Wild winter sport in Jura
Howling winds, smoking waters and sport in its rawest form. Robert Tennant recounts a memorable winter shooting trip deep in the Scottish wilderness.
Photography: Konrad Borkowski
As winter took a firm grip of the Islands, and successive depressions tracked in across the wastes of the Atlantic, it became plain why each scrubby bush and stunted tree was bent and shaped to the east. Great winds, almost exclusively westerlies, howled for days and nights. Showers of rain, hail and occasional snow were driven through the hibernal sky by spitfire winds. They swept across the face of the sea in front of the house, causing the already tempestuous waters to smoke with fury.
My cousin Adrian and I had arrived at Ardfin, the Jura estate owned by his father. We seated ourselves at the table by the window to drink tea and finalise a plan to bring game into the larder. “Let’s make an expedition of it. As it’s so wild, we should start with sea ducks and make an attempt on the geese tonight,” Adrian suggested. A black-backed gull tore through the air outside the window and banked across the wind without a wing-beat. “We can stay at the bothy in the old wood and arrange for Norman and Willie to meet us there tomorrow morning. We’ll work that area of scrub for game and then come home in the evening,” he concluded.
A violent squall hit the house. The windows shuddered in their frames as sleet ricocheted off the glass. “Come on,” Adrian beckoned, “it sounds nice out there, let’s go.”
We stopped for a word with Norman, the keeper, before taking the fire-track to the bothy. The stone building was musty inside, but the stove was soon lit. Then we set off to stalk the shore towards the boathouse; anything shot over the sea would be blown onshore by the sou’westerly.
Against a backdrop of leaden sky, we made our way through the swaying wood. Only upon leaving the trees did the full force of the wind become apparent. Adrian studied the shore ahead with his binoculars.
“See anything?” I enquired, testing the pungent sea wrack with flared nostrils. “Slight problem,” Adrian said in a low voice, “There’s some widgeon out there, but a heron’s nearby.” We attempted a stalk but the primeval bird flailed into the wind, emitting a sustained screech. The widgeon took fright and skimmed off over the waves. Suddenly, a pair of large duck curled with the wind towards us, our guns remained silent however, for they were shelduck.
Two bays further on, Adrian watched a raft of duck through the glasses. “This looks good, there’s mallard, teal and widgeon. See that big boulder on the shore, 50 yards on; if we can make it over there we’ve got a chance.”
The shingle was heaped with rotting seaweed. We crawled over it as silently and unseen as phantoms, until gaining the lee of the boulder.
Adrian whispered hoarsely, “On the count of three.” When we sprang up, the fowl exploded into the air; the teal vertically. Each of us fired both barrels and the dog charged into the surf, reappearing with a mallard. By the time she had retrieved another, a further two ducks had been washed onto the weed. “Two widgeon, two mallard, not too bad,” he exclaimed, opening his gun and ejecting the spent cartridges.
As the daylight was waning, we decided to head slowly for the bothy wood. The wind was decreasing and the furious quilt of the clouds began to break up, revealing a yellowish sky behind. We were about to turn inland when the swoosh of pinion feathers sounded overhead. In an instant the chattering mallard had vanished with the wind. We dropped into a tussock of reeds and reloaded our guns.
I squinted across the wind, and what appeared to be insects not far off soon became duck, approaching fast. “Look out, teal coming over,” I called urgently. Both of us knelt and fired our first shots when they were still well in front. Two birds plummeted out of the pack and had not yet hit the ground when another two detonations rang out. A single bird fell out of the sky.
“That’s your second right-and-left, Adrian. Well done,” I gasped. “Lucky shots eh?” he said, somewhat casually, but the grin on his face suggested otherwise.
“That’ll do nicely – a brace of mallard, same of widgeon and three teal. There’ll be wild duck on the menu at the big house soon. Not a bad reconnoitre!” I exclaimed. “And there’ll be widgeon on the menu at the bothy tonight,” Adrian promised as we started for the wood. “And a toast to the hunted,” I urged.
In the pulsating light provided by two hurricane lamps, the humble bothy appeared idyllic. The ancient stove made it warm and was roasting our widgeon, emitting a delicious aroma. The dog contentedly licked her paws, as was her habit after a feed.
“It should be a beautiful night,” Adrian thought out loud, “the wind’s down, the cloud’s broken and there’s quite a moon. Perfect conditions, wouldn’t you say Robert?”
“Yes indeed... for a meeting with pinkfeet, maybe. Let’s eat and go.”
The moon was waxing and cast its milky-blue light through the casements of the night. We walked the mile to the boathouse and stood to listen, some 200 yards from the green. The piping calls of oystercatchers drifted up from the shore, along with the whistling of widgeon and the occasional screech of a heron. A muted cackling was just discernible.
