Ladies of the hill
David S. D. Jones unearths some fascinating and impressive accounts of the very first female deer stalkers in Britain.
Today, it is not unusual to find a lady stalking deer in the Highlands of Scotland. One hundred years ago, however, few members of the fairer sex dared to go out on the hill in pursuit of stags and hinds, and those who did were invariably great characters. Indeed, writing in the mid-1890s, an unnamed sportswoman using the appropriate pseudonym of ‘Diana Chasseresse' advised potential female stalkers: “Deer stalking is like a marriage, it should not be enterprised nor taken in-hand un-advisedly or lightly, nor should it be undertaken by those who are weak and delicate, for it entails many hardships and much exposure to wet and cold.”
Jessie Thorneycroft, one of the first lady deer stalkers in Scotland, took up the sport in 1865 at the age of 17 years when she shot her first stag and caught her first salmon in the forest of Glentanar in Aberdeenshire. The daughter of a wealthy Black Country ironmaster, she was very much ‘trade' so did not have to conform to the conventions of Victorian ‘society' which dictated that women should only appear on the shooting field either for luncheon or as spectators!
In 1876, Jessie married Joseph Platt, a rich textile machinery manufacturer, who was keen on both stalking and fox hunting. Not surprisingly, the couple spent their honeymoon in pursuit of deer in the forest of Glenbruar in Perthshire.
For the next decade, Jessie and her husband spent the stalking season each year visiting various deer forests in Sutherland, Ross-shire, the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Skye. Then, in 1886, they secured a long lease on the 69,000-acre Park Deer Forest on the Isle of Lewis.
Jessie and her husband soon turned Park into a stalkers paradise, building a ‘state of the art' mansion, Eishken Lodge, installing a telegraph office in a nearby village, constructing miles of stalking tracks throughout the forest, acquiring a steam yacht for transport to and from the mainland and a steam launch for conveying stalking parties to remote parts of the forest which were more accessible by sea than land. In 1887, their first full season on the property, the Platts bagged a total of 41 stags and eight hinds.
Park quickly became a mecca for rich and influential stalkers, including Alfred Bonham-Carter, referee for private bills in the House of Commons, and Sir Felix Semon, personal physician to King Edward VII, but few could beat Jessie when it came to securing a good stag with a minimum number of shots.
Sadly, Joseph Platt died in 1907 after two decades at Park. The deer forest then passed to Jessie who reigned over the property for the next 38 years. In her final season, aged 86, she could only manage one day out on the hill but succeeded in grassing a stag. She died in February, 1935, having stalked continuously for 70 seasons, then a unique record for a woman in Scottish deer stalking circles!
Alma, Marchioness of Breadlebane, another early lady deer stalker, came from an entirely different background to Jessie Platt, being Scottish aristocracy rather than ‘trade.' Born in the 1840s, the youngest daughter of the 4th Duke of Montrose, she began her stalking career in the late 1880s in the 80,000-acre Blackmount Deer Forest in Argyll-shire, one of several top sporting properties owned by her husband, the 1st Marquess of Breadlebane.
Alma always went out on the hill in great style, dressed in grey Blackmount tweed, accompanied by one of her husband's professional stalkers, and armed with a bespoke Purdey Express rifle. Her stalking prowess was equal to that of any man and she would happily walk many miles to a distant beat in pursuit of a good stag.
Amongst her many stalking achievements, Alma shot a record 18-point stag at Blackmount on August 27,1897, weighing 19 stone 2lb, a 13-pointer stag with an inside span of 37" in 1891, and six stags with six shots on September 30,1897. She wrote a classic book, High Tops of Blackmount, about her stalking experiences in 1907 and continued to stalk deer for many years after that.
Hilda Murray of Elibank, who had been taught how to stalk deer by Alma, Marchioness of Breadlebane, was also noted as an early lady stalker. Considered to be one of the leading sportswomen during the Edwardian period, she regularly visited Blackmount, accounting for a number of good stags with her Fraser Single .303 Velox rifle. She was also an accomplished angler, a crack Shot at covert shoots and an outstanding rider in the hunting field!
Lady Sophie Scott, the beautiful wife of Sir Samuel Scott, Bt., owner of the 35,000-acre Amhuinnsuidhe Deer Forest on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, was one of the first female members of the English aristocracy to stalk deer in the Highlands. From the early Edwardian period until the time of her death in 1937, she travelled to Scotland annually in pursuit of deer, and, between 1918 and 1937, killed a total of 698 stags on Harris alone (she also shot 231 hinds on Harris between 1929 and 1937). She was also the first lady to successfully catch trout on the Houghton Club waters of the River Test in Hampshire.
A true stalker to the end, Lady Scott lies buried with her husband in a mausoleum in the Amhuinnsuidhe Deer Forest.
The most remarkable early lady deer stalker, though, was undoubtedly Lady Evelyn Cobbold, owner of the 14,500-acre Glencarron Deer Forest in Ross-shire from 1922 until the time of her death in 1963. An Anglo-Scottish aristocrat who was born in 1867, she was a daughter of the 7th Earl of Dunmore and a granddaughter of the 2nd Earl of Leicester, owner of the celebrated Holkham shoot in Norfolk. Married to John Cobbold, a member of the well-known Suffolk brewing dynasty, she was not only an accomplished stalker, angler and travel writer but was a convert to Islam and, in 1933 at the age of 66, became the first English woman to make the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Lady Cobbold, who had taken up stalking during the late Victorian period, ruled Glencarron with a rod of iron for over 40 years with the help of a team of loyal stalkers and ghillies. In addition to grassing around 45 stags and 25 hinds annually prior to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, she accounted for two exceptional royals in 1924 and 1929. Like her contemporary, Lady Scott, she was buried on the hill – her final request was to lie “where the stags will run over my grave”. Her funeral service at Glencarron in 1963 was conducted according to Islamic rites with a piper playing laments on the bagpipes.
In a strange sort of way, Jessie Platt, Alma, Marchioness of Breadlebane, Hilda Murray of Elibank, Lady Sophie Scott and Lady Evelyn Cobbold, all of whom had grown up in male dominated Victorian Britain, were pioneers of ‘Women's Lib', long before the phrase had even been coined, through their desire to compete on equal terms with their menfolk in the deer forests and on the salmon rivers of the Highlands of Scotland.