What is the history behind the shoot at Balgray?
“The Balgray estate is owned by the Jardine-Paterson family, part of the Jardine business empire that traded from the Far East. They were hugely successful, hence the grand houses they had built on wonderful tranches of land. The grandfather of current owner Michael Jardine-Paterson was a keen shot, and planted the estate out in the 1920s with a view to shooting high birds. The woods are mainly coniferous, though one wood, Oak Bank, is populated predominantly by mature oaks. There is a game crop planted behind the wood and birds coming out over those big oaks can be very testing sport indeed.”
Guns saw some of the strongest birds of the day on Gillesbie Leg.
“The estate is approximately 6,500 acres in size and shares a border with the Gillesbie estate, owned by the Tulloch family. The Gillesbie estate is some 3,500 acres with some declivitous land in spectacular settings, some of which we are lucky enough to be able to go game shooting across. I took the Balgray shoot on around 15 years ago after a lunch with Michael and his wife Vickie, a former journalist with the BBC and Daily Express.”
Balgray shoot captain Stuart Robertson.
“They didn’t try and give me the hard sell when we discussed its management, it was just a natural happening, and an instant mutual understanding that I would do my best with it.”
Who is the headkeeper and what is his background?
“Our headkeeper, Tim Lemon, came to Balgray via Cornwall, Gloucestershire and north Wales so he had extensive experience. There are many facets to headkeepering (rearing, presenting birds, relations with farmers, guns and beaters etc.) and, unlike some, Tim is totally competent at all of them.
He has brilliant back-up from his wife Elaine and their three girls – a stable family life is all important when you are a gamekeeper after all.”
Where do your beaters and pickers-up come from?
“The beaters and pickers-up are mostly local – they must be as I struggle to understand them, the Dumfriesshire accent being as thick as it is! Tim organises all the beaters and the pickers-up, which is a job in itself. They are an integral part of the machine, without them we cannot operate. It is important to keep a good rapport with everyone involved; it is meant to be fun so the right ambience is essential.”
Guns are imaginatively pegged out to test their abilities.
Where do your guns and guests typically come from?
“Our guns and guests come from all over the world, and most learn of us through word-of-mouth. Recently we’ve welcomed guns from Switzerland, the USA, right across England, the Channel Islands and, of course, many from right here in Scotland.”
How is the ground managed at Balgray and how is it affected by the weather?
“The land at Balgray is mainly managed by tenant farmers dealing with sheep and cattle, with the woodland in hand. The weather has been tough for the past few seasons with lots of snow and cold nights. There have been more easterly winds and less south westerly winds too. It can be hard to keep things fresh when you keep on getting the same conditions. We like to work with the wind, but you cannot keep doing the same drives all of the time just to suit it.”
What is a typical day’s game shooting at Balgray like?
“We meet at around 9.15am at the sawmill, or Balgray Lodge if guns are staying there. Before the off I conduct a quick talk on safety, as one can never be too safe with guns. Elevenses is taken in the field and usually involves a nip of my homemade plum gin or blackberry whisky to go with the homemade game pie and soup.”
An interesting collection of ornaments join guns and guests at the dinner table.
“We stop for a hearty lunch, often consisting of soup, a roast with home cooked vegetables, and a sticky toffee pudding to finish – unless people can squeeze in a cheeseboard. Vickie’s table decorations never go unnoticed and the food is certainly a lifesaver on a lousy day when the weather or the birds are misbehaving. After lunch we go out again and hopefully finish with one good afternoon drive.”
What bags are shot at Balgray?
“The bags vary between 150-500 to suit the guns’ requirements. Our main aim is quality over quantity, but economies of scale have become more salient in game shooting, as overheads seem to have rocketed in the last few years.”
What are the birds like at Balgray and which are the best drives?
“There are numerous drives of high quality on the Balgray shoot. Balgray Belcathill is awesome on a south westerly wind, but there are a dozen or so with little to choose between them for showing tall birds. Gillesbie has a drive called Mosskesso, which is quite scary on the right wind. Good game shooting days are often down to the weather: high pressure, benign, sunny days are okay, but the dank miserable days seem to be the best.”