“Now that’s some stroke of fortune,” Adrian whispered, “they’re in.” Dropping onto all fours we advanced over the boggy ground, heedless of the muddy rills. Fifty yards from the edge of the green the moon was uncovered by a passing cloud, causing our hunched forms to cast shadows. “We’ll wait till the moon’s covered,” Adrian hissed. At last a cloud engulfed the full moon and we bellied forward until we were in a position to peer through the reeds at the green’s edge.
The silver light flooded down as the cloud passed and we found ourselves looking at a sizeable flock of feeding barnacle geese, not 30 yards in front. Suddenly the geese stopped their grazing and stood still, heads erect. A terrific yelping rang out high overhead and a skein of pinkfeet crossed a patch of clear sky between dark, velvet clouds.
The skein wheeled around to the west, then turned back towards us, losing height fast. We assumed a kneeling position and readied our guns. The pinkfeet approached for a low pass over the green, and the barnacles, which had thus far been silent, suddenly commenced a tumultuous cackling. The pinkfeet yelped in answer as they glided overhead, our two shots rung out and there was a deafening roar of wings as the barnacles jumped into the air... then the fading sound of geese heading westward for Islay.
The dog was not long in returning with a dead pinkfoot, but could find no other. We had both fired at the same bird. Once back at the bothy, Adrian measured two shots of malt and raised his glass.
“To the ambassadors of freedom,” he toasted. “To wild geese,” I responded, and we duly poured the peaty liquid into our dry mouths.
The alarm clock’s trill put an end to the quiet of the bothy. It was not long before the aroma of frying bacon filled the room. “Norman and Willie will be here soon,” Adrian announced.
Norman was a man in his element, in love with the Isle of his birth. He performed his role as keeper and stalker with skill and there was a gleam of humour in his blue eyes. Old Willie loved beating for a shooting party. Always clad in full-length green oilskin and bearing a battered staff, age had not faded a wicked sparkle in this war-hero’s rheumy eyes.
Suddenly there was a scrambling of dogs around the door and Norman appeared. “By Christ ‘ees made yourselves at home in here, boys.” He held up his stick. “How many o’these do you see?”
“Just the one, Norman,” we replied, grinning. “Oh, hello there, Willie,” Adrian sprang up and shook the old fella’s hand. “A fine morning, Willie,” I offered. “It is, it is, but no’ for the wee birds,” Willie said optimistically and then fell to a nasal laughter. “Any ducks?” Norman demanded with a searching look. “Three and a half brace, plus a goose,” Adrian proudly replied, “but we ate one of the ducks last night.” Norman looked pleased. “Very good. I’ll take the others to the larder up at the big house when we’ve finished. But let’s be away,” he added.
The morning was clear and dew sparkled from every bush and tree. The bothy stood in the middle of a large area of scrub. Starting at an outer edge, we proceeded to beat it in strips, with us two Guns flanking.
Willie launched into the task with gusto. “Raa sha sha sha shash. C’mon oot. I know ‘ees are in theyre. Haar!” he shouted as he swiped at a conifer with his staff. Norman kept up a steady clicking sound while working his dogs, and it was not long before woodcock were periodically jinking through the stunted trees and we were taking shots.
On entering a hollow there was an urgent whimpering from one of the dogs and Willie shouted, “Cock pheasant forward!” It exploded from the undergrowth, crowing mightily, and whirred into the vault of the sky. Fired from the hollow, Adrian’s shot sounded like a cannon blast, the crowing abruptly ceased and moments later there was a dull thump.
“Good boy, Adrian. Whatever it was you were partaking of last night did ya’ no harm,” Norman joked.
“I can tell you, Norman, we hardly touched a drop,” Adrian replied. Norman winked as he stuffed the bird into his game bag and set off once more.
The second strip to be walked-up contained a profusion of reeds. As we entered them, a snipe swerved up and flew back low between Norman and Willie. The latter unleashed a blood curdling yell, his stick whipped the air and he shrieked, “There y’are!” as the bird accelerated through. I waited until it was safely behind and then mounted my gun and killed it.
“Not too bad, Robert,” Adrian shouted loudly. “A bit more difficult to shoot than a cock pheasant,” Norman stated in a loud voice. As his dog retrieved the bird, it flushed a second, which flew wide of Adrian.
“Snipe!” Norman and Willie chorused, but their call was cut short by the sound of Adrian’s gun.
“What was that about difficulty, Norman?” Adrian sang out. “Thon has all the answers,” Norman replied grinning. “We’ll soon be finished here if you boys keep shooting like that.”
His words proved correct and some time later we waved to our two friends from the bothy door as their figures receded up the fire-track, bearing a variety of game. Later still, we prepared to follow. them up the road. The moon had not risen, so it was dark as we left for home – that friendly glow of light not yet visible, but hidden from us by the eternal shapes of the starlit hills.
In their younger years – Adrian Riley-Smith, the author, Norman MacDonald & Willie Cameron