There was a season every year when I wondered whether I was mad. That thought might come on me when prone in a peat-hag, the ground water soaking upwards to converge in my marrow with the rain pelting down. Or it might be in an entirely different climate, a still late-summer day, lying in the heather. Perfect weather – for the West Highland midge, especially the sabre-toothed midge of Jura, which attacks in swarms of a billion.
On such occasions, I was unable to prove my sanity by fleeing from inundation or midges, because my quarry, a stag, was also lying down, 100 yards or so away, only the tips of its antlers visible. The ghillie who was out with me might draw on his expertise to make a sound to entice the beast to its feet. The wrong noise, and there would be a vertical take-off stag. We just had to wait and endure until the stag had the decency to rise, for the last time.
Stalking involves other privations. For the unfit, climbing is hard: crawling is worse. Most stalks involve a crawl at some stage. Once, as a couple of friends on their first stalk moved awkwardly to all-fours, I said: “This will remind you why we all learned to walk.”
There is a further hazard. If you make a horlicks of one drive on a pheasant shoot, there will be another one along in a moment. On a deer stalk, you could spend the entire day in pursuit of one beast. Finally, the ghillie guides you to the perfect position. The beast is grazing peacefully, looking the other way. There is a comfortable rest for the rifle, and you have got your breath back. You put the cross hairs on the stag’s heart, gently squeeze the trigger...and miss.
The full resources of the Anglo-Saxon language are not adequate to do justice to your self-loathing. Whatever his private thoughts, the ghillie will be sympathetic, which almost makes it worse. It is a mortifying, soul-scarring experience and sooner or later, it happens to everyone who stalks (to some more often than others).
So: an inevitable knackering; hours as midge-carrion; and the ever-present risk of humiliation: why does anyone do it? That is hard to explain. One point is obvious. Of all the field-sports, stalking ought to be the least controversial; there is no possible case against it. There are more than 600,000 red deer in Scotland: a higher figure than ever before. They destroy young trees and trample the eggs of ground-nesting birds. Numbers have to be controlled, and indeed reduced. Man is the only predator. Moreover, as stags age, their teeth wear down so that they can no longer graze properly. During the Highland winter, a weakened beast will enfeeble towards a slow death. A rifle bullet is kinder.
That said, no one goes stalking to assist with nature conservancy or act as a volunteer vet. So what does possess stalkers to go to such trouble and expense to embrace this bizarre sport? Is it a means of reconnecting with our primeval past, when men hunted to survive?
Possibly. Apropos the primeval, stalking resembles the work of Wagner. In both cases, you rarely hear anyone say that they could take it or leave it. The devotees are obsessive; the immune, uncomprehending. As with Wagner, there is mysticism. Setting off with a rifle to kill a deer is an intense communion with nature and landscape.
What a landscape: although the Highlands hardly register in international height comparisons, the peaks soar into grandeur. Up on top, the views defy language. It is a delight to be eating one’s lunch while a golden eagle seems to fly the length of a glen with only three effortless wing-movements – 500 feet below you.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills: the Highland mountains often have a numinous quality, albeit more pagan than Christian. It is a very Scottish paganism. We are not in Wagner’s God-haunted forests. Still less is it reminiscent of the sophisticated deities from Mount Olympus. But you feel that on working round a rocky corner, you might come across a misty conclave of Highland Gods: hairy men in hairier tweeds, discussing the day’s sport over a good dram – no ambrosia here – and looking like a Landseer drawing of Victorian stalkers.
David Cameron – no mystic he – used to enjoy stalking, and was good at it. A few years ago, he decided to give it up for the duration. He despaired of explaining the sport to urbanites, who could not understand how a man who loved the environment could also kill Bambi.
A few days ago, however, the Prime Minister came out fighting, explaining why all environmentalists should cheer on deerstalkers, while implying that he might have gone stalking on Jura, but for a bad back. For anyone who has to carve limited holidays out of a relentless schedule, stalking has a further advantage. An all-consuming activity, it offers unsurpassable refreshment to those burdened with work and duty. So It is to be hoped that the back clears up and the resolve persists.