Stalking is about maintaining the numbers, health and genetic integrity of the stock of native, wild red deer – an age-old tradition, generally misinterpreted for sport. There is of course a pleasure-driven motivation for shooting deer, but its roots lie in a long history of conservation. While it seems counter-intuitive – that to preserve the ecology, you have to cull some of it – it’s done for good reason and more so under the instruction of the Scottish government.
For the longest time, sheep farming and agriculture were the lifeblood of this expansive area (not the most ecologically sound of practices, as it affected the natural flora and led to predators like wolves being wiped out here). But the impact of human existence meant that the deer population was controlled. With industrialisation, farming became untenable and a lot of the land was returned to the wild. With that came an unprecedented boom in deer numbers, particularly over the past 50 years. In the early days, the landowners saw this as a burgeoning economy. The more shootable deer you had on your land, the more money your estate was worth. Red deer populations were encouraged to flourish; the hype is said to be the reason why the stag is held up as a symbol of Scotland’s greatness. But deer – much like sheep – feast on leafy saplings and tree bark. Young bucks slash flora when they’re ridding their antlers of velvet. There are an estimated 750,000 wild deer in Scotland. As food grows increasingly scarce, they are forced down the glen and into croplands and gardens. They run into roads, causing accidents: around 9,000 deer-related traffic collisions a year.
As we reach the top, our legs and lungs relieved, the magic of Glen Artney reveals itself with breathtaking views as far as the eye can see. Lofty mountains (or Beinns in Gaelic), rise up eerily, some standing guard over the glen and lochs, others kneeling like loyal knights over the ridge of Ben Vorlich that we’re stood on. The views are awe-inspiring in every direction and the sun up here is warming – the air, fresh and glorious. Our first Munro – bagged.
This is when Alistair tells us that we’re walking in the footsteps of generations of royalty, including Queen Victoria who visited in 1842.
“Her husband, Prince Albert, shot his first Scottish stag here.” Alistair points his walking stick down the valley as if to geolocate the exact spot. I wouldn’t put it past him to know.
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The royal connection comes from land gifted back in the 14th century. Somewhere on this expansive estate that is home to Glen Artney is Drummond Castle, a 17th-century stately home with landscaped gardens, built around the same time as those in Versailles. A tempestuous, Scottish-English drama followed and the land forfeited to the state. But the Drummonds came back into favour in the late 18th century, buying it all back and returning it to its noble splendour, which brings us back to Victorian times and the eponymous Queen’s visit. The royal link continues until this day. Lady Willoughby was one of Queen Elizabeth II’s maids of honour; and holds a quarter stake in the Office of the Lord Chamberlain. The blue-blood runs thick.
Walking the land, the wealth and privilege of the family dawns on us. It is important to recognise that much of the British upper-classes have benefitted from an inheritance that encompasses wealth generated in the era of slavery. Scottish historians corroborate that its gentry had links to the exploitative Caribbean sugar trade and were compensated after emancipation. It’s not clear if the Drummond-Willoughbys were complicit. The estate was established long before Scottish capitalists began slave trading. But between the 17th and 19th centuries, it was unlikely that any family of means were innocent of involvement. Digging deeper, there are some historical notices of family members speaking out in support of abolition, but there were also some that were rather against it.
Our train of thought is broken by the arrival of Jack, one of Alistair’s assistants, alongside two sturdy, white Garron ponies. They’re impressive beasts, often called ‘Highland ponies’. On their backs are picnic baskets with lunch from Gleneagles’ kitchen. Yuri hands us a hip flask of whisky. A couple of swigs in, all is good in the world.
It’s hard to get enough of the view from up here, but the other side of the mountain is equally enchanting. It’s wet underfoot as we descend the gentler slope, dotted with heather and rushes, riven with little brooks and burns. It’s a pleasure to experience this nature at its wildest, particularly in an age where we’re hungrier than ever for open space. There’s great beauty in the seemingly deserted landscape. It’s easy to think of Britain as a green and pleasant land of thick oaks and grassy meadows, but out here in the windswept wilds of Glen Artney, the boggy moorlands are what catches the eye.
Suddenly from nowhere, a herd of deer darts across the landscape. These majestic denizens of the Beinn appear so resplendently, it catches Yuri off-guard. He was so busy photographing us ambling down the mountainside, that he missed getting a shot of the herd, running so close to us that we could see the rich red of their glistening coats. You’ll just have to take our word for it. We’re told that we are blessed – most guests would only see them from a distance through a pair of binoculars, or through the gunsight of a rifle.
We’re lucky in that we get to visit many experiential hotels like Gleneagles, but the ability to step away from ‘organised fun’ and truly appreciate the beauty of Scotland’s wild nature is something that sets the whole experience apart. Add to that the chance to return after a day of adventuring into unadulterated luxury, including some pampering in the property’s five-star spa… that’s the kind of adventure we adore.