Learning from history

Crumbling grouse butts on Auchenbirk overlooking Glengorse. Between the wars, the Chayne was part of a large and prestigious shooting estate.

The Chayne was once part of a large shooting estate. Run together with the five neighbouring farms, the local estate had access to some cracking sport across almost ten thousand acres of Galloway upland.

Shooting people often enshrine their memories in gamebooks and diaries, and fascinatingly detailed documents still survive up and down the country from far back in the sport’s history. A chance encounter with a visiting friend of the neighbouring farmer put me on to the proprietor of a successful commercial pheasant shoot near Dumfries, whose grandfather took the sporting lease on the farms between 1928 and 1931. After a quick phonecall, I drove out to meet him and examine records which have an enormous bearing on my current project.

The fellow produced a pair of dusty volumes and we pored over them together. He was kind enough to decipher some of his grandfather’s unique handwriting while I looked on in amazement. On its western boundary, the Chayne looks over to Auchenbirk, a stunning stretch of hillside overlooking Glengorse. In 1928, one hundred and forty brace of grouse and twenty three brace of blackcock were shot over two days on this area of farmland, and the bags were similar in subsequent years. It seemed incredible, particularly since today Auchenbirk has only a handful of grouse and a wholly depleted heather stock.

The Chayne was shot in 1930 and 1931, but it was more of an arable farm in those days and the red grouse bags were considerably smaller. Blackcock, golden plover and snipe were present in abundance, and they were both shot in respectable numbers on walked up days on both years, but most amazing of all were the records relating to Lochanmannach, the property to the south of the Chayne. Three hundred and fifty eight grouse were shot in a day on a farm which has since been entirely planted with pine forestry, and it was a haunting expression of the changes made to land management and local culture over the last eighty years.

Andrew mentioned in passing how the grouse butts had been allowed to crumble on Auchenbirk, but recommended that I pay them a visit for interest’s sake. Sure enough, walking through the deep grass this morning, Richard and I discovered a row of seven drystone butts, sadly disintegrating into the moor. Standing in the shattered enclosures, it was not hard to picture grouse blazing in over the low hillside ahead, cackling and tilting their wings in the wind. We both caught one another swinging onto the ghostly birds with imaginary shotguns. With the view out over Glengorse to the Lake District, it was hard to imagine a better spot for an afternoon’s sport, and while it was sad to see a once prosperous shoot rotting into ruin, it put extra fire in my belly to reverse the decline and bring the birds buzzing overhead once again.

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