In my hand I held a knotted pole, about three feet long and two inches wide. You could lean on it, use it as a walking stick, whittle it; most importantly, it had a square of coarse plastic sheeting nailed to one end. When you waved the stick like a flag, the plastic gave a sharp report like pistol-fire. When twenty beaters moved in line, each waving a flag, any birds they disturbed flew off in the same direction. Towards the guns.
The twelfth had dawned grey and drizzly. We began by beating across a shallow corrie, rough with peaty banks and slimy black hags. I kept lagging behind; all the difficult burns, the deepest hags, the steepest bumps, seemed to be appearing right in front of me. At one point I stepped with a splash into an overgrown ditch, going in up to my knees.
A bird or two did rise, clatter round the hillside, and disappear over the skyline. A few seconds later the muffled drumbeats of distant gunfire would echo back across the corrie.
Some time later we could faintly sense the line of shooting butts through the smir. Charlie the keeper was immediately to my right. He pulled out a shiny brass horn, lifted it to his mouth and blew a few short, piercing blasts. As the last note sounded a grouse burst out at his feet and exploded into flight towards the butts. There was a loud crack, the bird tumbled, and we threw ourselves flat in a series of squelches as the smell of gunpowder enveloped us.
I could see Charlie, fore-and-aft askew and face burning with rage, curled up behind a mound of heather. He sounded the horn repeatedly and with gusto, fit to make the butts tumble like the Walls of Jericho. Judging it safe to rise, Charlie pushed himself upright; the rest of us unstuck ourselves from the peat, and began the last hundred yards to the butts. A few birds rose, but now the shooters let them cross the line of butts before opening fire.
At the end of the drive, the green-clad shooters emerged, ordering the keepers about, wildly exaggerating their success. The dogs, mostly shaggy spaniels, snuffled among the hags. I had begun to walk towards the other beaters, who were standing in a grumbling crowd beneath a pillar of cigarette smoke, when I heard a shout and stopped. A shooter was hailing me, a broad, serious, puffy-faced man in his forties. He fingered his shotgun anxiously.
“Got a bird,” he said in a clipped voice. “It’s not dead. You’ll see it over there.” He pointed the gun towards a tussock of heather where a young grouse sat huddled, trusting in its camouflage. The rich brown plumage blended perfectly with the dry heather stalks, but the red eye stripe gave it away. The bird didn’t move, except for a slight trembling.
“Go on then!” the man barked. “Use your stick!” Incapable of finishing the bird off with a barrel full of shot, he wanted me to do the unpleasant bit for him. I glanced around and saw that both keepers were placating another blustering guest. I moved cautiously towards the bird, and it ran off in a sprightly manner to the other side of the hag. I followed.
I raised my stick. The swipe which followed was so half-hearted that the man shook his head wearily. I caught up with the bird again and took aim, avoiding its steady, doleful eye. Closing my own eyes I swung, willing the bird to escape into flight, and shuddered as I made contact with a bank of peat behind the grouse. I looked at the man, who sighed and clicked his tongue. By his side stood his daughter, beautiful, gentle-faced, perhaps seventeen years old. Her quiet poise was evident even in a waxed jacket and hunter boots. Her appearance at the start of the day had brought delight to all of the beaters and she had even smiled to us as we had stood in a grumbling group, like so many rustics, waiting for the tractor and trailer to take us to work. Her face now looked different, disapproving, contemptuous. I quickly realised that she was disapproving of me, ready as I was to beat the life out of a helpless bird.
I tried again, and again, but the bird remained alive, although a fair bit of heather had flown. I still felt the man’s metallic gaze and could sense the reproachful look of his daughter. As I wondered what to do next, a nearby snuffling announced the arrival of Charlie’s labrador, Dougie. He looked at me expectantly.
I pointed to the bird. “Dougie; take it to Charlie. Go on, boy!”
The creature didn’t protest as Dougie took it in his jaws with a practiced gentleness. The dog trotted off. Within seconds, I knew, Charlie would end the bird’s ordeal with mercy. I threw a dirty look at the man, and noticed that the daughter had gone.
We sat in a group on the heather. Over with the shooting party, I saw the man posing for a photograph. He held the bird, its neck now broken, aloft in one hand and placed his other hand on his wife’s shoulder. In front stood the daughter, looking with unquestioning adoration at her father.
I turned away, and began to munch an apple. Still by my side lay the stick.
David McVey lectures at New College Lanarkshire in Scotland. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking (i.e., hiking), visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly (i.e., TV), and supporting his home-town football (i.e., soccer) team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.