Love, Loss & the Blood of a Stag

After nearly four years of anticipation, reminiscing and planning, it was to be my triumphant return to Scotland.

Story by


Tyler Sharp & Byron Pace

Read Time

16 minutes


After nearly four years of anticipation, reminiscing and planning, it was to be my triumphant return to Scotland. With two visits behind me, and two red stags that slipped away on a separate trip to Transylvania a few years back, it felt like I couldn’t go anywhere without being confronted with the royal heraldry of the majestic beast. I became laser-focused on the quest, maybe even obsessed. That would have to wait for now, as we had planned a trip of grandeur, partly to impress some first-timers, but also to conduct a trial run of the experiential trips that Byron — my gentlemanly Scottish business partner — and I will be hosting next year.

I was joined by my girlfriend and twin flame, Caris, whose illustrations and paintings frequent the pages of Modern Huntsman — and my dear friend, the creative powerhouse Natalie Rhea. Our first stop was Byron’s idyllic home — think rolling green hills, rock walls covered in moss, sheep dotting the lush landscape and wisps of smoke coming from the chimney — on the outskirts of Kirriemuir, a village famous for being the hometown of AC-DC.

But that was not our soundtrack. Rather, our days were set to the tune of lightly falling rain, the click of the fly-reel’s drag as we cast for the first time, the pop of a cork as a Scotch bottle was opened, and the absolute childlike laughter of Caris and Natalie as they frolicked down a country road with wicker baskets full of mushrooms, elderberries and fresh herbs to make simple syrups that laced sundown gin and tonics. It was the soundtrack of crackling logs, clinking glasses, the last pull of a hand-rolled cigarette and the click of a 35mm shutter. The days ambled by, and just as the jet lag wore off, we headed north toward the heart of the Highlands.

After wading through the Outlander tourists and the mythic beast voyeurs around Loch Ness, we wound our way through increasingly steeper country and narrower roads toward our final destination — the Kildermorie Estate, a 20,000-acre private hunting reserve with pristine salmon and trout waters, robust herds of managed stag and grouse habitat aplenty. Kildermorie, specifically its ten-bedroom Victorian stone lodge, was to be our home for the next nine days. We were in utter disbelief at the grandeur, seclusion and beauty of the place. Byron, who had journeyed ahead to prepare for our arrival, walked out with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on his face and shouted, “Welcome, lords and ladies, to Kildermorie Lodge!” Having taken the only week of vacation he allowed himself all year, he was visibly excited for the agenda of salmon fishing, stag stalking and grouse hunting that awaited us.

Hope and spirits are high as stalk after stags on the hill.

Soon after, we were greeted by our host, Sam Thompson, the head gamekeeper of the estate — a larger-than-life character and frequent contributor to Modern Huntsman. Dressed head-to-toe in the Kildermorie Estate tweeds, he immediately outclassed us all. Sam gave us a rundown of the agenda, how we were to be splitting up and rotating days for the stag hunts, where the salmon were, and when the grouse hunt would take place. It sounded like a perfect week ahead of us. We were joined by some friends of Byron’s to help fill the lodge, and thus enlisted a local chef to cook all week and help transform whatever success we had in the field into celebratory feasts.

We decided to let our new friends pursue stags first, so we hit the river and sought Atlantic salmon. The rivers were straight out of an angler’s imagination, long and winding, and full of pools that looked to be brimming with fish. We watched for salmon running in the peat-tinted waters, and our hearts jumped when we saw flashes of silver. Some of our group caught salmon, though we did not. Caris, however, caught something even better — an obsession with fly-fishing. Though I’d taken her a few times in Montana, this was her first time wearing waders, on foot, and left to learn on her own. She thrived and, though decidedly not a morning person, took to waking up early to get in a few hopeful casts before breakfast. She was relentless, and over the course of our time there, fished more than anyone, including Byron, which is rare. We all labored to help Caris land a salmon, and though she connected with a few, wasn’t able to reel one in. That didn’t seem to matter; the following morning she was the first one to the stream again.

The day-to-day was utter bliss. We’d be up early for breakfast and then out for either a morning on the river or on the hill stalking stags. We always packed a lunch with us, often stopping in small huts to light a fire or take a dram of whiskey to warm up in the afternoon mist. Standing riverside, you could taste the color of the rushing water with every tilt of the scotch glass. It was like sipping from the long and complex history of the land. Then it was out into the field or on the river again for the afternoon.

