It was an implied challenge that came at the end of a long evening testing several bottles of wine. “You’ve been to plenty of flash grouse shoots for your magazine over the last few years,” said my friend Cyril. “Why don’t you journalists ever come out on a proper old-fashioned walk-up day – too tough for you, maybe?”
This was a slightly harsh assertion from someone with whom I pick-up regularly, but even worse was the implication Shooting Gazette didn’t cater for everyone from dawn wildfowlers to Spanish partridge and high pheasant artists. I knew the editor would expect me to rise to the challenge.
That’s how I found myself turning off the A9, past early-shift staff arriving at the still-closed House of Bruar, heading for Auchleeks. The keeper waiting to greet us was Bob Pirie, son of Charlie Pirie, who’d featured in the BBC’s Gamekeeper series a few years ago. “You’ll like the boys you’re out with today – they’re southerners like you,” he laughed. “Are you feeling fit?”
And southerners they were, fresh up from Gloucester and raring to tackle their first outing of the season. Just as keen was my wife, Sheila, armed with a new spaniel, which was quivering with excitement.
Treading the heather
Leaving behind the midges around Bob’s house on the bank of Loch Errochty, we headed up the track to the hut on Loch Chon. Our day was starting here at more than 1,200ft feet above sea level, climbing up and around the face of Sron Chon. If the plan worked, we were to meet ghillie George McLeod carrying our lunches in the Argocat and carry on across the face of the Sron to work our way back home.
After stern warnings about keeping a straight line, Bob assured us he’d been out for an early season count so the grouse were there, somewhere. The big question was whether our team were up to it. Most seemed to have shot walked-up grouse before and between Bob, Cyril (who’d come to see the fun), Sheila and Bob’s friend, Peem, there were plenty of dogs. The guns had wisely decided to leave theirs at home to concentrate on grouse shooting.
Fording a stream, we set off and within a few hundred yards the first covey erupted with a whirring of wings and indignant calls. Although taken by surprise, the guns still managed to get a couple of shots off and the first bird tumbled into the heather. Bob’s dogs, as fast as the grouse, were away for their first retrieve.
A classic walked-up grouse shooting scene on the hill in Perthshire.
As we carried on with our steady tramp, with Bob’s constant cries exhorting us to “keep a straight line boys”, we flushed several more coveys. By the time Sheila’s dog had watched Bob’s labs set off like rockets a few times, he decided this stopping to flush lark was a bit tame, so set off in pursuit of what was clearly a strong runner. And while they were still searching for a scent he was on the way back with his prize. “Brilliant nose on that dog,” said Bob, as Sheila put the bird in her bag. “He’s a bad bugger!” was her reply.
With a target of 10 brace for the day we’d had a good start, and with frequent stops for breathers or to wait while the dogs searched for shot birds, I was reminded exactly why we’re driven to hunt in wild places. Although rain threatened a few times, it was shirtsleeve order, and encouraged by the occasional “go back” cries from grouse, plus Bob’s continued exhortations about keeping a straight line, we ploughed on.
The art of leg-pulling
Finally, George and the Argocat carrying lunch hoved into view. As we had our piece, the rain arrived briefly and I chatted with the guns. It transpired that they’d been coming to Auchleeks for the past 10 years and leg-pulling is integral to the sport. “Bob’s great company and it’s not about the bag,” explained team leader David Tiley, “almost irrelevant next to the fun and the scenery. I was introduced by a mutual stalker friend, that’s the way of it with shoots like this.” David, it transpired, should know a good shoot. He’d won one of the first Purdey Awards for his Withy Beds duck shoot. The guns that join David, a retired teacher, were a mixed bunch – a couple of farmers, a banker and a hairdresser – “just how it should be!”
That settled, we set off again, higher still, and I took in the sight of Dubh Lochan laid out before us. “Worth the climb for that view,” shouted David. After a quiet spell with the odd walked-over bird having guns spinning round to shoot, we hit a patch of several coveys and the team were more than satisfied to head back and to the pub. With the hills of Drumochter in the far distance, we soon spotted the Loch Chon bothy and broke ranks to make our descent.
One cracking hill
So, we’d made our bag but had a lot more value out of the day than that. Auchleeks had provided us with a great if tiring day. Bob arrived there 10 years ago when the owners, the Mackinlay family, had decided to get a keeper in to help. A “cracking hill”, as Bob puts it, Auchleeks’ 9,000 acres provides 40 stags and over 50 hinds and calves a year, as well as the grouse shooting.
Team leader David Tiley examines the bag after the day’s grouse shooting.
Coming to Auchleeks from Forest Lodge and the West Hand beat on nearby Atholl Estates, Bob has always been keen to listen to the advice of older keepers like George, who, as head stalker at Dalnamain on Atholl for 36 years, was Bob’s boss for a while. He now helps Bob as a ghillie. He’s steadily developed the ground “with great support from the boss” and shoot days see old friends like Peem there to lend a hand too. His big challenge was getting on top of the vermin. “Foxes are a challenge and local estates work together,” he explained, “and I’ll tell you that my girlfriend, Mary Ann, has been a great help, coming out at lamping time, early mornings and long nights. But this is a family shoot and we’re all pretty much part of it.”
So, we’d had a great deal of fun, which is exactly what walked-up days are all about, and I had my friend Cyril to thank for the experience.