Extreme Stalking - Scottish Highlands
PUBLISHED: 14:18 27 January 2020 | UPDATED: 16:54 27 January 2020
Editor Paul Austin takes the trip of a lifetime - an epic stalking adventure in the breathtaking Highlands of Scotland...
Editing a rifle shooting magazine probably sounds like a dream job from the reader's perspective - all those gizmos, gadgets and guns to play with. I'll be honest, for someone as obsessed with the sport as I am, it isn't half bad, but in reality it's primarily a desk job. Regular trips into the field are required, but the focus is kit testing and tinkering rather than actual hunting or shooting, that's something done almost exclusively on your own time. It's mostly typing, chasing kit, hitting deadlines and harassing freelancers for copy.
But every once in a while, there is the occasional perk, and they don't come much perkier than a stalking trip to bonnie Scotland. GMK were to be our gracious hosts and the event was to take place at Blair Atholl, an enormous private estate of some 145,000 acres in the heart of the Highlands.
Confirmations and itineraries were exchanged and finally the day came for the drive north of the border. Five and a half hours later, powered primarily by service station coffee, I found myself at the place where all great adventures begin… the pub!
The Atholl Arms was the planned staging post to pick up the assorted waifs and strays and then make our way in convoy to the hunting lodge, which would be our home for the next few days. The scale of the place started to dawn on me as we drove down the private road to the lodge.
It's slow going, the eight miles taking about 40 minutes in the pitch black, passing the odd tenant farm and occasional keeper's cottage on route. It's about 6.30pm when we arrive, the only sound being that of an adjacent but as yet unseen river. It's sub-zero and the white rendered lodge with its welcoming lights is the only thing clearly visable in the gloom.
The lodge is exactly as it should be: warm and welcoming. Apart form the odd lick of paint, it clearly hadn't been touched in 50 years and was better for it. Open fires in every room with a slight peaty odour permeating the air.... it's exactly how a Highland lodge should be. Comfy sofas and wood panelling are the order of the day. Rooms are allotted and luggage decanted from the rapidly freezing vehicles. There's just enough time for the odd war story, one or two beers and a bit of banter before the evening meal is served by the lovely Carol, our resident cook and housekeeper. The food is superb, as is the service, but service perhaps does it a slight injustice. This isn't a hotel, it's a hunting lodge and there's more of a home away from home feeling than anything else.
After the meal, we retire to the lounge to make plans for the morning. Four groups, with two shooters in each, will be heading out with a keeper and gillie or pony man as required. The estate is so large that the ground is broken down into beats with each beat keeper responsible for his particular packet of land.
The pairs are assigned and I'm teamed up with Aki Suvilahti, not a name you'll be familiar with I'm sure. Although this is a GMK event, Sako are playing a major role in the proceedings; the lovely Aki is the man responsible for the design and development of all Sako's ammunition, a keen shot and great company.
The plans for the morning are in place, with a very civilised 9am start for Aki and I. We'll be shooting .308 and .270 Win - ideal calibres for red deer. Carol will be providing a Scottish breakfast and a packed lunch. What more could a mildly inebriated Sassenach ask for! Too many miles, too many beers, it's definitely time for bed.
The Christmas morning feeling clearly gets the better of me and I'm awake ridiculously early. Not a problem, extra time to check my gear and get ready for the day ahead. A glance out of the window reveals the partially frozen river from the night before. It's clearly a bit nippy, it's mid November in the Highlands, so no surprise there. At this point, I made my first mistake: longjohns, compounded by one too many layers up top. A hearty breakfast along with plentiful cups of coffee and Aki and I are out front and ready to go.
I'm sporting a Blaser stalking suit and Harkila Driven Hunt GTX boots: the personification of 'all the gear, no idea'. With no experience of shooting this far north, a 'belt and braces' approach seemed the logical way to go, especially as there were clearly some very serious mountains to contend with.
Smiles and handshakes with David our beat keeper and we're in the Defender, on our way down the glen to the range to check zeros before getting on our way. Rifle shooters tend to speak in calibres rather than models and this had been the case the night before. As the rifles were removed from their slips, it's painfully obvious I won't be getting behind a rifle today - my second mistake and it's only 9.15am!
