The famous restaurant and television critic loves nothing more than a stalking trip to the Highlands. Robert Cuthbert speaks to A.A. Gill.
Did you have a crack at the stags last year?
“Yes I did. I haven’t missed a year for probably the last 12, no… maybe 15 years; something like that.”
Do you go to the same estate each year?
“I do. The estate is Letterewe, which is on the further side of Loch Maree. You can still only get to the house by boat. It has an old 1940s Clyde Police launch that chugs backwards and forwards and that is how you get across. So when you stalk, there is no getting into a Land Rover to go up to the spying point, you have breakfast and then you walk out of the back door and that is you… just walking, straight up onto the hill. That I love. Out of almost all the things I love about stalking, it’s that anticipation and the preparation in the morning that I love the best. It’s the noise in the boot room and getting your still-damp breeks out ready the night before and cursing the midges. And the pony-boys are exhausted – rolling out of their bothy, then getting your piece from the kitchen and stuffing in the endless amount of kit that really is the purpose of all outdoor pursuits in England”.
“The unrelenting interest in the weather and the elements is one of the great, unsung pleasures of stalking; you feel absolutely wrapped and cocooned in the temperament of the day and that… that it is of incredible importance. The worst days are those where there is fog or very low cloud because it is the one condition that you simply can’t stalk in. You have to sit and wait for nature to draw back the curtain and reveal the hills from 50 feet to 200 or 300 feet, then you can see the cloud lifting and that means you can go out. All of those things I love.”
Do you love being witness to a newbie really getting stalking?
“There are often years when I don’t pull a trigger and that isn’t because there haven’t been things to shoot, it’s just that I don’t have anything like the same blood-lust that I did when I was younger. I don’t think I was ever terribly bloodlust, but I’m not desperate to shoot any more deer. I am desperate to be out stalking and to be on the hill and I don’t think you could do it like a drag hunt, you couldn’t pretend to do it. You have to do it for real. The point of being there is because this is a real hunt and you’re hunting one of the canniest, fleetest, most well prepared animals in the country over a landscape that has no cover and no trees. But very often the reason I don’t shoot is because I like taking people out who have not done it before. They are fewer now than they were years ago because most of my friends can’t walk anymore. You never insist anyone shoots, they don’t have to do it but I like to go out with people and say: ‘You are the first gun, you have the option and if you don’t want to, that’s fine.’
“There is absolutely never, ever any teasing about that. We all completely understand. To kill something that is the same size as you are, the same weight you are and is as beautiful as a stag is a huge leap and for some of us it is a leap in the right direction, because it brings us back to primordial senses of connection with our food and with the land and where we come from and who we are. For other people it is just like murdering something for fun and I completely understand that and so I never, ever insist people shoot. However, when people do and they do it for the first time, nobody ever forgets the first time that they shoot a stag. Nobody ever says: ‘I can’t remember, where was I?’ It is a major thing and people are often so surprised by the range of emotions that they feel.
“My little children are slightly too young to be able to do the walking but hopefully they will in a couple of years and overlap when I am still able to get up the hill and they are able to walk it.”
Is that hugely important to you?
“Yes and no. What is nice is that my littlest boy, one of the twins, Beetle is mad keen on shooting and I’ve just got a .410, which he has had a couple of days with. He spent a couple of seasons carrying around essentially a toy gun, carrying it broken and learning to understand the etiquette of being around a gun. He’s like a spaniel. He basically waits by the door from the 12th onwards. Every weekend he asks: ‘Are we shooting this weekend dad?’ I do like that. He’s so enthusiastic and he is very aware of being safe and polite. The biggest moment of his life was when he wiped my eye.”
Do you have your own rifle?
“No I don’t. I stalk for probably a week or two a year. One thing I like about Letterewe is that I know the land. What I particularly enjoy is going back and stalking over somewhere that I have stalked over for a decade. I know the ground very well and I’ve stalked over most of it. It is full of memories and it is familiar. However, I don’t particularly want to have a rifle. I think rifles are less important than shotguns are to shooting. The weight and familiarity of a shotgun makes a big difference. It shouldn’t make a huge difference with a rifle. I know people can get very, very, very nerdy about shot and bullets and parabolas, recoils and all that stuff but I’ve always just shot with a stalker’s gun.
I think I’ve shot with three stalkers at Letterewe since going there and I’ve got to know all their rifles. The thing I like about stalker’s rifles is that they are always incredibly bog standard and practical. The one thing you learn about stalking through hard-won experience is that weight is everything. Everything you carry must be light. I now pick up a pair of binoculars and I don’t think ‘ooh, this is 10×40’, I think ‘this is 15lbs’. The stalkers I am out with all carry very light rifles, they tend to be quite small in terms of calibre and they tend to shoot with rifles that are just a little bit bigger than the legal limit for killing deer. Sometimes I will go out with Germans who will have huge, beautiful, walnut-stocked rifles and you think, you can carry your own gun. I’ve shot big game in Africa with huge rifles but what I like is something that is light if I’ve got to carry it because someone else is dragging a stag.”
How did you find stalking?
“My father was very uncountry, very unsporty. He was urban, very cerebral and left wing, so he didn’t like anything to do with sporting stuff. I had a grandfather who shot. I have a photograph of him standing in a line of very nice looking rough shooters. He was a dentist in Edinburgh and I think he did outside days and keepers’ days and stuff but I never knew him.
“When I left college I just had friends who shot and would invite me. We would go to their places in the country and shooting was part of it. I just loved it and I would get up at 3am to drive across Britain to stand in a muddy field for a 50-bird day and then I’d drive back again. That I won’t do anymore. I am much more picky about who I shoot with than what I’m shooting. I don’t really care about bags. There was a time when I was younger when there was never a drive that was long enough and there was never a day when I couldn’t have done another drive. Now I often find myself sitting in a field saying: ‘Blow the whistle. I’m freezing. This is miserable.’
“But out of that, I then started to stalk. I had a couple of friends who lived in Scotland. They would go stalking and I would go with them and I fell in love with that. There is a huge difference between shooting and stalking. The thing that I particularly like is that a day’s stalking is a complete narrative. It is a complete story from beginning to end, from that moment of getting your kit and walking out the door to stepping onto the heather to when you come back following the ponies down exhausted either with or without a stag in the sunset.
“Stalking days have long moments of expectation, disappointment, times when you just think ‘I’m never going to do this again.’ I’ve never been on a stalk when I haven’t thought at some point I’ve got to stop doing this. But then there has never, ever been a morning when I haven’t been aching to get out and do it again.”