For the hard-core and uncompromising stalkers willing to travel the extra mile, the county of Sutherland, in the far reaches of the Scottish Highlands, is a must and certainly won’t disappoint. This hidden gem, described as the real jewel in the crown of the Highlands is an escape away from it all to beautiful rolling glens, superb salmon rivers, large open spaces and massive blanket bogs holding substantial carbon deposits.
As a stalker passionate about my sport, I’m always willing to put in the extra effort to experience something truly unique and off-the-beaten-track, so in mid-July I set off on a mammoth five-hours journey north, from my home in the Scottish Borders. Two hours into the drive, I was passing through classic red deer country in Perthshire, synonymous with the Highlands, yet had another three hours’ drive ahead of me to reach my destination, Dunrobin estate.
Situated 50 miles north of Inverness and the Black Isle, you know you’ve reached the right place when you have the watchful eyes of the 1st Duke of Sutherland looking down on you from the top of Ben Bhraggie. To your right, peering amongst the trees, the picturesque Dunrobin Castle, the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses, which dates back to the 1300s, sitting on the edge of the North Sea.
Set in Flow Country, it’s described as one of the world’s last wild places, a vast expanse of 400,000 hectares of blanket bog, forming a mottled pattern of peat and pools, where you’ll find amazing plants, rare birds and be inspired by the peace and space.
Arriving at my destination, I was welcomed by Robbie Rowantree, land manager and headstalker on Gordonbush and hunting guide on the neighbouring estates of Dunrobin, Dalreavoch and Ben Armine. Robbie a highly-experienced guide is very passionate about deer management. Joined by Megan Rowland, assistant land manager and keen deer stalker, together they’re responsible for the habitat management and deer population across the estate.
After introductions, we set off to check the zero of my rifle on Gordonbush. Driving into the estate we passed over the Brora, a river Robbie described as one of the best for salmon fishing in Scotland. It’s said when conditions are good there’s some serious fun to be had – especially in the spring.
Along the way we spotted a lot of deer. When managing deer it’s important to look at habitat and assess the levels of damage and impacts, to see whether it’s sustainable or not. As we were driving, Robbie singled out one particular deer, visibly you could see it wasn’t in great shape, quite lean, old and with a poor coat, he described how it’s important to remove deer like these, to build a strong herd for the future.
We stopped to zero the rifle in the heart of Gordonbush estate, in the distance we could see the evening light bouncing off Ben Armine lodge, set on heather-clad hills. The walls of the sitting room in Ben Armine are covered with historical graffiti, recording triumphs with rod and gun, where prominent historical characters such as Churchill and Wellington stayed. Using my Rigby Highland Stalker rifle, comments were made that this would be the first time a Rigby returned to the estate for almost 100 years.
After three shots lying on the heather, a puff of smoke indicated that my .308 rifle was indeed zeroed, striking a rock at 200 yards and settling any pre-hunt nerves.
Ahead of the morning’s stalk, Robbie explained that fieldcraft is extremely important for hunting in Sutherland, where there’s not always a lot of cover. A good standard of fitness is required but as always, your guide will assess fitness and experience, prior to the stalk.
I woke the following morning to the dawn chorus at 4.15am. Driving into Golspie Glen on Dunrobin we spotted all three deer species residing on the estate – red, roe and the elusive sika. After a wind check and glass of the hillside, we planned our stalk.
We spotted a group of stags grazing on the other side of the glen, basking in the morning sunshine. Stalking down a line of trees grazed by the deer, we followed tracks to an exposed heather hillside. To obscure our position, we dropped to our hands and knees and sneaked to a vantage point, before commando crawling the final few yards, from where we would take out shot.
Tightly following behind Robbie, I used his outline to conceal mine. Robbie slowly removed the rifle, which was now already half out of its slip into position, before rolling the rifle slip into a rest. Once in position, I was signalled to move forward, slowly creeping up to the rifle, already fixed firmly on the target. With my heart beating fast I could see three stags in front of me, downhill at 200 yards. Calmly and unhurried Robbie whispered instructions, his dulcet tones helped settle my nerves. With my eyes fixed firmly on the scope and Robbie eagerly watching through his binoculars, the stag turned and presented itself, I lined my crosshairs and took the shot, reloading ready to take another if required.
Shortly after hearing the shot Megan who was waiting patiently joined us for the retrieve. The stag had a switch head and was perfect for the cull plan, ahead of the rut. Together Megan and I dragged the stag, to a point where it could be collected ready for the larder. On average the stags on the estate weigh 15/16 stone, much more than the Scottish average of 13.
I felt a sheer sense of pride in bringing the Rigby Highland Stalker, back to its birth place in the Highlands and using it for the purpose it as designed for. I had a lot of respect for the beast we removed to meet the estate’s habitat management plan, which I knew would provide some excellent venison.