Stag dos and stag don’ts

Last Sunday, myself and Fiona set off for a few days of walking and camping on the Knoydart peninsula. There are no roads in to Knoydart; the main settlement at Inverie is reached by ferry from Mallaig to the south-west or by a stiff 15-mile walk in from Kinloch Hourn to the north-east.  A little less than half that distance brings you to Barrisdale Bay at the neck of the peninsula. The Bay is part of the Barisdale (yes, only one ‘s’) Estate and here you will find Barisdale Lodge, the summer house of the Gordon family, as well as the stalker’s cottage and the estate bothy, which is open to walkers for a small charge. There is also a camping area opposite the bothy.

We walked in to Barrisdale Bay in the afternoon, having made the four-hour drive from Glasgow that morning. Leaving the motor in the parking area at Kinloch Hourn (£1 a night), we soon met a trio of hardy hill-walkers from northern England who were returning from their conquest of Ladhar Bheinn (pronounced Larven) the day before. At 1020 metres, Ladhar Bheinn is the highest of Knoydart’s three Munros – Luinne Bheinn (known affectionately as Loony Bin to many Munroists)  and Meall Buidhe being the others. We planned to climb Ladhar Bheinn ourselves and had come equipped for winter conditions. Much snow on the hill, we wondered? Very little, the northeners averred. We thought perhaps our ice axes and crampons would be unnecessary baggage after all, but we were under way and conditions can change, so we continued on our way fully laden.  The path along the southern shore of Loch Hourn is well-trodden and very scenic, with several 100-metre ups and downs. After some distance, the bulk of Ladhar Bheinn came into view, its summit shrouded in cloud, patches of snow clinging to the slopes of its horseshoe ridge. High cloud cover obscured the highest of the peaks rising up above the loch, but the rain stayed off during the tough three-hour hike in to Barrisdale.

Arriving at the bay, we continued along the landrover track towards the lodge and the bothy beyond. Another couple of walkers were heading in the opposite direction and we stopped for a chat. The couple had also been up Ladhar Bheinn the day before and insisted that crampons were a must as the north-eastern ridge was very icy. I noticed that the young chap had a pair of red deer antlers hanging off his pack and from the quantity of skull still attached it looked as if they had been removed from their previous owner with the  exercise of some considerable violence.  I immediately felt a sense of empathy with this young chap as I too am a bit of an antler fetishist and I admitted as much to the assembled company, much to poor Fiona’s chagrin. I wondered if he had collected many? He said that he had and his girlfriend nodded sadly at Fiona to confirm that this was indeed the case. How had he removed the antlers from their presumably deceased owner?

He pointed to the ice axe fastened to his pack. Ouch. Didn’t he know that the saw blade included on many Swiss army knives was the perfect tool for antler removal? He looked sceptical and not persuaded in the least. There had been a second dead stag near the path up to Ladhar Bheinn, he told us, but when he’d set to it’s skull with his ice axe he’d been upset to find that the creature’s brains had not yet decomposed. Yeuch. My advice to readers – the Swiss army knife saw is the way forward in this regard. Dead stags have appeared in front of me on a number of occasions while walking on Jura, which has a population of around 6000 red deer – 30 for every human resident. In fact, the island’s name derives from the Old Norse dyr-ey meaning deer island. Anyway, if I’ve had the trusty Swiss army knife handy, I’ve set to work relieving the deceased of their fancy headgear.

Before

After

For the squeamish, a less labour intensive method of collecting antlers is to go walking in areas with significant red deer populations around the end of April, when they shed them naturally. Deer do eat shed antlers, presumably for the calcium, so you tend not to find many lying about later in the year. Scotland has a population of some 300,000 red deer, referred to collectively as the ‘national herd’, which sounds a bit like the ‘national grid’ or the ‘national lottery’. It also makes them sound as if they’re public property, which of course, they’re not.

Anyway, we arrived at the camping area and had a chat with the lovely lady who is the stalker’s wife. Between them, they maintain the estate and manage the livestock – deer and sheep. They had only been at Barisdale since the previous summer, the lady told us, but she felt very much at home here – and she certainly had the look of someone who is entirely happy in her  skin. We were further enamoured of the stalker’s wife when she gave us a supply of tea bags, because we’d forgotten our own – three days without tea? Unthinkable!

