(If you missed Part 1, you can catch up HERE!)
The start of my research trip to the Scottish Highlands was so packed with excitement – from romantic rail journeys to mythical monsters, hairy cows to breathtaking waterfalls – I didn’t think things could get any more memorable…
…but that was before I went out for a day with a Scottish ghillie as my guide!
A “ghillie” – in case you’re wondering – is an ancient Gaelic term stemming from the 16th century which literally means “lad” or “manservant”. But this was no ordinary servant. No, a ghillie was a highly-respected, skilled, knowledgeable attendant to the Highland chief himself, no less.
No one knew more than the ghillie about the best places to fish, the best way to stalk a deer, the best times to hunt, the best weather to take shelter from… Ghillies were the perfect personal attendants for the Scottish lairds and chieftains of old – in fact, it’s even said that one of their duties was to carry chiefs across rivers so that they wouldn’t get wet!
Of course, times have changed a bit since then. 😉 But ghillies do still work on estates in certain places in the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye. Today, though, they’re more like a land manager, hunting escort, gamekeeper and wilderness guide… all rolled into one. And I was very lucky to get to spend a day with one!
To help me with book research, learn more about the local flora and fauna, and get a feel for the “atmosphere”, I’d arranged to meet up with the lovely Andy, a ghillie from the Achnacharry Estate. The seat of the chiefs of Clan Cameron, Achnacharry Estate encompasses over 70,000 acres of Highland countryside, tucked in between lochs and rivers, forests and mountains.
It’s also home to hundreds of red deer, as well as other Scottish wildlife, like birds of prey, grouse and pheasants, wild boar, pine martins and more. The estate offers professional hunting tours and takes shooting & fishing parties out regularly, but the only stalking I was planning to do was with my camera!
Naturally, the Scottish weather put on a warm, sunny welcome as we set off… hah!
But I didn’t really mind the grey clouds and rainy weather. To be honest, I preferred it – I thought the mist, especially, lent a wonderful, brooding atmosphere to the landscape. To me, Scotland with blue skies and sunshine would just seem a bit wrong and weird!
Our first stop was by the shores of the loch, to see if we could spot any ospreys. There were no guarantees as it was all so dependent on the weather and the unpredictable behaviour of wild animals, but with Andy’s knowledge of the area and of wildlife habits, we hoped to have a good chance…
I have to say, it took some patience to learn to use the binoculars: not moving too fast in any direction and adjusting your focus to distinguish meaningful shapes out of the blur… but in the end, I spotted them!
A pair of ospreys had built a nest in a tree on the other side of the loch and were raising a family. I couldn’t make out the chicks but it was exciting just seeing the parents.
It’s funny how – with all the lavish technologies and sophisticated entertainments of the modern world – there’s still an unmatched thrill in just being able to spot an animal in the wild with your own eyes. Perhaps it’s because it’s something that’s not readily available on subscription or with the swipe of a credit card, or just conjured up by a Google search or scroll of social media. Yes, you could pay to put yourself in the right place but you couldn’t pay to control nature or manufacture a wild creature to willingly, naturally share its private life with you…
Well, I would have gone home happy that day just to have got that picture in my first half hour (and in case you’re wondering, that was captured just with my phone camera – a Samsung Galaxy – held up to the eyepiece of the telescope. No fancy DSLR or zoom lens or anything!) – but Andy still had a bigger treat in store for me…
Yes, with a bit of careful stalking, we managed to spot some red deer stags too! There was even a hind with a little fawn, but unfortunately, I didn’t catch that on camera.
After the excitement of the deer encounter, you wouldn’t have thought I’d find anything else to match – but I found myself equally enchanted by the estate’s Highland ponies. One of the 3 native ponies of Scotland (the others being the better-known Shetland Pony and the rare Eriskay Pony) Highland ponies – like Highland cattle – are well-adapted to the harsh climate and environment of their home. In winter, they grow a long, thick coat of hair over a dense undercoat, which enables them to live outdoors in all weathers. The ones I met, though, were in their short summer coats and, in fact, were suffering a bit from the heat and the flies.
(The crazy heatwave which had hit the southern parts of the UK this summer hadn’t quite made it up to Scotland but it was still unusually warm for the time of year and the ponies certainly didn’t like it!)
These ponies are tough characters, adaptable to all sorts of jobs, from ploughing fields to pulling carriages, and were apparently even used by clan warriors to carry them into battle. At Achnacharry, the ponies are used to haul the deer carcasses off the hills, after the hunting parties have finished their shoots.
I was a bit surprised at this – I asked Andy how the ponies coped with carrying the dead deer. Wouldn’t the smell of blood and the proximity of a dead body draped over their saddle freak them out? But Andy told me that the ponies are slowly acclimatised and trained, until they become comfortable with carrying their grisly loads.
And talking about “grisly”… after our successful stalking session, Andy showed me the outbuildings where the carcasses are taken to, including the room where the deer are hung up until the blood has drained dry. The room was scrubbed spotlessly clean, of course, and smelt fresh and airy – (in fact, I don’t think I would have guessed at its function if I hadn’t been told) – but showing a crime writer a place like that is like placing a big bar of dark chocolate caramel in front of a chocoholic…
‘Imagine if you walked in and found a human body hanging from one of those hooks, instead of a deer carcass’, I thought, staring at the gleaming rail of hooks hanging from the ceiling. ‘Imagine if… Imagine if…’
Ooh, what a deliciously creepy place!
