« PreviousContinue »
where they are likely to be found, as well as to pitch after their flight. Indeed, I should have no hesitation in backing one of these fellows to procure more fair shots with his single mongrel, than many of our sporting gentlemen with the best couple of pointers or setters he may possess. But they seldom shoot in good style, except at deer, and the best of them, though thought paragons in the neighbourhood, and boasting that, "gie them a bottle o' whiskey in their pocket, they will walk and shoot against ony man in the kingdom,” are as inferior to good shots among gentlemen, as they are superior in every other requisite for grouse-shooting. The reason of this is plain enough. The poacher refuses "crank" uncertain shots, hence he seldom excels in them; and, as the birds are always wild and difficult of access when his operations begin, all his ingenuity is exerted to get within easy distance, and, no matter whether sitting or flying, to bag as many birds with as few shots as possible.
Many a capital shot, who has left the moors for the low grounds, under the idea that grouse are unapproachable, would be thoroughly astonished if he put himself under the implicit guidance of one of these men. Indeed, most sportsmen, however expert with the fowling-piece, and however much they may pique themselves upon their skill in all the details of the sport, scarcely know its first principles, as they leave the moors just when the thorough bass is to be begun.
The tricks of the Highland poacher are manifold and ingenious. He can always form a shrewd guess to what distance the report of his gun may be heard at any dreaded point, and, if possible, contrives to get a hillock between, in order to intercept it. Indeed, I have known them
shoot for days before the moors opened, and, by such management, as well as taking advantage of the wind, not a report was heard by the watchers. But, should they be discovered, they seldom offer other resistance than leg bail, which is very often taken, as the poacher's wind and knowledge of the country is, generally, at least equal to that of his pursuer.
A knowing hill-poacher may in this way destroy far more game than the gentleman who has preceded him over the same ground, although enjoying every advantage of dogs, season, and opportunity, and, unless opposed by skilful and determined watchers, may escape detection for years. But when the head-keeper is an active, honest, and clear-headed man, above all, if he is well supported by his master, it is rarely that the poacher can pursue his trade long. The first thing the keeper does, upon taking charge of a large Highland estate, is to make himself acquainted with the names, persons, and places of abode of all the noted poachers within reach; for, although he may often be troubled with others from a distance, yet those on the spot do the chief mischief. He then selects his watchers with great care; if possible, men from a distance, and well known to himself. These watchers are all provided with a telescope and pistol. They are expected, in a very short time, to know the gait and manner of every poacher within their own bounds. They soon become wonderfully expert, with the help of their glass, and, even when they have never had the opportunity of seeing the poacher face to face, will distinguish him with certainty by his mode of walking. Should any of the watchers turn out lazy, faint-hearted, or stupid, his place is immediately supplied by another.
As soon as the head-keeper has drilled his recruits into a perfect knowledge of their duty, he commences operations in good earnest. He always has a spy to watch the house of the poacher he means to entrap, and thus knows all his movements*. Should he detect him on the ground, he takes care to have one of the best-winded assistants to intercept at this point, before giving chase. This is even more necessary, when looking after a night poacher. The watchers are as knowing as the poacher in regard to wind, always keeping to leeward of their beat, and taking advantage of all the hills that give them a far look-out, where the report of a gun would be most apt to reach them.
With the advantage of a thoroughly trained head-keeper, and the expense only of the day's wages of a few watchers, most Highland properties might be comparatively safe from poachers, who would very soon cease to molest them. These men, if resolutely seized, will seldom make determined resistance, for although many of them, from motives of policy, think it necessary to talk big, in order to deter farmers and shepherds from coming near them, yet I have known many of those gallant talkers the first to show the white feather. One great black fellow, of six feet two, who in
* A common, but somewhat stale trick of the Highland poachers, is to conceal the barrel of their gun down the leg of their trowsers, carrying the stock either in the inside coat-pocket, or wrapping it in a plaid. The watchers at once detect a man thus hampered, and always look upon him with suspicion if he has his plaid round him. Many of them, therefore, leave their gun at the nearest boothy to the ground. This avails them little, as the watchers know well enough that when the poacher leaves his house at a suspicious time, or bends his steps in a suspicious direction, the instrument of death will turn up, as if by magic.
fested my father's moors before they were strictly preserved, endeavoured, very unsuccessfully, to spread the terror of his name, for he was several times found out to be the most arrant craven. But, indeed, the race of
Highland poachers, be their pluck ever so good, have no wish to engage in more serious offences, and, as long as the generality of our moors are in the neglected state they are at present, have ample opportunity of making a profitable thing of it without much risk. Whenever a gentleman sets about protecting in good earnest, they for the most part leave his estate for that of his more careless neighbour.
As to snaring, which is oftener practised either at night or during divine service, every expert keeper, by looking the runs both in the fields and fences, will easily know whether snares have been placed in them. He then comes quietly at the time when he thinks they will be set, puts a rabbit or hare into one of them, and places a watch. Many people fancy this method of taking game the most difficult of detection, but, with efficient keepers, the snarer is, perhaps, the most easily secured of all poachers.
A curious snaring story was told me by a gamekeeper in Morayshire. He and his son perceived evident marks of snares for rabbits on the open sand-downs, but all their ingenuity could not detect the culprit. He watched at night, and all proper times, but there was no appearance of any one coming near the place. At last, one of them saw a woman apparently doing some farm work in broad day. His suspicions were not much roused until he took out his telescope, and, not being able to find out what she was at, determined to ascertain. After a little manoeuvring, they surprised her in the very fact. She
had several snares set, which she always took care to do in the middle of the day, taking them up in the evening. No one ever suspected her, and the keeper declared they were the neatest snares he had ever seen. Some years ago I caught two equally absurd poachers. Returning home from shooting one Saturday evening, my dog was caught in a snare. I immediately fixed one of the rabbits I had shot in the dog's predicament, and set a watch. No one came near the snare until next day, when two little fellows, about ten years old, made their appearance, and, as soon as they had pounced on the rabbit, were pounded themselves.
Every Highland district is infested by its own set of poachers, more or less, according to circumstances. There is a family likeness in most of these biped vermin, which is easily accounted for by the manner in which they spend their life. For the most part they have an active walk, a quick eye, and long sight, all very necessary accomplishments for a hill poacher, and much improved by constant use. Their expression is generally shy and repulsive, and strangely belies their free step and almost graceful bearing. Of the many dozens I have seen and conversed with, few have been distinguished by any other characteristics. Two exceptions to this general rule occur to me, and both, though very different from each other, were no ordinary
When I first knew Gregor More of Callander, his poaching days were over; for he had a mortal disease upon him, from having lain out in the fields one cold night when intoxicated. He still managed to saunter down the river, and to give those beautiful sweeps with his line and salmon fly which were the admiration of the whole