Monday, 31 August 2009

Driving grouse can drive you mad

So today we were back to the serious business of driving grouse.

This short season (0 to 5 weeks, depending on the results of our pre-season counts) is our 'harvest' and the main earner for the estate for the whole year. The people who come here to shoot pay BIG money and, accordingly have big expectations.

And thus we try to run the shoot days as smoothly and efficiently as possible. It takes a lot of doing when you have to choreograph for a troupe of about 50 people (beaters, keepers, loaders, pickers-up, guests and assorted 'hingers-oan'.)

And when you bring a drive in, to do it right you have to tailor the line to take account of the wind and the lie of the land. Or attempt to. We consider ourselves lucky this year to have so many 'switched on' lads in the beating line( some years we get nothing but 'neds') in fact we have a good many students.

For the most part, they are doing really well. However I tempted fate at lunchtime by saying that they were starting to look like a proper team of beaters. Thereafter things went all to hell.

There they were, the cream of British youth with brains the size of small planets and TOTALLY incapable of walking in a straight line, despite encouragement of the 'keepers. Pass the Strepsils, will ya?

The icing on the cake was that the heavens opened on the final approach to the butts on the last drive of the day. Hey ho.....

All in all, we did have a reasonable day tho'. The final bag was 75 brace (150 birds) but, more importantly, the guests came off the hill with smiles on their faces.

Job done.

Friday, 28 August 2009

A Red Letter Day

For some 'keepers getting allocated baby-sitting duty would definately be considered the short straw. I quite enjoy it. This morning I took 8 year old N out rabbit shooting. Earlier this week he called it his favourite thing in the whole world but today you wouldn't have guessed it.

It didn't help that it was a dreich morning, overcast with drizzle on a snell wind. I suspect his action-packed week was also catching up on him. Suffice to say that the shooting was extremely poor. Coupled with the rabbits playing cat-and-mouse (!) with us in the shelter of the sprots and brackens it made for a frustrating time.

When we returned to the lodge, the planned picnic was abandoned in favour of lunch in comfort and warmth. And who can blame them.

I returned mid-afternoon to be asked to take N and his 11 year old sister fishing. After last nights rain I reckoned the river would be perfect so I set up the rods for salmon. This was a bit of a gamble as I knew that their attention would wane if there wasn't the boost of catching the odd fingerling trout or salmon parr but I thought the conditions were too good to miss.

After an hour I was starting to regret the decision. They were starting to get bored and their fly casting was getting sloppier and sloppier. And this meant I was spending more and more time running up and down the river bank retrieving the flies from trees, thistles and rocks -but thankfully not ears, noses or siblings.

Fortuitously, I'd forseen this and had taken along a spinning rod as well. To keep interest up I also moved them on to the next 'lie' after only a few casts; "hit and run tactics" I call it but I quite like another expression a friend came up with recently. Shock and awe!

But even at this the kids were fast approaching 'critical mass'. At this point Providence threw me a lifeline and a salmon jumped right in front of us. That caught their attention!

As we'd already covered this fish with a rapala, I swapped it for a mepp spinner and with the very next cast the fish was on. I made sure N played this fish all by himself, only intervening by helping keep the rod up when the fish threatened to pull it out of his hands. A full quarter of an hour later and I tailed the fish out. A hen fish of about 7lbs and somewhat red, indicating it had certainly been in the river for a while. Normally I would recommend returning a fish like this but you only catch your first salmon once. Furthermore, I reckon if I'd thrown it back, N would have been right in after it.

All credit, 'I' was nothing but delighted at her brothers success and while he was preoccupied with cradling the fish and talking at a thousand words a minute, I had her cast over all the likely spots in the immediate vicinity.

As luck would have it, she hooked into a salmon within 10 minutes and another nail-biting quarter of an hour ensued. This time I didn't touch the rod and 'I' played the feisty fish out all by herself. Again, her first salmon and this time it was a cock fish, maybe a pound bigger than her brothers. Well done that lass!

I confess to having a twinge of concience at keeping this second fish but how could I deny her her share of the triumph. It would be fitting if these fish are used form the centrepiece of one of the lodges exceptional dinners and I,for one, would raise a glass to their captors.

When we returned to the lodge, the kids grabbed their fish and sprinted off into the house. I sincerely hope that they kept them off the furniture! As I packed the tackle away, Tom the butler came out and chatted. It turned out that their older brother had shot his first stag today.

It's a day that I hope will stay with them for the rest of their lives and on my way home I reflected on it and prayed that I'll be able to give my own wee boy the same experiences one day.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Chalk and cheese

It's been a couple of days since my last post. Two very different days.