When we’d return to the lodge, a roaring fire would await us to dry off our soggy boots. We’d have some appetizers, pour a cocktail, light up a cigar and play card games until dinner — which was a somewhat formal affair. We ate in a big dining room with a long table complete with proper place settings, and the room was a cacophony of dialects and accents from all over the UK. Natalie and Caris charmed everyone with their Texas slang. We even had a “black tie” dinner, where we did our best to dress formally, toasted to the late Queen, then took turns telling stories.

Then came the grouse day — a very classy affair — with everyone dressed in their finest tweeds, flat caps and shooting vests. Our guides for the day brought seven of their Hungarian wire-haired vizslas, and we took turns rotating, two at a time after each flush, to take a shot. It was the first time grouse had been hunted on the estate in over seven years — a special privilege that was not lost on us. Many of us shot our first Scottish red grouse that day, and we were all given a gentleman’s blooding by Sam — a tradition where your face is painted with a modest amount of the blood from your first kill of that species. Sam mentioned that if a stag went down, there was a non-gentlemanly version of the ceremony which involved considerably more blood. A huge smirk belied his face.

After only firing a shotgun for the first time the day before on the clay course — at which she excelled — Caris mounted, followed and perfectly shot a fleeing grouse. We all shouted in excitement, only to see it drop a few hundred yards behind a distant horizon. Despite the eager noses of all seven dogs, and a trail of feathers, we were unable to recover the bird. While Caris was visibly dejected, her disappointment didn’t last for long. She continued to traipse through the moss and heather-laden hills, beaming as she picked wildflowers, basked in the light of misty rainbows, and ate berries until her lips turned purple. She walked confidently in front of us with a shepherd’s crook, as if she were born there, and Byron turned to me and said, “I feel as if we’re watching a flower blossom for the first time right before our eyes.” I couldn’t have agreed more. It was a marvel to witness her awakening, and I knew in that moment — her eyes alight, her senses sharp and a grouse feather in both lapels — that there would be considerably more days in the field together onward.

Hungarian wire-haired vizslas proving their prowess in the field.

Fulfilling days of grouse pursuit aside, the stag was what I came for, and I was anxious to get out into the field. We stalked relentlessly for a few days, the constant wind and rain doing its best to dampen our resolve. We saw several groups of deer but weren’t able to get close enough to any of them. One herd crested a high ridge, only the crowns of their regal antlers visible as they glinted in the diffused gray sunlight piercing the mist between rock and sky. It looked like a painting from a bygone era, and it fed my determination. Throughout the various stalks, Sam regaled us with tales and myths of the land, the people and the traditions that weave it all together. Everything had a story, even a local legend to pair it with — like how stag berries got their name from the red splotches on their leaves, said to be from when the first stag of the season was killed, staining the leaves so everyone would know whose domain it was. It was these stories, Sam insisted, that kept the history of the land alive, and it was the people’s job — his job— to keep them intact. The Highland culture was alive and well in this place, and it was clearly not going anywhere under Sam’s steadfast watch.

Then we spotted him. The King on the Hill — grayer, more staunch and seemingly wiser than the others — and he was way the hell at the top of a mountain with very little cover. We stalked for nearly five hours, weaving our way up through stream beds, moss patches and draws gushing with water. My anticipation grew with each step; I took deep breaths. The rain came down even harder, and we belly crawled through it until we reached a cliff about 450 yards away. Sam and I slunk and slithered to close the distance, and I got set up for the shot. More rain, more waiting, pounding adrenaline. Was the shot too far? Rain clouded the scope, but my breathing slowed, and Sam told me to fire.

I took the deepest breath I could, exhaled, and squeezed the trigger, sending the collected water droplets from stock and barrel careening in every direction, breaking the silence. The stag took one step and fell over, dead. What followed was one of the most emotional walks-ups that I have ever experienced, and I was flooded with sentiment. Maybe it was all the years of waiting or the memory of the other stags that slipped away in Romania. Perhaps it was all of the trials I’d gone through over the past few years, or just the pure joy of seeing the incredibly beautiful stag I had worked so hard for. The reason didn’t matter though, only the feeling — and it was made all the better by being in the presence of my partner and a group of good friends. I can honestly say it was one of the best days I’ve had in recent memory. Fortune seemed to favor me in those moments, and I could not have been happier or more grateful. Hauling the stag down the hill seemed less burdensome, the rain felt less bothersome, the scotch was warmer, and the victory cigar at the lodge tasted even sweeter.

Sam tips his hat to a successful hunt.

As no permit is required to bring red deer into the US, we bleach-boiled the skull and antlers for the long journey home — we even found a way to fit it in to one of our large suitcases. Sometimes, things just work out. Now that the stag chapter was closed, our last day was spent on the river in revelry. We read books, drank wine, napped and enjoyed a slower pace of life before the long journey home.