Okay, maybe a bit too “dark” for any of my existing series 😉 (don’t worry, cozy mystery fans, I’m not going to inflict this on you in the next Oxford Tearoom Mystery!) – but hey, I did originally come on this trip to research some other book ideas I had… hmm…
Well, the rest of the outbuildings tour wasn’t quite so sinister, although it was just as fascinating. I have to admit – I’m not one of those who supports hunting or killing for “sport”, but it was interesting to hear Andy explain that things weren’t so black and white.
For example, there is a valid reason for the regular shoots too: it keeps the deer population at a healthy level for the resources available in the land. With all their natural predators (such as bears, wolves and lynxes) now extinct in the UK, deer numbers would explode and there wouldn’t be enough food for the whole herd. They would all starve and/or grow ill from disease. So the hunting parties act as a sort of necessary “cull” as well and it is usually the weak, the old and the unhealthy that are chosen for the kill.
For stags, one of the easiest way to tell their condition is to look at their antlers, and Andy showed me an impressive collection of stag skulls – all from animals culled during shoots and each showing deformities of some kind, which indicated weakness, injury or illness that would probably have shortened the animals’ natural lives.
It had already been an exciting day so far, but now, Andy was ready to show me that the limelight didn’t just belong to the animal residents of the estate. As we got back in his four-wheel drive and headed into the forest, he began telling me about the wealth of local flora.
Now, I’m one of those people who loves identifying plants when out walking or driving in the countryside, and learning the names of those I can’t identify. I don’t necessarily want to do anything with the knowledge – I just like to know. It’s a bit of a nerdy hobby, an insatiable thirst to collect the information.😉
So sitting next to Andy on that drive was heaven, as he pointed out trees and plants by the side of the road and rattled off names with a speed that had me giddy with glee…
Did you know that there are several types of heather? From the deep purple “bell-heather” (Erica cinerea) – so named because of its bell-shaped flowers – to the more common “ling” (Calluna vulgaris) with its haze of pale pink/purple blooms. They all looked equally pretty, carpeting the hills and moorlands, and from the loud hum of buzzing that constantly enveloped them, they were obviously equally beloved by the bees!
And the humble sphagnum moss – those tiny little star-shaped plants that covered vast areas of the Highlands – did you know that it can absorb over 20 times its weight in water? Or that it makes a fantastic natural antiseptic dressing for wounds? Yup, it was used to save hundreds of thousands of soldiers’ lives during World War I.
And – according to Andy – one of the best survival tricks, if you’re lost in the Scottish wilderness, is to find some sphagnum moss. You can then squeeze it to provide safe drinking water and use it on cuts to prevent infection. (Hmm… more interesting tidbits to be filed away for future use in a story!)
As for that famous prickly weed – the thistle – Andy told me a lovely story of why the Scots have embraced it as their emblem…
Legend has it that when the Norse army arrived on Scottish shores to invade this new territory, they decided to ambush the clans under the cover of darkness. But as they crept barefoot across the moors, one of the Norse warriors stepped on a thistle and shrieked in pain – and the Scottish clansmen were awakened in time to charge into battle and defend their country.
Thus Scotland was saved from invasion and the thistle adopted as its national flower – celebrated for its fierce tenacity in bleak climes and its admirable ability to defend itself against attack.
In fact, the Order of the Thistle, founded by King James VII and representing the highest honour that Scotland can bestow on an individual, has the following as its motto: Nemo me impune lacessit, ‘No one provokes me with impunity’.
Having only seen thistles in stylised logos, I was surprised to find the real plant much bigger than I thought. The ones I saw were hefty bushes, bristling with vicious thorns and crowned with flowers in a fuchsia purple so vivid, they looked almost artificial. And all somehow incredibly arresting and beautiful in their own strange way. I could see why the proud Scots would choose such a plant to represent them!
My time with a ghillie had been a wonderful, exhilarating, exhausting experience and my head was swimming with all the facts I’d learned, the stories I’d heard, the sights I’d seen…
…and what better way to end the day than with a single malt whisky at a pub in nearby Fort William?
(That’s whisky, by the way, without the “e” – as my proofreader is always fond of reminding me when I make the typo in my manuscripts! It’s the correct spelling when referring to the Scottish version, whereas “whiskey” is used for the American (and Irish) versions.)
I don’t drink, actually – like the heroine Gemma of my Oxford Tearoom Mysteries, I’ve never really learned to acquire a taste for alcohol, like a proper grown-up! 😉 It always tastes bitter and sour, and burns unpleasantly down my throat.
But when in Scotland, as they say… and in fact, I enjoyed the whisky far more than I expected to. It did burn but in an almost “nice” way, leaving a lingering warmth that spread through my limbs and to the tips of my fingers and toes.
I could certainly see how – in the chilly realities of Scotland’s harsh climate – this was known as the “water of life”!