The sportsman who discovered the Outer Hebrides
David S. D. Jones reflects on the life of the Reverend George Hely-Hutchinson, the first man to tap into the sporting treasures of Lewis.
Often described as the 'sportsman who discovered the Outer Hebrides', the Reverend George Hely-Hutchinson was a typical 19th century sporting parson who enjoyed hunting, shooting and fishing. Born in Dublin in 1799, the second son of the Rt. Hon. Christopher Hutchinson, MP for the City of Cork, he was a member of an old Irish aristocratic family who owned estates in Co. Tipperary.
Following an education at Westminster School and Cambridge University, George entered the Church of England and was ordained as a priest by the Bishop of Ely in 1829. Eight years later, in 1837, after holding a succession of minor posts, the Lord Chancellor appointed him Vicar of Westport St. Mary with Brokenborough and Charlton in Wiltshire, a sought-after rural living situated at the confluence of the Beaufort and Vale of White Horse Hunt countries, which attracted a salary of ?520 per annum.
George now took on the role of a 'squarson', as sporting parsons were known at that time, hunting regularly with the Duke of Beaufort's Foxhounds, shooting and fishing as a guest on local estates, and hiring a sporting property at Strathconon in Ross-shire for recreation during summer and autumn. He employed a curate to carry out his day-to-day duties and only officiated at major church events or baptisms, weddings and funerals of prominent parishioners which occurred outside the stalking and grouse shooting seasons when he was resident in Scotland for several months. He even built a new Vicarage at Charlton at his own expense in order to have adequate stabling facilities for his hunters!
For the next few years, George divided his time between Wiltshire and Strathconon, as well as taking the occasional trip to Ireland for fishing. He re-built and enlarged the church at Westport St. Mary and established a school at Westport for the poor children of the parish.
In 1850, ever ready for a new challenge, George broke new ground by leasing a property in the Outer Hebrides, then an isolated part of Britain rarely visited by sportsmen. Together with his brother-in-law Robert Morritt and friend Sir Frederick Milbank, Bt., he took the 9,000-acre Aline estate in the south-eastern corner of the island of Lewis for a term of seven years, at an annual rental of ?235.
Aline, which included additional shooting, fishing and stalking rights over the nearby 69,000-acre Park sheep farm, provided red deer stalking with an annual bag limit of 25 stags, good walked-up grouse shooting, ptarmigan shooting, and salmon, sea trout and brown trout fishing. Surviving records for 1851, George's second season at Aline, note that he and his partners brought down a total of 475 grouse, 124 woodcock, 430 snipe, 2 wildfowl and 9 various, but do not contain details of any fish catches or the stag bag.
The following year, in 1852, dissatisfied with the fishing at Aline, George took the tenancy of the adjoining 75,000-acre Soval estate, a vast property which included a small shooting lodge at Soval, grouse moors and the Blackwater and Laxay rivers - the second and third best salmon rivers on Lewis. He immediately constructed subsidiary lodges at Deanston and Dalbeg to provide accommodation when shooting and fishing over distant sections of the estate, and implemented an improvement programme on both rivers, introducing the first artificial spates in Scotland to enhance the salmon fishing prospects.
George then turned his attention to the Soval grouse moors, appointing three gamekeepers to manage the shootings. Through a judicious keepering regime, he succeeded in building up the stocks of grouse on the property, gradually increasing the annual bag from around 100 brace in the early 1850s to 700 - 800 brace by the mid-1860s, making it possible to shoot upwards of 50 brace on a good day. In his book, Reminiscences of the Lews, he describes some of the methods which he used to achieve these results.
Having taken measures as far as practicable against the increase of vermin, I proceeded as far as I could to divide all the ground into separate beats, never shooting the same ground over twice for grouse. For some seasons, as far as I could manage it, I never shot hens but killed every old cock I could get at, in season or out of season; poached him, in short, anyhow I could. I shot the broods always lightly, and thus, by degrees, spread the birds out over the whole ground, so that parts of the north ground, where there was really nothing at first, became as good as in the south; but the process was very slow indeed, and it entailed great labour. To shoot the ground in this way, we had often - besides driving some six or seven miles along the road, where we left our trap to return in - to walk three, four, five or six miles to our beat, and then walk the same distance back across the muir to our road or bothy.
Not content with improving the grouse stocks, George developed his own lighter strain of black and tan setter to work the Soval ground in conjunction with his kennel of Gordon setters and Rokeby pointers. He also took in a couple of paying Guns to help defray the cost of keepering the moors.
George continued to retain his interest in Aline until 1856, using the property for deer stalking as Soval was virtually devoid of deer at this time. He then relinquished the lease in favour of Sir Frederick Milbank, Bt., who allowed him to stalk and shoot on the estate on a regular basis as an invited guest.
From the mid-1850s onwards, George sent regular bulletins about his activities and successes at Soval to various sporting papers, making sportsmen aware of the excellent and reasonably priced stalking, shooting and fishing available on the island of Lewis. This free publicity increased the demand for Lewis sporting properties to such an extent that the proprietor of the island, Sir James Matheson, Bt., more than doubled the number of estates available to let!
In addition to his many sporting activities, George acted as curate of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Stornoway for the duration of the shooting season, a position which he held permanently for some 12 years along with his Wiltshire parishes. According to local legend he would often arrive in church to conduct a service carrying a couple of brace of grouse to distribute to favoured members of the congregation!
Throughout the period of his tenure of Soval, George was in regular demand as a guest on other Lewis sporting estates such as the Lews Castle Home Shootings and Morsgail, and on the Ardvourlie section of the North Harris estate. The Ardvourlie game books record that at the age of 69 he 'killed a fine Royal' while out stalking alone at Lagnascalan on October 23, 1868.
Sadly, after renting Soval for almost two decades, during which he turned the property into the finest grouse shoot on Lewis and carried out numerous improvements at his own expense, the Reverend was obliged to relinquish the tenancy at the end of the 1869 season after his landlord increased the annual rental from ?100 to ?280.
Surviving game records kept by George's brother-in-law, Robert Morritt, who stayed at Soval in September 1869, give an indication of the quality of the sport available at the time. Morritt alone, shooting over a period of 14 days, personally accounted for 462 grouse, 22 snipe, 3 hares and 9 plover, and on his best day, September 28, bagged a total of 51 grouse, 5 snipe and a plover. In all, 376 brace of grouse were shot at Soval by various Guns in September 1869, all walked-up rather than driven.
Shortly after leaving Soval, George wrote his classic aforementioned book under the pseudonym of 'Sixty One', based upon journals and game books that he had kept during his time on Lewis. He later wrote another book, A Trip to Norway, in 1873, which provides an amusing account of a shooting and fishing expedition that he made at the age of 74.
The Reverend George Hely-Hutchinson retired as Vicar of Westport St. Mary with Brokenborough and Charlton in 1876 due to failing health. He then moved to Rokeby Park in Yorkshire, the home of Robert Morritt, dying there seven years later at the age of 83. His obituary, printed in a local Wiltshire newspaper, records that he was a popular man with his parishioners, noted especially for his love of dogs and horses! However, in the Western Isles of Scotland, he lives on in local legend as a larger than life character, and is frequently spoken about today as the 'sportsman who discovered the Outer Hebrides'.