Couldn’t resist responding to Andy Wightman’s article on reform for country sports in Scotland. Having been asked by the Scottish Field to contribute his thoughts upon country sports, Wightman was surprisingly bemused to find that the great bastion of Scottish conservatism was unwilling to publish his “hang the lairds from the highest steeple” missive.
However, perhaps there was more than simple prejudicial politics behind the Scottish Field’s refusal to publish Wightman’s brief treatise on the Scottish sporting scene. The article was published in full on Sam Thompson’s always enjoyable “Each day a small victory” blog, although Thompson himself was amusingly non-committal when it came to fence sitting.
In brief, Wightman argued that the future of Scottish “hunting” (confusingly, he was unable to explain whether this meant game shooting, stalking or hunting with hounds – we’ll assume stalking, since the other two make even less sense in this context) lies in a Scandinavian model of permits, self-employed guides and community owned land. Quite correctly, he argued that the way “hunting” takes place in Scandinavia is very different when it is compared to the way it takes place in Scotland.
However, by proposing the end of the traditional sporting estate, Wightman makes some grievous errors, revealing above all else that he does not understand the way sport works in Scotland.
Like it or not, Scottish sport is extremely old fashioned. It may make Andy Wightman’s blood boil to think that there are rich people capable of living an exalted lifestyle, but that luxury is precisely what is so appealing to our sporting visitors. Each year, thousands of people come to Scotland from abroad (England is not abroad) to visit Scotland and live a bit of the high life. Americans want to stay in castles and drink whisky by a huge fire place, having been taught how to pronounce “gralloch” and palmed a tip to the stalker for their trouble. Scottish sport was born in the Victorian era, and the associated traditions and culture (no matter how they may now smack of feudalism) is a magnet for sportsmen. It’s a good thing we have this culture as an asset, because on ecological capital alone, we come short.
Scottish stags are smaller and less impressive than European stags. Poor weather and thin pickings make Scottish stags look like kittens when compared to their mighty Hungarian and Croatian brethren. Scottish salmon rivers are far less productive than their counterparts in Russia. Our roe deer are piddling little things, yet Scandinavian visitors (who have better roe deer coming out of their ears) make the trip downhill because the experience of stalking in Scotland is globally unique.
During my time working in a shooting safari camp in South Africa, I met many American tourists who were ticking off a global “bucket list” of sporting bravado. They shot buffalo on the Eastern Cape, then shot grizzlies in the Rockies. Moose, elk, leopards, boar and lions all received a certain amount of revered attention – whatever you think of their taste, these people are the big spenders – when I told them that I was born and live in Scotland, these men (and women) came over all misty-eyed and declared their longing to visit Scotland to shoot a stag. To them, everything was measured in points and medals (the empirical means of comparing horns, antlers and “trophies”), yet they wanted to shoot poor stags in Scotland not for the “trophy” but “experience” – for the castle, the stalker, the garron ponies – a taste of what it is like to be a “laird”. It’s hard to put a price on that asset, and while it may not appeal to Andy Wightman’s tastes, he can’t deny that it sets the world alight for foreign tourists “looking in”.
Wightman seeks to rip out the pseudo-feudal overtones of highland stalking and replace them with the Scandinavian standards. The fact that we’re using the word “Scandinavian” implies that there is little to choose between Norway, Sweden and Denmark. When Scotland adopts the licences, permits and community holdings of Scandinavia, it joins this anonymous Scandinavian pool. Without the taste of traditional tartan luxury and culture, why on earth would anyone visit Scotland to shoot unexceptional deer or dangle a fly infront of an absent salmon? Despite George Monbiot’s declaration that our landscape is irretrievably knackered, visitors seem to show a polite interest in the glens and bens, but the landscape alone is hardly enough to get foreign sportsmen mobilised. In fact, I’ve heard an American “hunter” look at Glencoe and call it “the poor man’s Canada” – so why wasn’t he on holiday in Canada?
The existing system of country sports in Scotland is decidedly anachronistic, but this is no reason to destroy it. The world expects Scotland to provide a sporting experience which has its roots in the Victorian era, and they love us for it. Scotland defines itself by anachronism – it is our greatest stock in trade. When I was a student in Glasgow, three pubs within half a mile of my flat all had stuffed stag heads on the walls and fires crackling in the grates, even in June. We embrace the foreign tourist and tell them warm stories about stovies and Oor Wullie, regardless of how distant these symbols have become. We may not like the fact that Scotland is known for shortbread and bath towels which look like kilts, but we don’t turn away the money we are offered for them. Equally, we’re not proposing to knock down Edinburgh Castle because it is no longer “fit for purpose” as a fortress. Time and changing perceptions have made it something new and valuable.
In truth, deer stalking (I assume “hunting” meant “deer stalking” in this case – it wasn’t at all clear) is one of the most democratic and easily accessible country sports in Scotland. More people stalk deer now than ever have, and I can think of seven different stalkers and agents who will arrange deer shooting within five miles of where I sit. None of them wear tweed (as if Scotland’s “other” fabric were the mark of the devil, woven by hebridean imps on looms of smoking sulphur), and are as varied a bunch of people as you could hope to meet. A day out for a roe buck would cost less than a hundred pounds, all-in. I’ve spent more on an evening at the Edinburgh Festival. You can shoot a red deer stag in Wester-Ross (albeit not a particularly good one) for around two hundred and fifty pounds. There is a world of sport to suit all budgets, so to blindly launch a flailing attack against established tradition is to take a horribly simplified stance on a complex situation. “Pro-stalkers” have popped up across Scotland over the past five years and are now falling over themselves to take clients out to shoot deer. Their very existence suggests that there is money to be made. No tweed covered fat-cat benefits from these trips – they are small, independent businesses.
If we’re serious about using country sports as a means of making money, we need to publicly support the industry which provides them, from the top to the bottom. Overhauling the entire “hunting” world to satisfy some classist itch serves no purpose other than to wreak smug revenge on landowners who are easy to stereotype and caricature. Mr. Wightman can rest assured that, far from being in desperate need of revolution, country sports are showing an impressive degree of flexibility, innovation and progress – nowhere more so than in the proliferation of businesses which rely upon stalking. It’s easy to rail against the perceived injustice of the big estate, but Scottish “hunting” exists in so many other forms across a nation that is made up of more than just highland hill. The one thing they all have in common is that they do not require “reform”.