After the record breaking grouse season which has just closed, I am reminded that as a teenager in the early 1960s I found out from one of my pals that there was money to be had at the ‘beating’.
I decided to ask for a job at Rottal, which meant a trip up Glen Clova with ‘Black Dave’ in his ancient Meffan’s bus.
I found out more about people than I could ever have imagined, as Dave was not only the bus driver, but acted as a ‘loader’ for the gentry or ‘toffs’ as we referred to them. My first experience was meeting the other beaters who were all students, lodging for the season in the beaters’ huts at Rottal. The students were not that friendly initially, as they regarded me with suspicion, being regarded as a local loon. My main instruction came from head gamekeeper Jim Lindsay - a man of few words and little patience.
I cannot honestly recall the details of the first drive for the grouse but it must have been near the lodge, up the Kennel Burn. I was simply handed a short stick with a bit of white sheet, about two feet square, on it and told to ‘line out’ with the others. As the new recruit I just kept going until I was the last man out on the line. Then the whistle blew and we were off, following the contour lines of the hill over the rough ground.
When the operation was under way, we had to walk in parallel lines like an advancing battalion closing in toward the butts.
The butts were the focal point of the whole business. Sometimes the butts were so well camouflaged we couldn’t see them until you saw the smoke from the guns, so quite often in poor light we were totally disorientated. Meanwhile we beaters were reminded to “wave yer flag laddie” by the under keepers to show the head keeper that they were playing their part, I later learned. Shouts at all times were encouraged to frighten the birds as we advanced. When all this was going on we had to cope with everything that lay in our path. You might find your line led down a 50 foot ravine and then straight up again or leaping over peat hags, waiting for a soft one to take you up to the waist in back paste which even when you got free, left its mark on you. Or you might find a cliff or rushing hill burn, but you just kept your speed of advance and kept your fellow beaters in as near a line as possible, lest you would hear the gamie’s fury.
There were other hazards too including the weather, the midgies, and the shots from the butts; although the guns were not supposed to fire toward the beaters within 100 yards, some of the more excitable shooters failed to understand the concept of “health and safety” and you had to be ready to dive into the heather if you were in their line of fire.
The ’toffs’ were a totally different breed from the local keepers and us motley beaters and they had their own ghillies or ‘loaders’ as we called them, who carried the two guns for each shooter from butt to butt.
Each group on the hill had their own priorities, the keepers concerned only to see how many birds would rise, yet escape the torrent of fire; the ‘toffs’ who were only concerned with how many successful shots they had, the ghillies concerned with reloading whilst our only concerns were avoiding the lead shot and whether there would be a rest before the next drive.
This was the first time I had encountered so many diverse individuals and it was bizarre to be with such an elite crowd on a bleak hillside in a remote glen. The ‘toffs’ were wealthy and educated and were treated with deference, yet they were not of the world I knew. The ‘toffs’ spoke in a different way, especially the French and Italians who we failed to communicate with at any level. The ‘toffs’ did need us though, the servants, beaters and the gamekeepers with their garrons and dogs. The real people on the moors were aware of our place in the hierarchy and we earned all that we were paid.
We learned to handle the landscape and weather in all its moods and like young folk pitched in at life at the deep end, we learned to cope with ourselves and one another in a rough fellowship of the moors.
So dropped now into any landscape or company, whether with academics or artisans, these days I should not find myself entirely at a loss, as a result of the basic training I had more than half a century ago at the beating.