Editor’s Note: On Friday we dust off some of the old stories from the archives. This week we join a couple of American hunters discovering the challenges of a traditional Red Stag hunt in Scotland. This article originally appeared in the September/October 1995 issue of Safari Magazine.
It was 2:30 p.m. on a dreary, overcast day in mid-October 1995. Apprentice Scottish stalker Groome (pronounced Graham) and I were on our bellies in the sponge-like tundra the Scottish call heather. Through our binoculars we were enjoying a ringside seat to a traditional Scottish stalk of a red stag – a first cousin to the North American wapiti. The “rifle” (hunter) was my friend and hunting partner of 38 years, Gen. John L. “Pete” Piotrowski, USAF Retired. Our “stalker” was Harold Stuart, game keeper and head stalker or wildlife manager for the 8,000-acre Kintradwell Estate. As we watched, Stuart had Piotrowski on his belly, crawling along a ridgeline toward a nine-point red stag.
Stalking red stags over the moors of Scotland has been the sport of kings for centuries. In fact human economic association with red deer has been dated back at least 15,000 years. In Scotland the earliest property rights were hunting rights, established by the king for his own use. While a titled landowner could hunt any other animal on his own land, only the king could hunt the red stag.
Now in position on the ridgeline, Piotrowski lay on his belly and was looking down at his stag. Stuart had his ancient but effective monocular spyglass appraising the trophy – spying the animals, he called it. Then, inexplicably, the two hunters backed out of sight.
The hinds continued to graze leisurely or rest in a semicircle around their master. The stag napped, then for no apparent reason lifted its head to roar again. We had been watching for two hours. Piotrowski and Stuart had been prone on the soggy heather long enough to be cold. Then, suddenly, the stag stood and roared … and Piotrowski had his first Scottish red stag.
When talking stag hunting you’ll hear the term “deer forest.” To the American hunter this conjures thoughts of a forested areas with a plentiful deer population. In Scotland, the term refers to an area with or without trees, but set aside for deer hunting. Today’s Scottish deer forests are predominantly treeless expanses that have deer populations. But a deer forest needs to be large. The mosaic (arrangement, in American terms) along with shelter determines the area’s usefulness to deer. At least 20,000 acres is considered a practical management area.
In 1912, Scotland had 3,600,000 acres designated as deer forest. By 1957, there were 183 deer forests comprising 2,800,000 acres. Today the definition of a deer forest is blurred, partly because of overzealous real estate agents describing anything a deer has wandered onto as a deer forest. The very large forests have long since been split up.
Red stags permeate English and European history. Even Robin Hood enjoyed stalking the king’s own. As we were leaving one Scottish village there was a friendly sign that said, “Haste ye back.” And for the sport of kings, you can bet we will.— John M. Lowery