There are two sorts of grouse-shooting, really; the one the papers favour, of the quality picnicking beside the butts, the men in deerstalkers or caps with sewn-up peaks, the women in tweeds and scarves, doling out baps and buttered gingerbread. At a respectful distance sit the beaters with their sandwiches: they will have walked some three miles that morning and will probably walk another three before the day is out. In the old days they were usually estate labourers: now they are more likely to be students on vacation, given a bothy to sleep in, a stack of provisions and beer, transport to visit the nearest pub or disco in the evening, and around £70 for the week. I remember a television programme a few years ago when a camera team visited the Glamis moors and Bernard Falk asked Lord Strathmore why the beaters sat apart. ‘They prefer it that way’ was the clever reply, as though it was entirely their idea; and for once old Bernard failed to put the necessary supplementary ‘And you?’
But no one graduates to this sort of shoot who has not first done the other; walked in line with two or three others and a couple of spaniels or labradors across some modest moor, shooting at birds going away from you, which is a lot less testing than when they are coming towards you and, best of all, doing it with a pointer.
The pointer is a thinnish, high-legged, tireless animal with an amazing nose. A good one lollops to and fro across the line, not more than 20 or 30 yards ahead; when he sniffs grouse, he stops and stiffens (i.e. points) often with one front paw raised dramatically. Those with guns nearest to him take up position behind, knowing that within a few feet at least one bird, possibly a dozen, are sitting invisible in the heather. The tension, as the dog’s handler encourages him to inch forward, is almost unbearable. Without warning there is an explosion of wings, often where least expected; and unless one can aim and loose off within about three seconds, the opportunity will have passed. Pointers have a great sense of humour: sometimes they point at larks and, occasionally, at nothing at all.
And yet there is nothing quite to match the excitement of a day when the birds are driven; the anticipation, on entering one’s butt, in finding around it a mosaic of spent cartridges, proving the activity (if not the success) of those who have been there before. Often there is a long wait, perhaps half an hour; time to daydream, smoke, toy with the Scotsman crossword. Then, from far away, the long whistle to tell us birds are on their way. If you are lucky you will first see them coming a quarter of a mile away; and you wonder if they will keep on coming or, as often happens — swerve away at the last moment. The temptation not to pull the trigger until they are almost on you is very great, but the expert takes his first bird when it is perhaps 50 yards out, thus allowing time for a second. In Edwardian days, shots like Lord Walsingham would be disappointed not to drop two birds ahead, then, changing guns and turning, two behind.
The costs of running a grouse moor these days (rates, keepers’ wages, transport, repairs to roads and butts, drainage, etc) are so great that to meet them most owners, even the richest, let their moors to even richer foreigners for the first few weeks of the season. With luck the foreigners will miss far more than they hit (though a proneness to hit one another has resulted in keepers fixing pegs to the front of butts to restrict the arc of fire to 45 degrees either side), and this enables owners to invite their friends in the autumn. These can be exciting days, with the low-flying grouse almost indistinguishable from the new brown heather, and the high fliers, like a swarm of outsize locusts in packs of 50 or more, whistling over your head at around 100 feet.
Why do I like it so much? Why would I gladly swap two or three days of any other sort of shooting for a good one on the moors? Many reasons. Going to some of the wildest and most beautiful country in Britain where the emptiness lasts for miles; the look and smell of the heather, the dust of it on one’s shoes, during the short time it is in bloom; the company of like-minded people and friendly, efficient dogs; the skills required of me; baps and buttered gingerbread and beer. And above all the quarry; alive, a bird so wild that no one has yet succeeded in breeding it in captivity, dead, the most toothsome of all game birds to eat.
Yet much as I love it, I am not as fanatical as a Wodehousian peer who used to run a shoot in the Scottish Borders. During the first drive one of the party had a stroke, keeled over and died. After the drive the peer, knowing the beaters would have to be paid anyway and thinking of the sacks of grouse he was hoping to send south on the night train, said: ‘I think old George would have wanted us to carry on.’ But whatever old George might have thought, the rest of the party thought otherwise; and together the quick and the dead made their way down the hill.