A wee bothy, a boat, and just 4,000 acres; deep in Glen Cannich, a special stalking experience awaits, as Patrick Tillard discovers.
Photographer / JOHN MACTAVISH
There are memories that tattoo themselves on one’s mind; a freeze-frame in time when you know you will treasure that moment forever.
The peculiarity of jumping from a two-carriage train amidst strikingly bleak and rugged seclusion at Helmsdale due to a short platform. Sipping a frosty Tusker around a campfire in the Serengeti, a halcyon star-studded sky percolating the inky darkness, the whooping of hyenas resonating across the plains. My first salmon, after a frantic 10-minute scrap in the Awe’s Stone Pool, scooped into the net on the third attempt of asking. And here, sitting in the loggia of a modest Scottish bothy, a dram in hand, watching the sun melt behind the craggy ridge, its last golden flecks dancing on Loch Sealbhanach’s ripples, stags silhouetted on the horizon and guttural roars rumbling around the valley. It is absolute perfection.
Having turned off the A road an hour or so north-west of Inverness, a serene single track led me 12 miles through mystical birch woodland stripped of its foliage by the oncoming winter and past tall verdant moss banks, following the twists and riffles of the River Cannich beneath. The last few miles opening up into a wide valley, the archetypal image of the Scottish Highlands, blanketed in an autumnal russet and oliveaceous veil, with cows lining the roadside and the blissful words No Service displayed on my iPhone. It is pure goose-bump topography.
Eventually, I reach the end of the road – quite literally – and am greeted by my host, good friend and affable sporting agent Charlie Brownlow. He gives me a quick tour of the humble bothy – affordable accommodation, nothing opulent, but more than adequate for sportsmen who prioritise their stalking – before nestling into a front row seat to one of the most beautiful sunsets I am likely to witness.
Talk is of the season’s sport thus far. I’m sure there are men and women out there more fixated by fieldsports than Charlie, but I certainly don’t know them. Fishing and shooting are to him what clarets are to Robert Parker. We while the evening away with stories of salmon (or lack thereof), sea trout, grouse, and his sui generis venture, the Game Train Scotland, where guests hop from one shoot to another during the course of a week on the luxurious Royal Scotsman.
‘Sporting holidays with a difference’ is his company’s by-line, and as we move onto the morning’s plan this mantra is very much apparent.
“You’re out tomorrow,” says Charlie, pouring me another salubrious dram, the moon now high in the sky and testosterone-fuelled stags still roaring belligerently. “Angus [the stalker] will meet you here at 9am and take you up to the dam to hop into the boat.”
And there it is, the ‘difference’, the extra spark to this firework. As if the scenery and mere occasion of stalking in Scotland wasn’t enough, I now had the added twist of reaching the isolated 4,000-acre ground via motorboat – something I’ve never done and can’t imagine many others have either.
One last dram later, and sufficient riverbank stories to challenge the hardback pagination of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, we tear ourselves away from the hissing fire and call it a night.
Back admiring the view in the morning, whisky substituted for strong black coffee, a brisk wind is stirring Loch Sealbhanach and rustling a Mexican wave through the patchy jacinth heather. During the night, cumulus clouds have gathered, with sporadic rain drumming up a glorious racket on the bothy’s partially corrugated iron roof. Due to the remote locus of the hill and exposed marine admission, there are occasions when setting off is a straight no-go, but today there is no such misfortune.
Angus is punctual to 9am. A seasonal stalker, he has been on these secreted grounds since 1998, and with his open camo jacket, deerstalker and gregarious manner, I instantly feel at ease in his company. We head to the range, my excitement punctuated by the unique nerves that accompany the pursuit of such majestic animals in their own environment.
All on target, it’s to the boat, a 400-metre climb from the bothy to where the tail of the 11-mile Loch Mullardoch is tamed by an expansive concrete dam – the largest of its kind in Scotland. Angus backs the wee bracken-green boat gently into the water with a red fume-spitting Zetor, mottled sunshine momentarily breaching the cloud curtain and spraying the jagged hillside as we load the various stalking paraphernalia on-board. Spyglass, pieces, dragging ropes, walking sticks, rifle and various fishing rods, as Charlie is spending the day chasing pike. He appears optimistic. (Sadly, his optimism was to go unrewarded.)
Ghillie-cum-captain, Angus fires up the outboard and we power four miles west up the loch. En route, a white wake kicking up behind us, I find myself constantly perusing the hinterland in bewilderment, like a kid unleashed in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Words can’t do it justice. Herds of red hinds pepper the hill on both sides, with peat-sullied stags, fresh from the wallow in the height of the rut, traipsing the ground, heads tall, guarding their harems from imposters.
Angus brings the engine to a lull in order to spy the hill from the water – although we can’t get as far as usual as the emaciated level and protruding rocks have blocked the narrow pass. He immediately glasses a shootable stag. Backpedalling a quarter of a mile, the boat grounds into the bay, so low that old pine stumps are visible on the loch’s mucky bed.
The approach is of vital importance. At only 4,000 acres the ground is a mere pin prick in comparison to the contiguous estates, and therefore jolting the deer into flight can result in following days of praying for their return. This volatility only adds to the drama of the outing.
Following an old shepherd’s zigzag pathway, Angus leads photographer John MacTavish and me uphill, leaving Charlie on the shore to fling a Spoon into the shallows. As we scramble higher the views become more spine tingling. Think postcard Highlands – a collage of heather and scree patchwork, lonely lochs, icy burns funnelled by peat shucks; wild and inhospitable – and you get a rough idea of this place.
