A heart left in the hills
Rachel Carrie's first experience of hill stalking in the Scottish Highlands leaves her yearning to return.
'Hey Viking Queen, fancy hunting red stags in Scotland?' I had met Kristoffer Clausen two summers ago while pigeon shooting in Kent (where I had earned the title of Viking Queen after shooting a skyscraping pigeon), and the prolific Norwegian hunter and film producer was heading to the Scottish hills for a spot of red deer stalking and had invited me to join him.
Our Highland base camp, Rathad an Drobhair, chosen for us by Sporting Agent Aaron Winton of Direct Sporting Lets, is a beautiful, fully equipped lodge, right in the heart of the wooded Strathconon Glen, 12 miles from the town of Dingwall. I arrived just in time for a dinner of haggis, neeps and tatties followed by a fireside dram with my fellow hunters.
As Kris spoke of his excitement of my hunt and his hopes of getting great footage, I began to realise that, by accepting his invitation, I was now obliged to give him my best performance! With this in mind I retired to bed where, despite the tranquility of the peaceful glen, I found it impossible to sleep. This has become normal for me on sporting trips as it would be to a child on Christmas Eve. Perhaps worse this time, the red stag was the largest of any species I had previously hunted and the anticipation I felt was proportionate to the beast itself. Thankfully, my six-hour drive north eventually prevailed.
I arose to the most incredible views; the glen was alive, wild and green. Soon after breakfast the car was packed, I was suited, stalking booted and we were making our way up the winding roads of Strathconon. A half-hour drive led us to the private access road into the Kildermorie Estate, my 19,000-acre playground for the day.
As planned we met head stalker Dougie Russell and his ghillie at the estate offices and, after demonstrating my shooting ability on a life-sized steel deer silhouette, we made our way out along the old logging road. Dougie, who has been head stalker for 20 years, knows the estate like the back of his hand - every hill, including the highest Carn Chuinneagh (which rises to 2,749ft), every loch and every inch of the Glasa River running through the estate.
We reached several vantage points where we stopped and glassed the hillsides.
I mistook several patches of bronzed heather for grazing deer, mirages no doubt brought on by my eagerness to begin the pursuit. On our third stop, my eyes fixed on three shapes on a hillside in the distance and, after a second opinion to rule out heather, it was confirmed that this was indeed a group of stags. Dougie cast a more experienced eye on the hill, looking specifically for an older stag, a great grandfather of the hills who would struggle through winter among younger, fitter males.
The best way of approaching the stags was to head further down the road, away from them, across the river and then double back on ourselves, in behind the unsuspecting deer. There was a fairly strong wind against us and Dougie explained that it may in fact work in our favour as the stags were taking shelter and were unlikely to move without being disturbed.
There was a four-mile climb between us and the stags with the terrain ranging from rocky ridges, scree slopes, burns and peat hags to lush green pasture.
The going was tough - perspiration trickled down my back and my calves burned. We needed to get to the group as quickly as we could while remaining cautious - there could be more unseen reds sheltering nearby and disturbing them would have a domino effect. One wrong move and we could clear the hill.
Every inch of the stalk was wrought with challenge; just how I like it! As we neared the base of the next small hill, our guide halted, lowering himself to the ground into crawling position. Naturally I mimicked him, knowing that this was it. Signalling to stay put, Dougie leopard crawled his way around the hill effortlessly and disappeared. We sat silently for 10 long minutes before Dougie returned, sporting a wry smile. Our three stags were just over the brow. I was to take the middle one.
Inch by inch, I followed Dougie to the brow and chose a spot where, although I had rocks digging into my chest, I could use them for cover, keeping well below the skyline. I kept my head down low and peeped over. A little over 100 yards from us sat three majestic stags, wearing their beautiful antlered crowns. I was instantly in awe of them. I lifted Kristoffer's 6.5x55 Blaser and found my target in the scope. An eight-pointer of around 12 years of age, he was flanked by two younger companions. I took my deep steadying breath, and waited. Ideally, I wanted the stag to stand and present me with a broadside shot.
Eventually, one of the younger stags got up and made his way up and over the hill, followed closely by the second youngster, the old boy remaining where he was, his ears twitching, eyes widened and his large nostrils picking up my scent. I knew, without a doubt, that he was aware of us, but still he didn't lift. We had been there for 55 minutes, but it felt like five.
What happened next, happened all at once. Dougie let out a low bellowing roar mimicking a stag, and with it he lifted. I followed him, placing the crosshairs on the engine room. 'Now,' Kris whispered. 'Now.' He stood for a few seconds and turned and began to weave up the hill. 'Now,' Kris hastened. Out of the four of us on that hill, I think I was the only person who remained calm and collected in those moments. I knew I had to take the shot soon but there was no way I was going to rush. There was only me and that one stag on those hills, and he was going nowhere.
He turned for what I knew was the last time, presenting me with a clear shot. I took it, reloaded and watched in slow motion as he fell to the heather and took his last gasp of Highland air.
I had done it, I had brought down my first Highland stag. The composure I'd so far maintained melted away to reveal a huge, relieved grin.
The estate's traditional garron pony was led up to meet us and transport my beastie off the hill. I insisted on leading Coire (the estate's most senior garron) and the stag off the hill myself. With the rifle slung over one shoulder, lead rope in hand and a Highland breeze all around me, I did just that. The descent felt like the ending of a perfect movie, and there is to be a sequel. Until then, my heart will remain in the hills.
By: Rachel Carrie