‘A Dundonian’s Lesson in Deer-Stalking’ by W. McCombie Smith (7 September, 1889)

The following is the first in a series of tales about “The Romance of Poaching” that appeared in the Journal throughout 1889 and 1890. The story is from the life of John Farquharson, a legendary 17th century poacher around Blair Atholl. In the Journal the story is said to be ‘by’ Farquharson, but later ones in the series are credited to the actual author McCombie Smith, who would publish his collection of hunting tales as ‘The Romance of Poaching in the Highlands’. A short biography of Farquharson can be found from p294 of the book Blairgowrie, Stormont, and Strathmore Worthies’ published in 1903.

Some years ago a flourishing tradesman of Dundee named Andrew—was very anxious to get a good stag’s head for stuffing. Having chanced to meet me—an old acquaintance—in Blairgowrie, one day about the middle of October, he asked if I could get him a first-rate stag’s head. I told him that I had just killed a stag which had a very singular head of eleven points with three horns. A thick malformation ten inches long, tapering to a point and slightly spiral, grew forward between the main cabers, forcing them right and left and causing them to grow almost horizontal. This head was secreted at the time in Lonavey’s Cave. I told him further that if he would accompany me on the following day, he could have the queer head for the carrying, and if we succeeded in killing a stag with a better head he could have his choice. Andrew, who was a first-rate fisher, had never fired a gun, or seen a wild red deer in his life. Nevertheless, he resolved to take a holiday with the prospect of bringing home an ornament for his lobby, which would also be useful for hanging his hat on. Accordingly we started that afternoon with the Kirkmichael coach for a day’s stalking, which some would vulgarly call a poaching expedition—never mind, we will not stop to argue that point just now. Next morning, two hours before daylight, we were winding our way up Glenfernate, fully equipped for a day’s sport.

After walking a couple of miles a heavy shower of snow fell. This was not bargained for. We left the road at once, thereby diminishing the chances of being tracked in the snow to the forest. On arriving there at daybreak, a short rest was taken. Then, Andrew, who was “fair, fat, and forty,” was to walk a few paces in rear, with his wooden staff. When my hand was thrown back with the fingers full spread, that was to be the signal for Andrew to instantly stop. In this order we were about to proceed, and Andrew had just said, “I think we will be better o’ a wee—” when I whispered, “Hush, steady, steady, yonder they are, almost within range, and, by Jove! coming straight this way, seven hinds and a stag.”

Andrew must have a peep at them. The stag, a formidable looking brute, was grunting and driving the hinds here and there with his horns.

Andrew whispered, “They will soon be at us, and I don’t much like the looks of that big customer.”

Barely daylight enough to take aim, and seeing no prospect of a broadside shot, I whispered, “I don’t like this.”

Andrew, thinking I meant that the stag had seen and was bearing down on us with hostile intentions, must have another peep at them, when the stag slowly lifted his nose in the air, and gave forth a most fearful roar. Andrew ducked his head in great alarm and, grasping his stick, whispered excitedly, “Fire at the beggar! fire at him! he is quite near enough to us, and if you dont [sic] kill him, perhaps the shot will frighten him away.”

At this I nearly laughed right out, which some what reassured Andrew. For a few seconds a mossy bank some eighty yards distant obstructed the view of the deer, and I lifted the rifle to my shoulder in readiness, saying to Andrew—”Don’t move one inch, as the first deer that looks over that bank will have a full view of us against the snow.”

Immediately a hind’s head came in sight, looking straight at us. The rest of the herd, observing that she had seen something, by her attitude, came one by one, till the seven hinds were looking at us over the bank. The stag gave over driving his damsels farther that way, as they must have seen something ahead that was not canny. So he took a step up to look over the bank himself to see what was up, when—whiz! went a bullet to his forehead.

As the hinds vanished we ran up to the spot to see the result, and perchance get another shot. We found the stag lying on his side at the foot of the bank, his eyes blinking and half turned in his head. I laid down the rifle, unsheathed the dirk, and was just catching a horn to pull the stag’s head down hill for bleeding—Andrew meanwhile remarking “This will be a splendid ornament for my lobby, I’ll hang my hat on here,” and placing it on a brow antler—when all at once the stag gave a spring in the air. I instantly pulled him down on his back, after dropping the knife, and called for help. Andrew stuck in vigorously, and each held a horn near the end to the ground with all his weight and might. The head was a little uphill, and in this position the stag plunged and kicked most desperately, bringing his hind hoofs up to his very ears.

The bullet, I found, had glanced off the forehead and only stunned him. Finding that he could not release himself by kicking, he turned on one side, and tried hard to get on his legs. In his efforts he shaped so well that to prevent him getting a footing his head had to be turned the other way, when he would try the other side, and so on. The knife was lying out of reach, and one of us was not able to hold him down. What were we to do? No doubt other stalkers have been similarly situated, and if any one who was so ever reads these lines he will allow that we were in a most dangerous predicament.