After an hour of upward slalom, Angus raises his hand and we sink to the ground. I smell him before I see him, his pungent urine stink carrying the 180 yards between us, and sure enough on the horizon a heavy set of switch antlers can be made out through the tall sprigs of grass. It is the beast he glassed from the loch, now shimmering way below, where Charlie is but a dot on the water’s edge.
“We’ll need tae heed doon a wee bit, an’ tae th’ reit,” whispers Angus, “or this bludy sooth win’ will gie us awae.”
“A sooth win’ doesnae mean that th’ win’ wi’ us is blowin’ sooth,” he adds, seeing confusion plastered across my face as we are south of the deer. Indeed, stalking in a southerly gale is notoriously tricky in Glen Cannich – it maunders, trampling the rules of geography and sense. Looking skywards, the clouds are shuffling in one direction while the breeze brushing my gaiters is doing just the opposite.
I follow Angus’ lead, crawling through peaty puddles towards the precipice of the brow. He stops momentarily and draws the Sako from its slip, scuttles forward another 15 yards and beckons me into position behind the stock. It’s at this moment, without exception, that I adopt the heart rate of a hummingbird; a pint of nerves served with a punchy shot of adrenaline – it’s one hell of a concoction.
But before I can line the beast up in the scope a lone young stag below spots us. He coils into action, spooking our entire herd on his way. “That’ll be them aff th’ grin,” sighs Angus, confirming what he had warned before setting off.
The decision is made to head high, over the ridge, to see what deer are sheltering from the mounting wind and intermittent showers. No easy feat, however; this is Munro country. All around us towering, rock-strewn slopes disappear into a screen of thick cloud, a haven for walkers – something that Angus addresses by taking enthusiasts up the loch on the boat in the summer, boosting relations between the estate and visitors, as well as educating them to the necessities of stalking these hills.
Rounding a crest on the high-side march of the ground, we are greeted by a typically breathtaking Highland scene. Turbulent clag rolls down the escarpments, deer visible as specks among the faraway crevasses, and tucked within a sheer-sided basin is a desolate loch, so totally wild and untainted. As with the Helmsdale station and Serengeti campsite, this is another of those eidetic moments that will be tattooed on my nostalgia.
There are a decent number of reds on our side, but such is their proximity to the march, to approach them would be to jeopardise the rest of the week.
We backtrack, wheezing our way below the crest of the hill to stay off the skyline – the mountain we are scaling is just shy of being a Munro itself. Short of the peak, where a bitter squall now rips across the plateau, we crack into our pieces, huddled into a depression, with the astonishing loch backdrop and endless massifs beyond.
The estate’s priority is in being incredibly particular about what is taken off the hill, taking only old beasts and varying the hind cull parallel with herd monitoring. The word ‘trophy’ doesn’t appear in conversation.
Digressing from deer, I learn about Angus’ role within the Mountain Rescue, and listen in awe to his epic motorbike adventure for Riders for Health from Glen Affric to Africa earlier in the year – 10,000 miles in three weeks on challenging roads, under sweltering heat, and unsupported.
We press on into the haze, halting again below the peak’s cairn. Fifty yards in front is a covey of ptarmigan, blending in seamlessly with the barren habitat. “They knoo they’re safer on the grin,” explains Angus, as we continue on our course to bypass them. “In th’ air they’re vulnerable tae birds o’ prey – their ability to blend intae their environment is their greatest defence.” They hold true, watching us intently, and only when we are within a few metres do they lift, flick across the hill hugging the contours and resettle 200 yards away. A beautiful sight amongst austere surroundings.
Dropping off the other side of the ridge, we make our way towards what is to be the last role of the dice. The day has skipped on, and now in the far corner of the estate we have a long walk off the hill – and an even longer drag, if successful.
Manoeuvring our way around large boulders we edge towards a steep face where, Angus hopes, there will be a stag or two hiding from the south wind. Inching to the lip, he turns and gives the thumbs up, once again gesturing for me to drag my frame in behind the rifle. The stalkers’ profundity and knowledge of their hill, and their lucid ability to think like their quarry, never fail to amaze me. Lying 120 yards away and roaring persistently, his warm breath billowing from his nostrils into the cold mountainous air, is a solitary stag, 11 points but heavily going back – he would have been a fine beast in his prime. Undetected from our vantage point above him I get into the prone position and wait. The hammering heart rate once again takes hold.
Twenty tense minutes later, he stands, broadside for the shot. No sooner am I admiring the beast lying motionless in the xanthic grass, 12 years old identifies Angus, as he examines the worn teeth and sets to the gralloch. Miles from any civilisation, amidst biblical scenery, the quiet broken only by the echo of deep bellows and raven caws, it is the perfect end to the perfect stalk. The goose bumps return.
From here we have an arduous drag down the valley, over peat hags and through knee-deep bogs and sharp ravines, to a point where the Argo can take over. With the stag in the back, the flabby wheels grinding down the shingle track, I can’t quite shake the adage ‘sporting holiday with a difference’ from my head. It truly is.
A constant wave of shock and awe, it is back to the boat, back to the charming bothy, and back to the loggia for a dram, to watch another day close out in this remarkably special place at the end of the road, now firmly etched in my memory.