Honest, I’ve never developed a taste for Scotch whiskey, but I love the Scottish Highlands; windswept moors stretching to the skies. I suppose if I were a serious enough bird shooter I’d think first of the Glorious Twelfth of August, the traditional opening of Scotland’s grouse season. My uncle, Art Popham, long gone now, went shooting in Scotland every August. He asked me to go with him several times and I wish I had, but I figured out quickly that, even back then, I could hunt several of the Big Five for much the same cost. Grouse shooting in Scotland may be the sport of kings, but it runs a bit steep for the average outsider!
“Shooting,” by the way, means shotgunning in the British Isles. The proper lexicon for hunting big game with a rifle is “stalking.” By whatever term, however, sportsmen and women in this part of the world hold a great secret. Today, local “deer stalkers” are relatively few in number. Deer herds are (well) managed, with venison production critical to management. So those relatively few deer hunters enjoy long seasons with liberal bag limits. I tell them about my 12-day Kansas rifle season with a one-buck limit and they just shake their heads. Of course, they don’t have whitetails in Scotland…but I don’t have red or roe deer in Kansas!
The other thing deer hunters in the U.K. don’t have is the public land we are able to enjoy here in the U.S. Over there, most land is privately owned and wildlife has an established value. That value is, in large measure, why they have so many deer…but the idea of (more or less) free hunting on public land is as foreign to them as the concept of short seasons and small bag limits. On the other hand, as costly as the traditional driven grouse shooting is, deer stalking is a relative bargain. In Scotland the best-known stalking is for native red deer. The tradition is glassing and stalking on foot, with horses the classic recovery vehicle. Generally speaking, stalking the Scottish “hill stags” is take them as they come. Scotland is far north, and the Highlands are harsh. Scottish stags are generally smaller in both body and antlers than their cousins in England and on the Continent.
The point is the experience; it’s fantastic, but deer are viewed as a harvest. The “ghillie,” or gamekeeper, identifies the proper stags to take. Big stags of twelve points and more are rare and, depending on the property, often not allowed and left as breeders. But there are lots of deer and hunting the tall hills on foot really is a wonderful adventure. Stalking Scottish stags is not expensive; I’ve done it several times and will again. The idea is to catch the September rut when the leaves are starting to turn and the hills echo with roaring stags. It’s marvelous.
Then there’s Scotland’s “other deer,” the European roe deer, widely distributed and numerous in Scotland. They thin out in the harsh northern areas, but in much of the country they coexist with red deer, with the “reds” tending to stay higher while the roebucks are more concentrated in the valleys and lower slopes, perfectly at home in the mosaic of agriculture and cover. Quality depends on area and genetics. The U.K. isn’t known for producing huge “medal class” roebucks like certain areas in Eastern Europe, however, both Scotland and England produce large numbers of very fine roebucks. The stalking is extremely inexpensive and successful…and a whole lot of fun.
Several times I’ve gone to England for roebuck and enjoyed it immensely, but I hadn’t given much thought to hunting them “up the road” in Scotland. Wife Donna actually got me into it. Kirstie Pike (of Prois outdoor gear for women) and her husband, Steve, put together a Scottish roebuck hunt with Michael Grosse’s International Adventures Unlimited, and the next thing I knew we were joining them. Turns out Michael and his wife, Danielle (now with son Justin) have been organizing hunts for Scottish red deer and roe deer (and other Scottish game) for years. Typically, Michael includes air fare with his hunt packages, which must be a logistical nightmare for he and Danielle, but it sure was simple for us. All arrangements were perfect, including Scottish gun permits, which are not so difficult if you know what you’re doing, and these folks did.
On the ground, I have to say the hunt was as close to perfect as a hunting trip can be. We stayed at the Glen Lui near Ballater; not fancy but a great country hotel with nice rooms and good food. Now, roebuck hunting is the reverse of most deer hunting. Roebuck come into hard antler in late April and are rutting in June. Our hunt was in June — an excellent time, but days are long and nights are short, sort of like a spring bear hunt in Alaska!
As is common in the U.K., the hunt is divided into morning and evening “outings.” Mornings come early (plan on a midday nap), but the evening outing doesn’t start until about seven, with light until late. Michael had leases on several estates (some famous) within a half-hour, max 45 minutes, from the hotel, so Donna and I hunted several different properties, all beautiful but all different in vegetation and terrain. Scotland is a country where it can snow in any month. That didn’t happen. We had a bit of wind and rain, but mostly the June weather was very pleasant with chilly mornings and nice middays.
We hunted separately and together and had to cut the hunt short (and skip some much-desired sightseeing) to make a niece’s wedding. I wouldn’t say that every outing produced a shot, but the time went by too fast. In a very few days, Donna and I took five roebucks between us; four very nice and one cull I shot on the last morning.
On the last evening, I took a very old Soay ram, the native/feral Scottish sheep. I’d tried to get one on previous trips to Scotland, but somehow hadn’t got it done. So that ended a really fine hunt. The only problem I can think of is our time there went by much too quickly. Tere are lots of things we’d like to see and do in Scotland, so I think we’ll have to do this again. –Craig Boddington