You’ll probably have to lift the gate a bit to pull the bolt, the hinges have sagged a little. You’ll probably have to carry the gate to open it for the same reason. The post is probably a little spongy from years of exposure to wind and weather. Back onto your machine, drive through the gate, off again, close it. Double check it’s fastened properly, you don’t want to be blamed for the sheep getting out.
The track is a grey scar running through the landscape, ugly but life would be harder without it. The track runs higher than the floor of the strath, it’s too wet in the bottom. To your left the land climbs steeply to about 500 metres, to your right, it falls another hundred or so. At its lowest point a dam holds back water for the fish hatchery, you can see the buildings in the trees down there.
As you drive, the track gets worse, the rocks larger and the burns deeper. If you’re in a pick-up perhaps you’ll get the odd bang from underneath as a rock contacts the sump guard. If you’re on a quad, perhaps you’ll pick your way carefully around. You don’t want a puncture here, an hour to walk back, find another quad and tools, come back…and your day has gone. You may pass a young couple, fully kitted out in smart North Face jackets with technical looking rucksacks, boots and poles. They may be sitting on a rock, drinking from plastic bottles. You give them a cheery ‘good morning’ but secretly wish they were anywhere but here. You long to tell them that if you find those plastic bottles left behind then you’d like to stuff them where the sun don’t shine!
The track rises steadily as you climb towards the bealach, twisting and turning as it makes its ponderous way to the skyline. As you crest the ridge your breath is taken away, for the third time this week…and it’s only Wednesday. No matter how many times you do this the view still manages to humble you. On the far side of the bay, the hill drops sheer to the sea. If it’s a clear day you can see to the Outer Hebrides, if it’s rough and the waves are crashing against the hill it’s just as impressive. Perhaps this is a good place to stop for a swallow of coffee from your flask. The dog will almost certainly snuggle up to you in the hope of a share of your biscuit. The sounds of squabbling oystercatchers rise up to you from the bay far below. Maybe a grouse calls behind you.
Another half a mile further you pull the vehicle into your special spot, it fits almost exactly and you stash the key where you’ve always stashed it. Can’t risk leaving it in the ignition, this track is a honeypot for walkers. Perhaps it’s still and the only breath of wind is fluky and difficult to predict. Perhaps there’s a reasonable Northerly blowing, that would be best for what you have in mind. Whatever the wind is doing it’s your first consideration.
It’s out with your binoculars, perhaps state of the art range finders, perhaps your fathers’ old pair made by Aldis or Carl Zeiss. Settle back in the heather and scan the hillside before you. Take your time now and save your feet for later. A rock, a lump of moss or heather, anything is able to morph into a beast. You get a number of false starts but eventually, there, just below the scree, perfectly blended with the hillside is a bunch of hinds. They are grazing peacefully, heads to wind. As you watch heads pop up now and again. A calf has a sudden rush of blood and charges up the hill a short way, looking for a playmate, his mother looks up and you can almost imagine her thoughts ‘kids, huh!’. You smile at his antics and sweep the glass over the area again, making sure you’ve got them all. You don’t want to stumble into any you didn’t spot.
As you’ve been glassing your head has subconsciously started to plan a route. The first part is easy, if a bit wet. Follow the burn until that group of rocks, then it gets a bit more tricky. There’s a bit of dead ground you’ll need to cross, they’ll still be 600 odd meters away and facing in the other direction but it will need care. Then you’ll be able to duck behind that small rise and get in for a shot. If they haven’t crossed the shoulder by the time you get there that is. That might be a good thing but it’ll mean a longer drag.
The rifle comes out of the slip. Wood and blued steel, carrying the name of a long-gone British maker. The bolt smooth and easily worked, heaven knows, you’ve cycled it enough times. Perhaps not, maybe you’re carrying a weather proof modern rifle with it’s sound moderator and large object scope. It doesn’t matter, either will do the job. The thing that matters is between your ears.
Your first step disturbs the bog myrtle and the clean, fresh smell envelops you in the wind free confines of the burn. Perhaps you didn’t spend enough time on your boots last night but you feel damp coming through almost immediately. Perhaps it’s time for new ones. Never mind, press on. The burn climb goes to plan and you ease up and over the edge just in time to see your animals rumps pass over the horizon. Hey ho. At least it means you can take the easy route. But glass the area before you move. Just in case.
The sweat breaks as you move up towards the ridge, muscles warming and lungs starting to blow. For the thousandth time you bless the day you gave up the B&H.
You’ve no idea how many times you done this but your heart rate climbs as you near the ridge line. They might only be a few meters ahead of you or they could be half a mile. There’s no telling. Work a round into the chamber, perhaps something short, fat and very fast from the USA or something longer from days gone past. It doesn’t matter, they all do the job.
With safety carefully applied and rifle in the crook of your arms you drag and push with elbows and toes until you can peep over the edge. A head shoots up as you crest, a mere 40 meters away. You freeze. A long minutes passes and her head goes back down. She’s not the beast you want, she’s further on, about 120 metres away and looking stick thin, perhaps a high parasite burden. With infinite care, never taking your eyes from the closer beast you bring the rifle to bear. The shot is a formality, you are confident in your ability and have taken such shots a thousand times before.
She falls on the spot without a flicker. Job done. The rest of the herd mill and group, take another? You quickly pick another poor-doer and she stumbles, moves forward a few paces and goes down. Give the others time to move away. A quick check with your glasses that neither beast is moving. All looks quiet. You whistle for the dog and she come belting up, stern thrashing, eager for her role. You send her on and follow at a more leisurely pace. She finds the first beast in a frenzy of licking, she may not be the best trained deer dog, but she loves her job.
Now the work starts. With dog safely sat nearby you apply the knife. Perhaps hundreds of pounds worth of hand made steel and cherry wood, perhaps something less expensive, but just as sharp. It doesn’t matter, they both work.
A while later you take out your flat piece and find a seat on a nearby rock. You are looking at layer upon layer of hills, each less distinct than the one before. In the foreground the hills, your hills are red and gold and green. The next layer are more purple, the following ones varying shades of grey. It brings to mind the first time you did this, the heart racing emotion, the nervousness at the shot, the exaltation and finally the sadness.
A ripping sound rouses you from the past as an eagle streaks over the ridge behind you, it’s wings tearing at the air as it spots you. Better get those beasts moved so he can have his fill. Give the dog the crust and move on.
The fire is burning well that evening and you take your customary dram to your chair and raise a silent toast to the beasts of the hill. It’s silly and perhaps it means nothing but it’s something you’ve always done and it feels right.