Often as we drove up the shore of Loch Linnhe towards Fort William we looked across the water to our left, into the glorious array of mountains that ran back into the blue distance on the other side. When I discovered that the estate was called Conaglen, and that the stalking was for let, I recklessly booked a fortnight. I say ?recklessly?, because by our modest standards the cost was astronomical ? and when we arrived there, we saw why.
The three-storey Victorian lodge was far larger than any of the others in which we had stayed. No beauty, but notably spacious and comfortable, it became even more agreeable when the owners, John and Faith Guthrie, gave it an extensive and very expensive refit.
They made the place, with its full-size billiard table, ping-pong room fashioned from the old chapel, and four-hole golf course, an ideal base for a large party on holiday. The lodge stands at the head of four acres of immaculate lawn, which slope gently down to a field generally occupied by Highland cattle. Beyond the field lies Loch Linnhe, and beyond that forested hills go up from the water?s edge ? a lovely prospect.
The stalking ground is by any standards spectacular. Conaglen itself runs westwards for 13 miles between towering ridges before ending in an amphitheatre of steep faces; and even beyond them the rocky heights of Sgurr Ptarmachan still belong to the estate.
Sometimes we began operations right from the back of the lodge, climbing the Stalkers? Path that goes up through trees beside a burn before leading out on to the open hill. On other days we drove up the glen road ? a rough gravel track ? and took to the heights from some other start-point; but to tackle the western extremities of the ground we would go by road round three sides of a rectangle ? nearly an hour?s drive ? up the shore of Loch Linnhe, left-handed round the corner of the land opposite Fort William, along the south shore of Loch Eil almost to Glenfinnan, and left again down a Forestry Commission track beside Loch Shiel to a place called Scamodale, where a single cottage stood near the foot of a great natural bowl scooped out of the hillside. From there a stiff climb brought us out on to ridges that commanded glorious views, on clear days as far as Orkney.
In both our first two years the head stalker was Andy Aitken, a most agreeable fellow, and more considerate than many, in that on the hill he never forced the pace. Nevertheless, it was with him that I suffered a serious setback.
Having driven some five miles up the main glen, he, I and my nephew Christy left the Land Rover and worked our way up to the right into a high, narrow corrie known as the Slochd that cut through the main range of hills towards the north. From the moment we started climbing, I felt slightly off-colour, and I found the going unusually hard ? but I put the trouble down to having had one dram too many the night before.
Presently we made contact with a large, scattered group of deer, mainly hinds, but with a shootable stag among them. They were restless ? not because they had seen us, but because the rut was starting ? and they kept grazing on ahead of us along the left-hand face of the corrie, drawn by the wind blowing through the gully from the north.
The hillside was very uneven, dotted with large boulders and patches of bracken, and when we eventually managed to manoeuvre within range of the stag, we were in one of those patches of tall vegetation which made aiming awkward: the target was some way above us, and I had to raise the rifle as high as I could on my elbows to clear the fronds of bracken, so that I was far from steady.
At the shot the stag fell like a stone and rolled a few yards down the hill towards us. I knew straight away that although I had aimed at its shoulder, by a lucky chance I had hit it in the neck. No matter ? it was dead, and its entourage had made off in a hurry, so I let loose Pansy, my latest Labrador, and sent her up the hill. In a few seconds we saw her find the stag, but instead of seizing it by the throat and shaking it about, as she normally did, she gave it no more than a cursory lick and carried on up the slope before disappearing.
We climbed to the stag, bled it, gralloched it and tied ropes to its feet and head. By then we had crossed the watershed, and were looking out to the north, towards Loch Eil: this meant that we could not drag the beast back the way we had come, and our only option was to take it down to the end of the road which came up from the other side through the big plantation at Duisky. Pansy had still not reported for duty ? most unlike her ? and as we were about to start dragging I had a sudden intuition. ?Hang on a minute,? I said. ?I?m just going to make sure we haven?t shot something else as well.?
No more than 15 yards further up the hill I looked over a ledge, and there was the bitch, sitting faithfully beside a dead hind. By an extraordinary fluke my bullet had gone through the stag?s neck, and fragments of it had carried on in a kind of vertical spray. One piece had hit the hind in the forehead, another had knocked out her two central teeth, and a third had punctured her neck over the Adam?s apple. It was clear that she had been killed instantly. We could hardly blame ourselves for not having seen her when I took the shot, since she had been lying in deep bracken ? but of course Andy was upset that we had killed a beast out of season.
Now we had two carcases to drag. Luckily there was not far to go, and the route was all downhill. Andy and Christy managed the stag, while I took the hind, and at the corner of the forestry fence we pulled them up on to a smooth little knoll. We were then faced with a three-mile trek, back through the Slochd to the Land Rover. But we had gone only a few yards when I suddenly found that my strength had evaporated and I could hardly walk.
?Andy,? I said. ?I?m not going to make it.? ?What?s the matter?? ?I don?t know. I can?t breathe.? ?Oh God!? He looked dreadfully worried and asked, ?Have you had a pain in your chest?? ?No ? nothing. I?m just knackered.? ?Well, you?d better stay here while we go back for the vehicle. We?ll come round and pick you up.? With that the two set off, walking fast. I watched them disappear over the sky-line, then tottered a few steps into the plantation and lay down on my back on the gravel road.
With my jacket wrapped tight round me, I was neither cold nor worried. On the contrary, I felt curiously calm ? not frightened by the possibility that I had had a heart attack, but just accepting whatever had happened. I lay there for an hour and a half without discomfort, but I was glad when I heard the Land Rover bumping and scrunching up the track, and I hauled myself into it gratefully. Back in the lodge, I was so debilitated that I had to climb the stairs one at a time, resting on every step. I went to the hill no more that week, and in the south a specialist diagnosed my problem as arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, which luckily could be kept under control by medication.
Recovered, I described the two-with-one-shot episode in one of my weekly articles for The Independent. I said that we, the humans, had not done very well, in that we should have spotted the hind lying beyond the stag, and that the only person who came out of the encounter with full marks was Pansy. But for her (I wrote) we would have left £60-worth of venison lying on the hill.
This was too much for a reader somewhere in the North. In a furious letter to the editor, she condemned my article in rousing terms. Duff Hart-Davis must be sacked at once, she thundered. She had sent a complaint to the Press Council. She had cancelled her subscription to the paper. She had warned her next-door neighbours never to let their eight-year-old son see a copy of The Independent again. The entire article was a disgrace. As for my final remark about the dog ? that was the most disgusting sentence she had ever read. In reply, I suggested that if she did not like reading about events that actually took place in the country, she might do well to switch to The Guardian.