Like many of us who enter competitions, John Thompson posted off his entry to Shooting Times — to win a day’s grouseshooting over pointers on the Isle of Lewis — more in hope than expectation. Then, having received a call to tell him he had won, elation rather turned to trepidation. Aged 70, he began to wonder if he had over-reached himself and that two days on the Lewis moors might be a bridge too far.
The competition, sponsored by RJH Sports, Scaliscro Estate and the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group, provided an opportunity to experience grouse over pointers in a stunning setting, and enjoy some of the spectacular wildlife for which the Hebrides are justly famed.
As October and the stag season drew to a close, the weather over northwest Scotland had been autumnal, and both walking and shooting conditions were challenging. However, as John and his shooting companion, John Wilson, arrived at Stornoway Airport from the Lake District, the skies lifted and the prospects brightened. Both Johns have been shooting since boyhood, and retirement has offered new horizons. The friends are members of a wildfowling club, are involved in gameshooting and deer management, and regularly visit Africa to hunt both plains and winged game.
Their base for the trip was Scaliscro Lodge, at the heart of the estate of the same name. The laird, Cree Mackenzie, lives on the property and is known far and wide as a sporting host. The lodge sits high above Little Loch Roag and offers panoramic views towards the mountains of Lewis from all sides. Very much a traditional Scottish lodge, it has all manner of treasures on its walls and in its rooms for guests to marvel at and explore. Outside, Highland cattle and Hebridean sheep graze the parks and golden eagles can frequently be seen soaring above the ridges, while red deer feed alongside the two-mile private road leading to the lodge.
Russell Hird, who owns RJH sports, has been offering a wide range of sporting services on Lewis and Harris for the past 10 years. Specialising in grouse and woodcock, Russell maintains his own kennel of Hungarian vizslas, running them alongside a German pointer and an Irish red setter. RJH Sports can also call upon other island guides, who work with different pointing breeds, and together they can cater for the requirements of most pointer enthusiasts. For the Shooting Times trip, Russell chose to use his own team of vizslas, picking two bitches and one dog.
The day began with a safety briefing, and then the two Johns had a choice of guns from the Scaliscro gunroom. John Thompson elected to shoot with a side-by-side 12bore, while John Wilson went for a 16bore McNaughton sidelock. A toss of the coin determined positions. Formalities over, the party set off onto the Scaliscro moorland at a sedate pace, which provided many opportunities to admire the view.
The two younger dogs, which are litter mates, were run first and cast into the wind to begin hunting. The Guns didn’t have long to wait before both dogs drew on, and the first point was found. It often comes as a surprise to those who haven’t shot over pointers how steady and focused the dogs are. In this type of shooting, guns stay in their sleeves until the dogs locate game.
Carefully positioning the Guns on
either side of the dogs, Russell moved in to encourage the flush, and the heather erupted as a pair of grouse sprang upwards and powered away. John T was quickly onto the left-hand bird, which folded at the report, while John W tracked the right-hand bird, chose his moment and downed it. As befits their title of HPRs (dogs that hunt, point and retrieve), the vizslas were swiftly on to them, carrying them back to Russell.
Nerves settled, the dogs started away again and began to work uphill into the wind. Russell likes to pace his dogs, allowing them to run for up to 20 minutes before a break, when one dog is replaced. In that way, the day can seamlessly progress with regular breaks for both Guns and workers.
Though the Hebrides lack the numbers to provide driven grouse, they provide consistent shooting over pointers through the season. With modest bags of up to five brace per day, variety is often added by woodcock and common snipe. Indeed, when the grouse season closes on 10 December, woodcock become the main quarry. The nature of the terrain, with its rocky outcrops and a myriad of small lochans, makes shooting exciting and challenging, with birds often flicked away by the power of the ever-changing wind.
As the morning progressed, both Guns were in the shooting. With all three dogs on good form, birds were found regularly. By this time of the year, Russell expects that family coveys will have broken up and that the dogs will find birds in ones and twos. This turned out to be the pattern for the day, with fortune favouring John Thompson over his companion.
The weather continued to be kind, to the point where it was more like August shooting rather than November — but without the midges! Shooting over broken ground presents challenges, not least that the birds are often advantaged by the rises and falls in the terrain, and the Guns had their eyes wiped as frequently as grouse were added to the bag. We worked our way back towards the lodge, picking up points regularly. Though none were shot, both common snipe and the protected Jack snipe were found and flushed by the dogs.
Reaching home, with a bag of three brace, the short late-autumn day began to draw in. Reflecting on their day, both men were impressed and surprised by how well the birds held when the dogs were on point, by the scenery and wildness of the environment, and after a lifetime of shooting they enjoyed the challenge of trying something different.
Dinner and a boat ride
Laird Cree Mackenzie hosted a dinner in the lodge for his guests, and, as has become something of a Scaliscro tradition, entertained all with his musical ability and local knowledge. John T planned to take a further day over the pointers and, with the following day’s weather forecast to deteriorate, Cree offered to make the estate’s rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RIB) available, along with a member of staff to make most use of any opportunities.
The overnight change in the weather brought harsh squalls from the south. After breakfast, the skies began to lift. The estate boat arrived into Port Scaliscro, so we headed out through the narrows of Little Loch Roag to find a landing place. As we scouted for a likely spot, a sea eagle floated over a ridge mobbed by a pair of ravens. The plentiful supply of sea birds and carrion makes this an excellent location to find these apex predators. Such has been the success of their return that concerns are being voiced about their impact on the smaller golden eagle.
Landing close to the long-abandoned township of Strome, the boat was sent off to wait for us and the dogs were cast off. This part of the estate experiences much less human and livestock traffic, and the longer heather reflected this. The dogs quickly located a group of five grouse, four of which broke as the Guns moved in to position. The last bird, however, hesitated before lifting; John T was quickly onto it and it tumbled into the heather.
The ground around Strome holds a number of single cock birds, which the dogs found in quick succession. Most of the birds were lying in shelter from the south wind, and John W took a strong cock bird, which evaded the attention of his shooting partner. The change in weather was affecting the birds, which were noticeably less settled. Mid-way through the morning two grouse opted to walk back past the dogs and flush well behind the Guns. As longer and heavier squalls roared in, we made our way back to Little Loch Roag, where the RIB was waiting.
So, was it a bridge too far for the prizewinner? Not at all — both Johns enjoyed their island adventure, admittedly helped by the weather, which favoured the guests rather than the birds. As John T said: “The dog work was a joy to watch, and there were plenty of birds which held well, giving us about a dozen points in some spectacular country. We lived rather well too, with superb food, drink and entertainment. Many thanks to Russell Hird, Iain Watson, Eric the chef and Laird Cree Mackenzie.”
For more information about: RJH Sports, visit www.rjhsports.co.uk, tel 07751 839579; Scaliscro Estate, visit www.scaliscro.co.uk, tel 01851 672325; and Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group, visit www.countrysportscotland.com, tel 01350 723226.