A deer stalking dynasty
David S. D. Jones tells the remarkable story of the Macraes, the sporting family who have served as stalkers on the same estate for four generations, spanning 140 years.
Deer stalking tends to run in families, often over several generations. However, few can exceed the record of the Macrae family of Eishken on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, who have served as stalkers on a father to son basis on the same estate for the past 140 years.
The Macrae family connection with Eishken, then known as the Park Deer Forest, began in 1876 when Murdo Macrae, a 19-year-old stalker employed by the 3rd Duke of Sutherland on the 20,000-acre Ben Armine Deer Forest in Sutherland, arrived to take an underkeeper position on the property after being advised by his doctor to move to the West Coast of Scotland as a cure for pleurisy, developed after being exposed to a huge moorland fire.
Murdo Macrae quickly fell in love with the magnificent landscape at Eishken, with its abundant stocks of red deer, grouse and snipe. His expertise as a stalker soon came to the attention of the shooting tenant, Joseph Platt, who eventually promoted him to head-stalker after acquiring a long lease of the 69,939-acre deer forest in 1886.
Mr. Platt put Murdo in charge of six stalker-keepers, two kennelmen, a full-time vermin killer, and a large number of seasonally employed ghillies. He paid all of his men £5 a year more than keepers working on adjoining estates owned by his landlord, Lady Matheson, and gave them: a ‘head and tail’ allowance of ½d. for each item of vermin killed; £10 a year for the keep of a stalking dog; four stags and four hinds for meat; and a small flock of sheep and two cows. At least one man had to be proficient on the bagpipes to act as his personal piper when he was in residence at Eishken Lodge, his shooting quarters.
In November, 1887 – a year after his appointment as head stalker – Murdo was faced with one of the most challenging situations in his life when hundreds of impoverished crofters marched into the deer forest and began to enact a traditional deer drive in protest at the failure of the proprietor of Lewis, Lady Matheson, to allow them to have some of the afforested land for new crofts. He and his employer’s wife, Jessie Platt, met some of the men at Seaforth Head and tried to persuade them to return home. They replied respectfully “No English, my lady”, and fanned out into the forest. ‘The Park Deer Raid’ lasted for several days, with a number of deer being killed. Police, soldiers, Royal Marines, and gunboats were despatched from the mainland in response to the raid. The ringleaders were arrested and tried on a charge of mobbing and rioting at the High Court in Edinburgh in January, 1888. As one of the principal witnesses for the Crown, Murdo – described in the national press as a tall, frank looking young man who gave a very clear narration of the proceedings – was obliged to stand up in court and give evidence to the Solicitor-General for Scotland.
Things soon settled down in the wake of the deer raid. Mr. Platt even employed one of the raiding crofters as an additional keeper! He was sufficiently confident in the future of the forest to invest heavily in new roads and stalking tracks over the next two decades, creating much local employment. Mr. Platt died in 1907, leaving his widow very well provided for. Mrs Platt took over the lease of Eishken and ran the deer forest herself with Murdo Macrae as her right-hand man. She entertained lavishly, inviting well-known sportsmen to visit for a month or more at a time, offering them deer stalking, grouse shooting, and even the occasional hare drive. Her visitors and stalkers were transported to the more remote beats of the forest by her private yacht, Transit, or aboard Puffin, the estate steam launch.
In 1910, thanks to the efforts of Murdo and his stalker-keepers, Mrs Platt and her guests managed to bring down a total of 113 stags, 60 hinds, 486 grouse, 39 snipe, 97 woodcock, 3 wildfowl, 665 hares, and 11 rabbits. In addition, they caught 15 salmon, 4,091 sea trout, and 447 brown trout. Two years later, in 1912, they accounted for a record bag of 120 stags and 67 hinds.
By this time, Murdo’s son, Duncan Macrae, had joined the forest staff as an under-stalker. However, when the Great War broke out in 1914, he was conscripted into the Lovat Scouts and sent to France, where his bravery on the battlefield earned him the Military Medal.
Murdo continued to manage the forest at Eishken throughout the war years, albeit with a slightly reduced staff. His employer, Mrs Platt, continued to stalk and shoot on a regular basis at this time, but did herself no favours amongst the local people by overzealously prosecuting poachers.
In 1925, Mrs Platt was able to purchase the principal section of the Eishken Deer Forest, some 42,589 acres in size, from the executors of Viscount Leverhulme, owner of the Isle of Lewis. Although aged 77 and 68 respectively, she and Murdo still went out on the hill regularly during the stalking season.
Mrs Platt continued to stalk, assisted by Murdo, right up until the end. In 1934, in her 87th year, she was only able to manage one day on the hill, but she succeeded in grassing a stag. When she passed away in February, 1935, Mrs Platt left Murdo the sum of £500, by far the largest legacy to any of her servants.
The day-to-day running of Eishken was now in the hands of Murdo’s son, Duncan Macrae, who had succeeded him as head-stalker and keeper. However, Murdo continued to help out on the property on an ‘as and when’ basis until he died at the age of 87 in 1945.
During his early years in charge of the Eishken Deer Forest, Duncan Macrae regularly suffered from the predations of poachers. Some were local crofters who came to steal the odd salmon or trout for the pot. Others travelled in by boat from farther afield to shoot deer which were readily saleable on the black market, especially during the Second World War. One famous skirmish between stalkers and poachers on the estate was described in the press as the ‘Battle of Eishken Bay’ after a tug of war with fishing nets took place between the men!
Duncan’s task was not made any easier in the early 1940s when the then owner of Eishken, Jessie Thorneycroft, a niece of Mrs Platt, disbanded stalkers’ positions at Kenmore, Valamos and Mulhagary, leaving him with just a couple of men to manage the forest. Nevertheless he managed to provide her and her family with first-rate sporting facilities. For example, in 1950 the annual bag taken at Eishken included 39 stags, 21 hinds, 31 salmon, 797 sea trout, and 38 brown trout.
Duncan Macrae continued to run Eishken until he retired. Like his father before him, he lived to be 87 years of age. In the words of his obituarist: “In his work as a gamekeeper he was a loyal servant and not only his ghillies but also the poachers respected him.”
Duncan was followed as head-stalker and keeper at Eishken by his son, Tommy Macrae, who had started work on the property in the mid-1940s at the age of 15 on a wage of £1 a week. He was to preside over many changes, the greatest being in 1977 when Audley Archdale, a nephew of Jessie Thorneycroft, sold Eishken, thus severing the century-old link between the Platt-Thorneycroft families both with the estate and the Macraes.
Eishken passed to Ralph Duberry, a South African businessman, who experimentally introduced pheasants into the policies surrounding Eishken Lodge. He was followed in 1981 by Rolf Rothmayr, a Swiss businessman, who ran the property on a commercial basis, letting it out for a week or more at a time to sporting guests. Finally, in 1989, with Tommy Macrae still at the helm, Eishken was acquired by the present owner, Nick Oppenheim, who has put the estate back onto a stable footing, investing heavily both in the lodge and in the deer forest.
In 1997, Tommy was succeeded as head-stalker and keeper at Eishken by his son, Christopher Macrae, who qualified as a gamekeeper on the Isle of Rum. Two years later, in 1999, 100 stags were grassed in the forest, a record last achieved in 1940. Christopher, now the fourth generation of his family to work at Eishken, continues to manage the property at the present time, and, politicians permitting, is likely to do so for many more years to come!
For details of current sporting opportunities at Eishken, contact CKD Galbraith on 01738 451600 or visit www.sportinglets.co.uk