the golden strand-edged coast. To the west, the Black Isle and the distant hills of Sutherland were silhouetted against the skyline. The spell cast by scenic views was broken though, as our dog handler once more cried out: ?Dog on point?. Turning, I saw Alice standing spellbound, russet against the dark peat hag background of the slope below. Taking care where to place my feet and at the same time trying to concentrate on the dog, I jogged over the uneven surface, slipping and sliding with an open gun, hoping to reach the pointer before the covey departed skywards.
With a motion of the head from Alice?s handler, my fellow Gun and I crept slowly forwards to either side of the dog?s frozen form. There was not a sound but for the buzzing of pollen-gathering bees, or the slightest movement in the purple ling to suggest the presence of grouse. I cast a fleeting glance down towards Alice, still petrifi ed as if bewitched, her soft brown eyes fixed upon something far beyond the range of human senses. Then, moving like treacle on a cold day, she raised one paw off the ground. There were grouse here! Even before my head had turned fully away from the pointing dog, my ears were filled with the whirr of beating wings rising from the heather, as a covey of 11 brown blurs burst like a star shell from all around us. We had stumbled into the midst of the hidden covey, held solely by the presence of Alice until we all but trod on them.
My companion fired first, crumpling an old bird as it gained speed and followed the contour of the hill. My own first shot missed as I failed to connect with a grouse curling in the rising wind. The remaining shots took only a heartbeat, and clouds of speckled feathers drifted in the breeze long after the brace of grouse had tumbled lifeless to the ground.
Both birds picked, our party slumped into the soft deep heather, appreciating the chance to rest weary legs and to admire the birds so ably pointed and retrieved by Alice. Holding a grouse in my hand and feeling the warmth of its body ebbing away, I marvelled at the feathered feet, the blood-orange eyebrow and the beauty of its dark breast feathers speckled white, as though flecked by an artist?s brush ? surely a fitting livery for the king of gamebirds. We may well have missed the Glorious Twelfth, but reposing as we were with a Highland panorama before us, panting dogs at our feet and a brace of birds in the bag, this was without doubt our glorious thirteenth.