I'm a lefty and the 85 Black Wolf and Carbon Wolf rifles provided were most definitely right-hand only. Beautiful weapons, but their GRS-style stocks are a non-starter for a left-hooker. Given we were after live quarry, this was no time for trick shots or swapping shoulders.
My fault entirely, I didn't ask what we'd be shooting, merely the calibre. A schoolboy error on my part, which had clearly bitten me squarely on the arse on this occasion. Not a problem; Aki can shoot today and I'll get behind an estate rifle tomorrow.
Zeros checked, we drive another mile or two down the glen to meet up with Thomas our pony man and his two garrons. Final checks for man and beast and we're off.
In his soft Scottish brogue, David says:"We'll just nip up here…" I look in the general direction he's gesturing. There's an ice-encrusted bridge, but not much else. Surely he meant 'over' not 'up'? I scan the other side of the valley for a road, a gully or indeed anything that we can squeeze through but all I can see is a wall of rock.
As we cross the bridge slowly but surely the penny drops and I strain my neck upward, tracing a tiny ribbon track zigzagging its way directly up the face of the mountain. This is going to be a very tough day and I'm already regretting the extra sausage at breakfast.
It looks to be 1,500 feet to the shoulder of the mountain and the start of the snowline. David sets a steady pace across the valley floor and we start the accent. The path up the mountain is little more than a boot width wide, I'm tracking David with Aki, Tom and the ponies following behind.
A couple of hundred metres up and I'm really regretting the longjohns! All the vents are open in my jacket and trousers and I'm starting to sweat profusely. Up ahead, David just keeps going, and going, and going. I soon realise his pace never changes; regardless of the incline, he's like a metronome, tick tock, tick, tock, and I can already feel the jaws of exhaustion snapping at my heels.
I soon discover the best way to get a break is to breath so heavily he fears I might be having a heart attack, which isn't far from the truth! I shamelessly use this particular ploy throughout the day. These guys are not normal and clearly the result of some weird genetic experiment, combining the DNA of man and goat. Eventually, we reach the shoulder of the mountain and the relatively gentle slopes of the snowline. To add insult to injury, Tom the pony man starts casually making a rollie while one of the ponies nods off! I clearly need to work on my fitness…
I look back into the valley and can just make out the Defender, three of which could easily park side by side on the nail of my little finger. Clearly there's no point in going back, but surely the worst is over? Well, the worst is over in terms of pure cardio, but this terrain, even up on the tops, is punishing. We make our way up the slope, the intention being to crest a ridge and drop down on some deer David hopes will be languishing in the sunshine on the adjacent slope and valley below.
The snow is knee-deep in parts and blast frozen by the wind. For two or three steps, you're on top and then crunch you're up to your knee in it. Haul out a leg and go again, a few more steps and crunch, you're back to square one. It's jarring, it's tiring, but on the odd occasion you stop focusing on your feet and look up, it's unbelievably beautiful.
It's a stunning day, a little too good if anything. The wind is light but constantly swirling, making it almost impossible to approach the hinds we spot on the tops. Repeatedly winded, David decides the slopes on the far side of the mountain are our only hope.
Glassing down from the edge of the snowline, there they are. The only problem is there are four or five stags between us and the hinds. We stay high on the hill and start to traverse the slope. The snow's patchy but with tough undergrowth clawing at your feet and having to constantly walk on the edge of your boot it's hard going. Up ahead… Tick tock, tick, tock… I'm really starting to hate that man!
We eventually pass the stags unnoticed and start our decent towards the hinds. Tom brings up the garrons and after short break for lunch on a sunlit slope we start the final stalk into the hinds, the wind is good, the pace slows with the emphasis changing from speed to stealth.
Each ridge brings us a little closer to the hinds. Suddenly, David's hand shoots back and we freeze in our tracks. Stepping back, he drops his backpack, decants the rifle and creeps forward to the top of the slope to deploy the bipod.
Glancing back, he gestures Aki to come forward - a brief glance that says 'this is it' and Aki crawls forward to the firing position. A few minutes go by and the hind finally stands presenting a perfect broadside. Aki takes the shoot.
