I was standing in the dark outside of St. Huberts Lodge near the small town of Pitlochry, in central Scotland. The night air was cold and filled with the deep vocalizations of Scottish highland stags — Red Deer — echoing down the hills. Both the crisp air and the primal roaring sounds send chills down my back. Excitement built up inside my stomach as I went back inside.
The next day, it was my turn to sneak up into shooting distance of a stag. So far everyone in our hunting party had a stag down, except for me and my friend Ulf. This was my first hunt for the king of the European woods, though we were not hunting in dense forests. We hunted an open, seemingly coverless country — the rolling hills and mountains of the Scottish highlands. We were guided by our two stalkers Kevin and Duncan. When I say we, I‘m speaking of my father, my two brothers and I in a group with Kevin, and my cousin Frank and the two friends Ulf and Klaus with Duncan.
That night saw me turning from left to right and back again in anticipation, so the phone alarm in the early hours of the morning came as a relief. The day greeted us with clouds, wind, and a light drizzle. The first two days had been unseasonably sunny and warm and the change was good. The roar had just started a few days ago and would not heat up until temperatures dropped a few degrees.
Our stalkers picked us up at the lodge that morning, situated right in the heart of the unfenced grounds of Dalnacardoch Estate, and they did so with style. They were decorated in tweed head to toe, with a Landrover Defender and a pony trailer. Two white butts of the highland ponies above the door of the trailer were testament to the hunting culture that still surrounds this estate. Nowadays, most estates recover the quarry with Argos — an 8-wheeled vehicle that needs less care than ponies. But we were treated to a hunt that could have taken place a century ago, with ponies that are bred for their hardiness, kindly nature and even temperament.
After a short drive to the foot of a mountainside, we started our ascent. Slowly but surely is the way to go in this terrain, as the uneven ground is covered in knee-high heather. Stones and big boulders, little creeks and muddy ponds make for interesting hiking, and getting stuck waist-deep in mud is certainly not how you want to start your day.
As we climbed steadily, fog rolled in and out of the ravines around us. After two hours we finally reached a plateau and were high enough that the fog was now beneath us. While the sun did not come out, the rain had stopped and we began to glass the surrounding highland slopes. Before long, we had spotted a large herd of stags, though they had not met with the herds of hinds yet. Even so, the bachelors were roaring, fighting and pushing in a demonstration of their dominance. We soaked up the sight, and we discussed who was going to pursue the stags with Kevin. My father had already shot a typical 4×4 stag, but the tough terrain was hard on his lungs. It was best for him to try his luck on this herd. He would help recover his stag with the ghillie (the pony-boy) in case of success and I would try for another stag. Being early in the day and with another two days of hunting ahead, I saw no reason pushing my father beyond his physical limitations. So a couple of hundred yards further Kevin and my father left me and my two brothers behind.
Just ten minutes later we heard the suppressed sound of the Tikka T3, chambered in .270 Winchester. My father returned smiling, and we followed up to a magnificent 7×6 red stag! This turned out to be the best stag anyone would shoot or even see the whole week. Most Scottish stags grow small antlers compared to stags in continental Europe or New Zealand. A 4×4 with fairly thin racks is what you typically encounter, with crowns on the end being the exception. But once in a while, a hunter is lucky and shoots a stag of a lifetime.
My brothers and I could not have been happier for our father! Few are fortunate enough to share such a special moment in a hunter’s career as a family. I was more than happy to grant my father the first opportunity of the day. This was a special stag, and it meant more to my father than it could have ever meant to me.
My patience was to be rewarded as well. While we waited for my father to shoot, one of my brothers spotted a group of eight stags in the distance. While Kevin dressed the stag — in Scotland it is not the hunter, but the stalker who considers dressing his responsibility — we managed to relocate the group. After the shot, they ran off but due to the gusting winds they could not locate us, and they bedded down some 1000 yards away.
Our plan was made in a hurry. Kevin and I were to drop down into the flat valley between us and the stags, before climbing up again on the other side to finally stalk in from the left with the wind in our faces.
We left the rest of my family next to the first stag. Crossing river beds, small ravines and muddy streams of brown water. Stepping over stones, heather and grassy knobs. Once we reached the bottom of the valley we could not see the spot where the stags rested, but we hoped for them to stay put. A quick ascent followed until we reached the edge of the slope. Now we had to sneak carefully along the ridge towards the herd we hoped to find bedded somewhere in front of us. Kevin lead the way, I followed on his heels. Finally, we peaked over a bump in the terrain and found them some 90 yards down and in front of us. We dropped down, headed back a bit and left the pack and the walking stick. We then crept to the edge again. There they were, ruminating, some bedded, some standing. Kevin described the one I was supposed to take. I could see them breathing. The chest going up and down. I settled in behind the rifle. The crosshairs found their mark behind the stag’s shoulder.
After the shot echoed through the landscape, the stags fled. But one started to tumble. He went down not even 20 yards of where the bullet hit him. We got up and arrived at the fallen highlander shortly after.
Every large deer has something to it. They are both wildly raw and majestic at the same time, and this stag was no exception. Red stags move something deep inside European hunters. There is little that compares to a roaring stag, perhaps a bugling bull elk…
My stag carried a nice set of 6×5 antlers, with a small crown on each end. Though that didn’t matter nearly as much as having spent a fantastic time in the field with my family. We dressed him and waited for my family and the ghillie to arrive. The ponies showed off their capabilities by carrying two full-grown stags down the mountain. Truly a sight to behold!
The rest of the week was filled with more spectacular hunting. When all was said and done, our group of seven hunters shot a dozen stags and one roebuck in five days of hunting. The proven management strategies in Scotland and the abilities of knowledgeable stalkers paired with fairly nice weather will almost guarantee success, although there are absolutely no fences at all. But beware of bad weather. A week of rain and fog, and you might leave without a chance on a stag. As usual, visibility is everything in the high country. Regardless, hunting in Scotland during the roar will make for memories that last a lifetime.