At the airport, however, things took a turn for the worse. I’d brought a rifle with me to Scotland, as I thought it would be meaningful to shoot my first stag with my own gun. All the paperwork was in order, but on our return flight, unbeknownst to either me or Caris, an airline employee checked the firearm under Caris’s name, despite explicit directions for the rifle to be in my name. As a result, when we showed up to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, they flagged Caris for having a firearm she had not declared. We were both detained, our passports locked in a box, and the conversation that ensued in the inspection area was not a friendly one. We were with Border Patrol for nearly two hours while they interrogated us, checked and rechecked all of my paperwork, and continued to ask Caris where her paperwork was. She didn’t have it, we reiterated, because the gun was not hers. At one point, they threatened to confiscate and destroy my rifle, taking every opportunity to flex their power and authority. It was both terrifying and humiliating.

They asked about other declarations, and after I told them about the stag skull and antlers, they called over another four agents to inspect it. Despite no restrictions on importing red deer, as well as possessing a letter confirming the skull and antlers had been cleaned properly, the most “gung-ho” of the agents turned to me and said with an intimidating tone, “There is still sinew on this skull, and we’re going to confiscate it. This doesn’t look good for you.” I was completely stunned, speechless. They ordered me to sign documents that acknowledged their confiscation of the items, took the skull and antlers, and threw them into a trash can right in front of me, saying that the skull would be destroyed momentarily. I started to sweat, and my body seemed to go

numb. Gathering our belongings from four suitcases that were strewn about the fluorescent-lit steel inspection tables, I locked my rifle back in the case, and we were given our passports back and escorted out.

Exhausted, jet-lagged, heartbroken and shocked, I drove home to Dallas in silence, replaying the scene endlessly in my head. Could I have fought back or refused to sign the forms? What were my rights? Were they out of line? Turns out, they were. In the days that followed, I called every extension listed on the Border Patrol website trying to get answers, and ultimately ended up speaking with the Grand Chief Inspector — the head honcho of the Dallas-Fort Worth port of entry and an incredibly kind man. I explained what happened, and he apologized to me, saying the situation was mishandled.

He also told me I could’ve declined to sign the forms, asked for a supervisor, or even better, could have requested that the item be held in cargo until someone with more knowledge and authority assessed the situation. Valuable knowledge for sure, but too late, as he confirmed that the skull and antlers had already been destroyed. My stag was gone, and I would never see it again. Painful closure, to be sure, but at least I could start to move on.

I realize this is not exactly an uplifting ending to an otherwise happy story, but it raises the question of our attachments to mementos — these symbols of meaningful experiences. Call it a trophy if you must, but that stag skull had a very powerful significance to me, and to have it not only taken away, but destroyed in front of me, was brutal. I wouldn’t consider myself a very materialistic person, but the things I do have carry great meaning, and this has been a very humbling “walking meditation” in trying to let go of something that held sway deep in my soul. It took me at least a week to stop thinking about the traumatic experience in the airport. There were times when I was so angry, I wanted to hit something. So I did. I re-joined an old boxing gym and Muay Thai studio, and it helped.

Mostly, though, I’ve tried to learn what I can from the loss, and I hope it can be some sort of cautionary tale for anyone reading. I’ve accepted that the only thing I

have to remember that majestic stag by is the experiences we all shared and the handful of photos from the day — which, to be honest, I’ve barely been able to stomach a look at. Now that the sting has subsided, I realize that I have gained a few things of great value. It was not all loss. When I mustered enough courage to tell Sam about what happened, he quickly declared, “When you return to Scotland next year, I vow that we will sweat blood until we find that stag’s older brother.” While it feels like a lifetime away, a pledge of support and condolence is not only of considerable worth, it also can’t be taken away.

Of even greater value, and the light that brightened the moments of loss, is the love that Caris found afield for fly fishing and grouse hunting. It’s invigorating to cultivate your own appreciation for nature and allow it to soften the edges of stressful work demands, but to be able to provide an access point for someone else to do the same, then bearing witness to that metamorphosis enveloped in Scottish mist is a rare and priceless thing.

Her excitement and eagerness to get back on the water or in the field is inspiring, and it’s helped me reconnect with the love of these traditions that often gets dulled by the day-to-day demands of running a hunting-focused business. I have been reminded of a career’s worth of adventures, great friends and amazing places that I can harness to help expand the richness of her own journey into the sporting life.

So once again, I find myself counting down the days until I can make yet another triumphant return to the Scottish Highlands and continue what will likely be a lifelong dance with those beautiful antlered beasts on the hill. And by the blood of a stag, I vow that I will be back.

I could not have dreamed of a better stag or stalk.

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