As nothing was to be gained by holding the stag any longer we arranged to simultaneously spring, if possible, clear back, I to the rifle, Andrew to the dirk; and, immediately we let go, the stag bounded clear off, full speed after his seven hinds. There was just time to aim and fire one shot at him before he got over a rocky knoll, but with the hurry and flurry he was clean missed. Then the irregularities of the ground shielded him till he was, as I considered, hopelessly out of range. Andrew, frantic at losing the prize which had been not only almost but altogether within his grasp, cried “Fire at him; bleeze awa’!” Just to please him another shot was taken with a high elevation, and down he fell the second time.

“Hurrah! well done,” shouted Andrew, “his head goes to Dundee, and I’ll hing my auld het on’t yet.”

“Ah!” said I, “he’s trying to rise, we must not gut fish till we catch them.”

“Faith, we catched that same fish already, and were beat to gut him,” replied Andrew.

After the stag had made several ineffectual attempts to rise, he observed his enemies approaching up a winding brooklet, when he just managed to get up on three legs, which were well spread out like a three-legged stool. The bullet had broken a fore leg at the shoulder, and torn a hole through the ribs. There he stood shaking, groggy on his legs, and bleeding at the mouth and nose, yet ready for the charge. Bristling with bayonets he faced his late captors in a defiant attitude, and grating his teeth, looked daggers.

“Hang your hat on his antlers now, Andrew.”

“Wad I, faith! I am quite near enough, and I would advise you to stand back and give him another shot.”

“No, no, we will manage him now without that.”

“I wad mak’ siccar; give me the rifle if you won’t shoot, and I will fire my first shot at him.”

Afraid of his bungling and mangling, I pulled the bullet out of a cartridge and slipped the blank shot into the rifle, unknown to Andrew, and handing him the weapon, told him to face his formidable antagonist at six paces and give him the contents of the rifle “atween the een.” Andrew faced up with his legs well apart, like the stag, took a long aim, and fired. With a snort and a toss of his head the stag jumped forward. One glimpse of the bayonets charging through the smoke put Andrew to rout. At the first spring both combatants tangled and toppled in the heather. Down, down, they went, the stag on his nose, and Andrew on the rifle.

“Are you hurt, Andrew,” I cried.

“No,” he replied, springing up; and seeing the stag was down, he added—”But I’m thinking I’ve done for that billy this journey.”

The stag fell the third and last time, and died with his face to the foe. Within ten minutes he was bled, gralloched, decapitated, the trunk his in the heather, and the head—a grand one of 10 points—carried away cavewards.

“But where is this cave—John, man, stop, I forgot, we’ll hae a drap whisky. I had my hand on the flask in the morning, when you gave me a poke with your elbow, and said ‘Weesht.’” Filling the cup with shaking hand, he continued—”And this is what ye ca’ deer stalkin’, eh! It looks to me as a game at stab or be stabbed.”

The cave was not far away, but I would not go near it till the snow was melted. The sun was now up a bit, and we held away to a steep rocky hillside facing the East, where the snow was already disappearing. Here we had a commanding view, and had a long rest. The ground was now nearly black, and as no one had put in an appearance on our tracks or otherwise we slipped away to the cave. Waling and scrambling among huge boulders and rocks we came to an eerie looking spot with crags jutting overhead, which the imagination might picture at the abode of wild goats or cats.

Here Andrew appeared to hesitate, and when he was told to come along replied, “My life is not insured, and I have a return ticket.”

I got in first and lighted a paraffin lamp to show Andrew the way, who came in zigzag, pushing the head in front, which was laid beside the queer head on a dressed deerskin at the far end of the cave. When Andrew came in he began staring at the rocks overhead as if he had stepped into a new world.

“Look here, Andrew,” I said, “which head will you have?”

Andrew, still gazing up, replied, “Man, thae rocks may fa’ doon on’s,”

“Stuff, the heavens may fall on us; pull out your flask, you’re nervous. What do you think of this unique horn?”

“Od, man, that beats a’! Ye may weel ca’t a unicorn; saw awa’ the lang horns and you hae’t.”

“Make up your minds which you will have, till I have some coffee.” The coffee was boiled in thirteen minutes, and we sat down to a good repast.

“Now, Andrew, which head have you selected?”

“Weel, this three-horned ane is the greatest curiosity ever I saw, and fine looking nae doot, but this is also a noble heid, and has a history wi’t, [?] I’ll gie’[?] the preference, because I could say [?] wherent tellin’ a lee that it’s ane o’ my ain bringin’ [?] giving a wink—”with my first shot.”*

We were soon under way, each with a trophy on his shoulders, and as no more denizens of the forest could be spied, few were the stoppages in waling or driving, till our feet were under mahogany, inside of plastered, papered, and painted walls in Blairgowrie.

Within some three weeks Andrew had the pleasure of hanging his hat on the long antlers of a well-dressed and historical stag’s head in his own lobby in Bonnie Dundee.

 

*Much of the text in this paragraph is either obscured, or worn out to the point of being illegible.

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