When you are used to living in a remote location, you can either go one way or another on the social spectrum. Some hill shepherds and keepers will talk the hind legs off any passing walker, while others turn sour and introverted. I tend to swing between these poles depending upon my mood – nothing makes my heart sink like the sight of neon-jacketed hillwalkers traipsing across the moor in May, but I once met a mountain biker on the Chayne who I happily chatted to for almost half an hour.
The way the Scottish Executive enthusiastically promotes our countryside by spending millions of pounds on footpaths, trails and long distance walks (and then initiatives which are designed to make people use them), it’s not difficult to see that we are all being prodded and cajoled into spending time amongst the “hills of hame”. The right to roam is by no means a bad thing, but perhaps it can be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. It provides thousands of people with access to remote and attractive corners of the nation, whereas before they would have had to have sought the approval of the local laird before even setting foot over the boundary. However, it also gives a self-righteous minority the opportunity to go anywhere and behave more or less as they see fit – often at the targetted expense of gamekeepers.
Working on the hill on Friday afternoon, I spotted a black VW Golf come creeping tentatively up the track towards the main gate onto the farm. Given that I was just leaving, I headed down the road to meet them. The Chayne is nowhere near the beaten track, and visitors are extremely rare. In four years, I have seen seven or eight people on the farm in total, so these new arrivals were a bit of a novelty. As I got nearer, the driver wound down the window and, leaning his sour face out into the wind, asked with a flat English accent whether or not he was heading in the right direction to visit a ruined barn around the west side of the farm. His pronunciation of the placename was so extraordinarily wrong that I almost didn’t clock what he meant, but as soon as I realised, I confirmed that he was indeed heading in the right direction. He would need to park up and walk from a layby a few hundred yards further on, since the track is too rough for anything without 4×4 capacity. He absorbed the information without expression.
Out of context, it’s difficult not to sound parochial and rustic when explaining why I immediately felt suspicious. There was something that was not right, and although the much parodied slogan “are you local?” popped into my head, it wasn’t with much humour. These two men were dressed smartly, driving an immaculate rental car to a remote, isolated hill farm, the name of which they clearly had only ever seen written down. Alarm bells were immediately ringing, but they turned into a siren when I asked them who they were. Without blinking, the driver dodged the question. “We are hill-walkers”, he said. They blatently weren’t hill-walkers. Surprised that he was being so unfriendly, I tried to see past his facial expression in the hope that I would find the spark of a joke. Nothing. For whatever reason, he had decided to confront me dead-on with a lie, talentlessly blended with a dose of incivility.
Knowing that there was nothing I could do, I headed away down the hill feeling extremely uncomfortable. Who were these two people and what did they want up on the Chayne? If they were dodging my questions, then they clearly were up to something. After twenty minutes, I decided to return to the hill and see if I could see what they were doing. Following carefully along the track which they had expressed an interest in, I found neither hide nor hair of them. They had gone walkabout on the open hill, and as it was beginning to get dark, I returned home with a very uncomfortable feeling in the back of my mind. I only set it right after calling a contact at the local police station, who did nothing more than register the observation – it was all he needed to do – as was explained during the snaring accreditation course, it does no harm to cover your back and keep in touch with the police.
I have nothing to be afraid of. My traps and snares are bang up to date, according to every nuance of the new law. There are no skeletons in the closet – the Chayne is as innocent as a baby’s bottom, but the nature of the law and the attitude of some people gives me cause for concern. I could think of a dozen ways to set something up which would reflect badly on any keeper in the land, and while I would obviously never consider causing trouble for someone who was just going about their daily business, I’m afraid that the same can’t be said for everyone. That realisation has occured to everyone who currently has a trap or snare set anywhere in Scotland.
The huge majority of people I meet in the glen or up on the Chayne are friendly, courteous and cheery. It’s my own cussedness which sometimes makes me growl and grumble at them, but with only a few exceptions, visitors make no difference to my life at all. The upset lies in those few exceptions. I daresay it’s time I caught up with the rest of the 21st century and accepted the existence of trouble-makers, just like every other gamekeeper in the country.
I have no idea what those unpleasant people were doing on the Chayne, but I don’t think it’s altogether unfair of me to hope that they got thoroughly cold and miserable doing it.