Yesterday I was giving fly-fishing lessons to 3 kids and 1 mum. We started off praciticing on the lodge drive in the driving rain. Mum and 2 of the kids had done some before, but 8 year old N had never tried it before. He took to it like a duck to (rain) water.

At one point Mum asked me what made a good cast. "One that catches a fish. " I replied. I reckon there's more horse manure spoken about fly-fishing than any other subject......with the exception of wine perhaps.

In the afternoon we went down to the river and I took N straight to a highly likely spot. He cast like he'd been doing it for years and was into a fish within minutes. It took him another 6 or 7 minutes to play it out but he ended up landing a bonny wild Brown Trout of about 1lb 4 oz. The look on his face made my day!

Today all the guests are off elsewhere so I caught up on a couple of jobs. I started off going to the 'Inners Brig' and getting the last of the 'floorboards' replaced. It has been a work-in-progress for a good few days so it was fine to see the job through. It was even finer to see it through without any of the tools ending up in the river. Wonders will never cease.

As I was working, the morning sun was glinting off the river and the only sound was the rill of the water. If only you could bottle moments like that.

I took an early finish to go to a bank appointment. (I suppose you could call it flexitime as I was out spotlighting for foxes until 1am last night.) It's a 60 mile round trip and my wife had the car so I had to use my bike. It's a '95 fireblade and it's limits far exceed mine. I just wish the bank wasn't so near.

Two very different days, same glow inside.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009


This is the height of the grouse shooting season and thus it feels strange to be having a "guddle aboot". In a nutshell, one of our regular guests has taken the lodge for the week and has come up with just his wife and 3 kids. So instead of highly organised shoot days with 30+ beaters, loaders, pickers-up and 8 shooters we have 'take one of the youngsters rabbit shooting for a couple of hours, take out the lunches then have the rest of the day to catch up on jobs'.

It's very pleasant in a way but this is our best season for grouse for a long time and it's a bit frustrating not to be making the most of it. Och well, we'll be back in top gear again next week.

After all the rain we had on Sunday, I thought the river would be perfect to try for a salmon this evening. When I got there I was disappointed to find the water level about 20cm down on what I expected. Still I flogged and flailed my favourite lies until there was a foam on the water but to no avail. Then as light was failing I misjudged a cast and lost my favourite fly in a tree. He was an old campaigner and had taken a few scalps (possibly the wrong metaphor when referring to salmon!) a Julius Ceaser amongst flies. Rest in beech, Julius.

Monday, 24 August 2009

What on earth am I doing here?

Let's face it, mysterious benefactors became extinct around the time of Dickens last book, didn't they?
Apparently not, as I found out on a September morning in 2007.

It seemed a morning like any other. My colleagues and I meeting up for a brief fat-chewing session before going over to the lodge to pick up our guests for the days stalking. It was a fine clear morning and all the better for following a night of ground frost; thus marking the end of the Reign of the Midge. We stalkers also believe the frosts trigger the Red Deer rut so are doubly glad to see them.

So there we are, discussing winds and deer movement, when Fred, our Head Gamekeeper appears. "Listen lads" he says "The laird and N O (one of our regular grouse shooting guests) have had a chat and are wanting to offer an exchange. It'll mean one of his wardens from his reserve in South Africa coming here and one of you going over there. It'll be for two or three months and family can go too. Is anybody interested?"

If I hadn't been nonchalantly propped against a land rover, I would have been reeling! "Yes" I hear myself reply but I somehow feel far removed from my voice. And with that, my world changed.

I remember spending the rest of that day- and a good chunk of that night too- with my thoughts in an absolute turmoil. Where was this place? What would I be expected to do? What preparations would be needed? How would Louise (my wife ) and Jack (my, then, 1 year-old son) deal with it? These and a thousand other thoughts roiled and boiled in my mind.

As it was, the exchange didn't happen until January 2009, which is maybe just as well, seeing the amount of preparation it required. But happen it did, and what followed was just an amazing experience.

So amazing that I had to keep a daily diary to make sure I would never forget a moment of it (if you knew how feeble my memory is, it would stun you.) So I kept this diary and emailed it to a few friends and to the laird and to N O. N O liked it enough that he put it on the reserve website ( and I got requests from friends of friends to be included on the mailing list. It was real-life, bona fide, adventure. Give the website a visit and see.

Since coming home, I've had lots of positive feedback (and a comment on the website calling me a wanker) and have been cajoled into doing this blog. What have I let myself in for?

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Once in a lifetime

You've no idea of the path I took to get here. Six months ago I would never have dreamt that there even was a path. Still, by the strangest of chances, here I am. Read on and find out what I suspect is an adventure that is going to change my life.