A cull of the stags that are roaring away

For anyone who goes stalking in Scotland, the main aim is to contribute to the annual cull which keeps deer numbers to a tolerable level: you are shooting not only for sport, but for the good of the herd and the environment. A further benefit is that the exercise takes you into the remotest corners of the Highlands, and enables you to see lovely places which you would otherwise never visit.

So it was when we set out by boat on a brilliant morning from the hamlet of Kingairloch, on the coast of the Morvern peninsula in Argyll. Our destination was the outer fringe of the Ardtornish estate, away to the south west - a long ridge of mountain, a mile or so inland, from which shot deer can be recovered only by sea.

My stalker/guide for the day was Iain Thornber, a scholarly local historian whose skill and knowledge added immensely to the pleasure of the expedition. As we forged along the coast in the Cathula, the tourist boat which he operates with a colleague, Robin Maclean, Iain regaled us with fact and legend.

The wooded cliffs, he told us, were pocked with level platforms, cut out by the charcoal-burners of yore. At many points there were ruins of houses abandoned many generations ago. Here, quite recently, four pigs were turned loose for the summer, and flourished mightily on natural food.

We went ashore at Eignaig (the Bay of the Oaks), where a single house nestles among woods in a tiny bay. Thence we climbed away up the footpath which is the place's only link with the interior. Robin, meanwhile, took the boat out again, to patrol off the coast and stand by to collect us.

Across the water, just off the mainland, lay Berneray Island, long and slim and dark as the back of a whale, of which Iain told a curious story. Apparently the 6th-century St Columba prophesied that if anyone cut down a great yew growing on the island, retribution would strike in the form of blood, water and fire. So it did in the 19th century, when a forebear of Iain's took the tree to make a staircase in his castle. During the felling, transport and preparation, several men were killed, and through three fires in the castle, the staircase escaped unscathed.

By the time we were on the ridge, at 1,500ft, the wind had risen violently. Robin came on the radio to say that he could not stay where he was, but was heading for Inninmore Bay, five miles ahead of us. This shaped our tactics and drove us on.

Over our picnic lunch Iain brought out another strange tale, modern this time, of a nearby landowner, who went off to work in the woods one morning, and was never seen alive again. In spite of extensive searches with dogs, no trace of him was discovered until five years later. Then, the day after a memorial service had been held, his skeleton was discovered, fully clothed and sitting propped against the base of a tree, not half a mile from home.

A trudge along the ridge was enlivened by the sight of 150 deer coming up out of the interior in a cavalcade - a spectacle which raised the question now vexing many Highland lairds. Which should have priority - deer and sheep, or trees?

For the past 150 years the animals have held sway, and by their relentless grazing they have contributed to the decline of the forest. Now the mood has swung in favour of trees, and people are speaking of a colossal cull, to reduce deer numbers to a level at which natural regeneration will again become possible.

At last we were in a position to spy down on to the relatively flat ground which stretched away to the top of the cliffs. Several groups of stags were in view, and we got a beast which, we had discerned through our telescopes, was past its best.

It remained only to haul the carcass to the boat. A radio call confirmed that our skipper was anchored below us. An hour later, after a murderous descent of the cliff - all rocks and holes concealed under bracken - we were safely back on board, with seals popping up all round us, and the sun going down beyond the ruin of Ardtornish Castle, perched on its promontory in silhouette against a silvery haze.

So ended a day of stags roaring, golden eagles soaring, good fellowship, and history both comic and mournful, all in close proximity to the ever- changing sea.

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