Despite, or perhaps because of the remoteness, Barrisdale Bay can get very busy in late spring – before the squadrons of midges launch their annual anti-camper Blitzkrieg – and the bothy and campsite can get very busy (65 tents were counted on one day last summer). Unlike bothies maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA), the Barisdale bothy has running water and electric light, but the hearth has been blocked-up due to previous misadventure. The lack of electricity and running water and an open fire place are, to my mind, the best things about a bothy, but there are different factors at play here. Unlike MBA bothies, the estate maintain this bothy themselves for the use of walkers – good for them. They have to safeguard the building and its users and, because Barrisdale can be very busy at times, flushing toilets are an expedient.

After an excellent night’s sleep, we brewed some tea and prepared for the day’s walk. An early-ish start was needed as it’s a fairly big walk and the January days are short. Furthermore, the weather looked as if it could turn unfriendly with a band of dark cloud looming to the east. We set off along the stalker’s path that climbs up and over the flank of Creag Bheithe – the south-eastern ridge of the horseshoe – before contouring along the inside of the ridge to where the path crosses the Allt Coire Dhorrcail. After crossing the river, the path became indistinct so we forged our own route up the inside of the horseshoe’s north-western ridge, making for a notch in the ridge along the Druim a’ Choire Odhair. As we gained height, I glanced back to the river and noticed the picked corpse of a stag by the bank – its perky little antlers thrusting provocatively skywards. Still, onwards and upwards we trudged, eventually gaining the ridge at around 700 metres. The views from here are fantastic on a clear day, looking east and north down to Loch Hourn, over the loch to Beinn Sgritheall above Arnisdale and north-west to the Cuillin Hills of Skye. Making our way up the ridge, we soon had to fit our crampons; there was a fair amount of snow and ice and the ridge is narrow with precipitous drops in places.  Clearing the summit of Stob a’ Choire Odhair, Ladhar Bheinn’s north-eastern top, the ridge looked a bit dicey in the snow and ice and the ominous band of cloud had moved west and plonked itself densley over the mountain’s summit. In these conditions we’d need another hour or so to the top and the day was drawing on. A strategic withdrawal with honour intact was decided upon and we slunk off back down the ridge.

On arriving back at the river we ate our sandwiches and I went off to remove the dead stag’s antlers. It wasn’t pretty. The young chap had subjected the dead beast’s skull to a splintering assault with his ice axe and I had to keep my eyes averted while sawing away…

Back down in Barrisdale, we noticed that most of the red deer population seemed to be hanging around the lodge and the stalker’s cottage like sullen and uncommunicative teenagers. The stalker’s wife said that the deer had come off the hill with the cold snap around Christmas. If anyone had come to stay at the lodge for a spot of deer stalking, they could have bagged a few dozen beasts from their bedroom window, without the need to change out of their pyjamas and don their tweeds. It’s a mystery to me why deer will sometimes take flight if they get wind of you from a mile away and other times they’ll stare at you with bemused curiosity from twenty paces.

Next day the weather wasn’t promising, so we eschewed an ascent of Loony Bin, preferring to yomp over the Mam Barrisdale pass, down past Loch an Dubh Lochain and on to Inverie – where everything was shut. Cafe, pub, shop – the lot. We walked back. It was good exercise. I was pleased to note, however, that Tom’s knackered walking boots still dangled from the tree outside Inverie where he had cast them at the end of our walking trip last May. Zamberlans are made to last. That evening we enjoyed our last evening in the tent, reading each other short stories from Tim O’Brien’s excellent Vietnam War memoir/fiction The Things They Carried.

It rained heavily overnight and next morning we walked back to Kinloch Hourn, crossing a few swollen burns en route. Back at the car, we sorted ourselves out and were sitting in the motor enjoying our sandwiches when a stag with a bit of a limp wandered into the parking area and edged its way over to us with an indecipherable look in its eye. It came very close and I wondered if it might be after some food, so I lobbed a piece of cheese and salami sandwich towards it. Talk about overreaction – the beast hurled itself away from the sandwich as if it was a hand grenade. Perhaps it was the sudden movement; I tried again, gently rolling a piece of sandwich his way. He took a sniff and recoiled as if it was a jar full of month-dead crows. They’re herbivores by nature, but they will eat dead things that present themselves at opportune moments. Perhaps they just don’t like salami.

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