'Right then, are the gentry ready?' the Scottish gamekeeper said to the Irishmen at the end of lunch. The Irish were dressed for the weather, oilskins and boots. The Scot was in livery: tweed knickerbockers, a matching jacket, stalker's hat and a wooden crook.
They began the afternoon's sport: eight guns - that's people with a gun, to you and me - in a line, trudging across the side of a steep hill shooting as the grouse rose from the heather into wind and driving rain. In conditions like that I would say the odds were in favour of the grouse escaping. One of the shooting priests, Father Phillip, fell into a ditch. His spectacles had misted over. He laughed it off over dinner when he was pulled up over a missed shot.
After two days, 12 and 13 August, the lads from the republic had bagged 50 brace (100 grouse). It had cost each of them about pounds 400, or some pounds 32 a bird. Father Declan, who arranged the shoot, said the organiser got in free (I had asked him if he had raided the collection box). He seemed to know a thing or two about getting places free, being, as he said, a 'free' member of several hunt clubs, shooting clubs, and general sporting clubs in his county.
It was a terrible thing, he said, that the children of Ireland believed that the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' applied to birds and animals. The Irish all nodded and agreed it was a scandal. Father Declan said it was part of his job to undo that. One man said that his eldest son even prayed on the opening day of the shooting season in Ireland that no birds would be shot. Everyone looked aghast.
I was asked not to say where we were shooting. I can tell you only that it was in Perthshire. Were I to be specific, the estate might expect to be invaded by parties of youths in balaclavas with thoughts identical to today's children of Ireland. At least in Scotland a reporter can get on the moors. In Yorkshire, that other great home of grouse, the gamekeepers chase you away. Everyone south of the border, it seems, has had fingers burnt by bad publicity.
This year's grouse season does not seem to be very good. The bird has been hit by disease, numbers are down, and few people nowadays can afford the expensive 'driven' shoots, costing pounds 3,000 a day for eight guns. A driven shoot is when scores of beaters 'drive' the grouse across the moor towards the waiting guns. For a day's shooting like that a punter is guaranteed a minimum bag of 50 brace.
Last Wednesday, in a neighbouring Scottish shire, an irate Italian was beside himself when the bag was 14 brace. He demanded his money back. Less than 10 years ago, bags for driven shoots were in the hundreds. Today the birds are not there.
There are few 'driven' shoots in Perthshire nowadays. They 'walk' the grouse, which was what the Irish, the Italians and the American from Boston were doing in lines across the Highlands. Pat Synnodd, who was host to them all, having leased some 100,000 acres of the aristocrat's moors, devotes less than three weeks to the bird. He has few English 'guests'; the English stay at home on the Yorkshire moors. Some Scots shoot, he says, but most sportsmen come from abroad: Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy and the odd Arab. And they want to stalk deer.
Across the field, beyond the swing bridge, at the bottom of the hill stands a black animal in profile among the sheep. At first sight it looks real. After a while you realise it is not. One of the Irish thought it was a llama. For a while I did too. I hoped it might have been a Highland equivalent of a garden gnome. But no, it is a target, a Victorian iron deer. Before you are allowed on the moor with a rifle, a man (or a woman) has to prove he can shoot a deer cleanly from 200 yards. It seemed a good requirement to me.
There are few other requirements at the Synnodd lodge, but it helps if you can sing, for this man is a crooner. He had the clerics on edge and the rest of the Irish trying to hide under the table when he launched into the 'Hills of Connemara', a maudlin folk-song. He made them sing to a man, whether they knew the words or not, until we ended up in 'Forty Shades of Green'. Maureen, the wife of the American from Boston, fled before the entertainment began. She had been warned. We all had too. But we were drinking whisky. She wasn't.
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