Leafing through my father’s gamebook, I particularly enjoy the early pages. The first entry, in a schoolboy’s overly large handwriting, simply reads, “I crept up on the pit. My first rabbit.” Despite his sparse style, I can so easily imagine the shaking nerves of a 10-year-old, as he stealthily peers over the edge of a chalk pit, spies a rabbit inside and gently lifts his single-barrel .410 to his shoulder.
Fast forward a few years, and he and his friends have passed their driving test. Three 17-year-olds head to the Wash for a week’s wildfowling before returning to school. They barely garner a goose between them. The next year they visited Smoo Cave near Durness, before it was a tourist attraction, and managed a number of wading species no longer on the quarry list. The comments remain short, but bely the kind of mischief that unsupervised teenagers with the run of the countryside get up to.
One friend allegedly shot a salmon as it jumped, and another time they nefariously netted some sea trout to sell to the local hotel, having stored them overnight in their cottage’s bathtub.
While their bags were always modest, I am certain that these adventures laid the foundation for a lifetime of enjoying the countryside, wildlife and a variety of sport.
Their experience was hardly novel. For centuries, there has been the feeling that sport should not be rushed. Medieval and Tudor kings would withdraw from Court and spend weeks at a time at their royal hunting grounds.
The Victorians were great ones for spending the whole of the summer in Scotland, pursuing grouse, salmon and stags. George Earl’s magnificent 1893 painting Going North captures the migration: hordes of gentry and their erstwhile gundogs throng a King’s Cross-platform, waiting for the long train journey north, surrounded by their sporting paraphernalia. The anticipation is palpable. Most of those travelling would have been relocating to the Highlands for at least a month, if not more.
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