Such a thing would never have been tolerated by the British Army in years gone by. A party of 15 guests, a magnificent shooting lodge and a 3,000-acre grouse moor at my disposal and on the morning of the Glorious Twelfth I was sitting on the 7.10am flight from Inverness bound for Sandhurst, where the about- to-be-commissioned Second Lieutenant George Downing was donning his polished boots and uniform. Three hours later I was in the slightly surreal position of watching George and his fellow officer cadets on parade in front of Old College while my friends 600 miles away were firing the first shots of the season. Which senior officer fixed the Sovereign?s Parade for 12 August is what I want to know.
However, duty is duty, and while there will hopefully be many more opportunities to shoot on the opening day of the grouse season, there is only one occasion in a lifetime on which a proud parent can watch his son?s passing out parade.
The following morning it was a different matter. Back in Inverness-shire both my wife and I were taking our places in the line for a day?s walked-up shooting. The Twelfth had been far more successful than Aly, our keeper, had expected. While other estates in Strathearn had cancelled altogether after poor counts, our party had seen a good show of birds, with an average covey size of six and no obvious cheepers. Moreover, one Gun had Macnabbed. Having caught two salmon before breakfast, Charlie Lyne-Pirkis spent a full day on the moor before diving into his car and heading up the glen for an evening stalk in which he had duly shot his stag before dusk.
There can be no better place to be on a warm, bright morning in August than a Scottish grouse moor, and our line of eight Guns plus assorted walkers was in for some memorable sport. Not only did we have the usual excitement of coveys rising ahead of us, twisting and weaving as they sped away, but we also enjoyed some really challenging birds which flew down the line on a stiff breeze and came over like bullets. Most were too good for me, but one high curling bird, flushed from far above me at the other end of the line I shall remember for the rest of the season, as I will the lucky double scored when two birds crossed in mid-air, Charlie taking a third bird out of the covey as they departed.
We comfortably made our bag of 12½ brace by mid-afternoon, in time to get back to the lodge and prepare sufficient birds for a magnificent grouse supper served with a delicious rabbit starter which utilised some of the bunnies we had shot earlier in the week during a morning?s walkup on the edge of the moor in preparation for the big day.
The golden years
Much has changed since I was first invited to join a party of friends to shoot walked-up grouse in Scotland in the mid 1970s. For several years we shot on the Dunalastair estate near Kinloch Rannoch. The ground included the slopes of Schiehallion and while the mountainous terrain made the walking difficult at times, the views were utterly spectacular. Though driven grouse shooting had ceased there a few years earlier, the moor was still keepered and there were plenty of birds to provide walked-up sport for a team of fit young Guns, and over a fortnight in the late summer of 1976 our team shot 321 head, including 121 brace of red grouse, 18½ brace of ptarmigan, four brace of blackgame and eight brace of snipe.
Just below our ground lay the flooded meadows and reed beds around the Dunalastair Dam, absolutely thick with snipe, then owned by Colonel Judd. He also had a small piece of grouse moor which he was anxious to drive, so we did a deal with him. In return for offering the services of ourselves, our dogs and our girlfriends as beaters for a couple of grouse drives, he allowed us the run of his snipe bog, and as a result we had an unforgettable day of driven snipe shooting.
Those were golden years, but it was not long before grouse numbers declined. The reason was not hard to see, for conifers were being planted close to the estate. For a few seasons this gave a boost to blackgrouse numbers, but thereafter game populations withered under the onslaught of the foxes and corvids which found refuge in the new forests. I went back to the area a few years ago. There were still grouse about, but the place was a shadow of what it had once been. Some of my best memories of those early times involve the dogs. I had with me on Schiehallion my first Labrador bitch, Curlew, and on one occasion, just before lunch, I took a grouse which got up well in front of me. I knew that the bird was hit, but it flew on for some 200 yards, swinging left before dropping out of mark. Luckily Donald, the keeper, had got a reasonable fi x on where it had fallen, but though Curlew hunted the area well, she couldn?t find it. At this point a full field trial ensued. The bird was in a natural amphitheatre on the hillside, and as the rest of the party sat down in the heather to watch and eat their lunches, another of the Guns worked his pair of superbly trained springers across the ground, alas to no avail. I decided to give Curlew one last try, upon which she picked the bird out of deep heather from ground which had been thoroughly worked by the springers. A patter of applause came from the onlookers and Curlew had an extra large bowl of dinner that evening.
Other Labradors have applied their own lateral thinking to retrieving grouse. During the 1990s I organised an annual party to shoot walked-up grouse around Callander and for a few seasons we had a day at Doune Lodge. This was before the area became a wind farm and there were still plenty of grouse there. Wigeon, my Labrador at the time, was experienced in finding wildfowl on the Essex saltings, where a winged teal would often get into one of the narrow runnels which criss-crossed the top of the marsh. When the marsh is clothed in sea purslane the runnels themselves can be hard to find, let alone a bird within one of them. The ground at Doune bore a curious similarity in that it had been gripped, and when looking for a missing bird, Wigeon would always push under the heather to find these narrow grips and then hunt along them. Usually she would be right, and she would occasionally pick a runner 60 or 70 yards from where it had fallen.
Her most spectacular retrieve, though, was at Monachyle Mhor. This is essentially a deer forest, but we would walk the high ground for grouse once a season with the stalker, Mik and the tops are a long way above sea level ? I once shot a ptarmigan there on 12 August. Coming down a burn, Wigeon flushed a pair of birds from a bank of heather. They were up and away in no time and I missed the front bird but hit the second before it disappeared behind a rock. It crashed into the edge of the burn, down but still alive. Though Wigeon was there in no time, the bird had no intention of being caught and made a vertical take-off from the water. At this, Wigeon leaped into the air and grabbed the grouse in her jaws, for all the world like Peter Shilton saving a goal for England.
The necessity of a good dog
Other dogs are remembered for less noble reasons. There was Buster the Border terrier who belonged to Ian Thomas. Ian was the shepherd who used to accompany us when we shot at Fordie, a lovely property with spectacular views across Strathearn on a clear day ? and in my memory they always were clear days. Buster was an amazing dog at finding grouse. He would hunt in front of his master and would always give plenty of warning that there were grouse about before flushing them in masterly fashion. But if you decked a bird, then you had to race Buster to the fall, because otherwise he would squeeze it so tightly that the guts literally squirted out. You always knew when a grouse had been shot in front of him from the cry of ?Buster! BUSTER!? which echoed across the hill.
A good team of dogs really is essential on a walked-up grouse day, and especially so on more marginal ground where you have to work hard to find your birds. Finding and flushing grouse is no problem on a keepered moor where birds are plentiful, but in the remoter parts of the hill, on the fringes of grouse country, it is all too easy to walk over birds unless you have an experienced dog, especially in the early part of the season when grouse tend to sit tight.
It is, however, in these places where it is still possible to find a modestly priced day?s sport by getting to know the locals. Often you may be shooting over nothing more than a hill farm, but where there is heather on the higher ground above the in-bye land, there is always a chance of finding a few grouse. It may take no more than a word in the ear of the local keeper or stalker to establish who owns the ground and whether he might be persuaded to let a walked-up day for three or four Guns. If you get the opportunity, then do whatever it takes to secure a day. For myself, I plan to continue walking until my legs refuse to carry me up the hill.