The report of the .270 is surprisingly muted by the Stalon moderator and even from 20m back I can clearly hear the strike. A brief pause to make sure the animal is down and we move forward some 130m to claim the prize. A perfect shot to the shoulder, despatching the hind where she stood.
Smiles and handshakes all round and Aki is bloodied with his first ever red, an event made even more special given that he shot his first hind with a bullet of his own design. David effortlessly grallochs the deer, loops some bailing twine around the neck and with his well worn walking stick starts to drag it down the slope.
This is clearly a well-oiled machine as Tom has heard the report and moved forward with the garrons and is already waiting at the foot of the slope. The carcass is loaded and we make our way down the valley. It's 2.30pm and the sun is descending fast.
Make mine a double
Following a bend in the river, we suddenly spot 40+ hinds with a few hopeful, if slightly deluded, young stags hoping for a miracle high the hill. The question is, can we face the prospect of retracing all those painful steps - and is there time? There's a brief discussion but Aki's keen to make it a double, I'm very keen to stay with the ponies! They start their ascent, leaving Tom and I with the garrons. These really are remarkable animals, out here all day every day and never putting a foot wrong. Tom mentioned leading the pair for 27K in a single day - a truly unbelievable distance in this environment. Man and beast are clearly made of tough stuff up north! Ironically, Tom's from Devon, so regional stereotyping is obviously a load of clobbers.
The minutes pass and then a muffled boom reports success. Tom and I head down the valley as David drags the second animal down the slope. On his return, Aki is all smiles, courtesy of another well-placed shot at roughly 160m. He's very happy but definitely jaded and freely admits the climb nearly killed him.
As the beast is loaded on the garron, Aki is clearly impressed by the performance of the 85 Black Wolf. Although a .270 owner, he's not been a huge fan of the fairly aggressive recoil of the calibre, having only ever shot it unmoderated. Moderators aren't commonly used in Finland but he's now definitely a convert, blown away by the reduced recoil and muzzle flip, not to mention noise reduction delivered by the combination of Sako and Stalon.
It's 7K back to the vehicle, the sun is dropping fast and we all agree to call it a day. Thankfully, we'll be following the river. Straps are checked and tightened, and David says he has one more surprise in store. His wry smile gives me a little cause for concern…
The tick, tock of David's pace-making was more tolerable in the valley and there's time to reflect on the day. Being guided isn't something I'm used to, but out here it's the only way to go. The land is vast with literally nowhere to hide. Without the skill and local knowledge of the keepers it would be almost be impossible drop on the deer.
As we walk, it occured to me that we're going to have to cross the river. At a wide bend, Tom breaks out some waders and leads the garrons across. The river quickens as the valley transforms into a gorge and we scramble along the increasingly step bank, and suddenly there it is, our final surprise: two lengths of (hopefully) high tensile steel cable connecting the opposite banks of the gorge with a fast flowing river 20 feet below. The term bridge would be over-generous to say the least but drowning would be preferable to going back the way we came, so hey-ho, what the hell!
Strapped into very tight-fitting harnesses, we make the crossing. Exciting stuff, the only downside being a touch of soprano in my voice for the next couple of miles. We eventually arrive back at the Defender. The deer are loaded into the vehicle and the garrons released to make their own way home.
During the drive back, David admits we've been on probably the toughest beat on the estate - funny he didn't mention that earlier, eh! There's more gentle country to explore and an Argo to get you there if needed, but where we went, garrons and a good pair of boots are the only option.
Back at the lodge, it's time for a very hot bath followed by a collection of new war stories from the shooters all keen to relay the days events. A lovely meal, once more followed by yet more beer and banter by the open fires. Another early start planned, as we're set to repeat the process all over again the next morning. Alas, that will have to be a tale for another time. It's been a hard and memorable day on the hill and an experience this particular Sassenach will never forget.
KIT AND CONTACTS
Sako 85 Black Wolf .270 Win
Sako 85 Carbon Wolf .308
(Both fitted with Stalon moderators)
Stalon X 108 moderator - full review page 16
.270 - 110gr Powerhead II (non toxic)
.308 - 123gr soft point
Tel: 01796 481355
Harkila Driven Hunt GTX Boots
Hawke Frontier ED-X Binoculars 8 x 42