The Father of Mountain Hunting

STORY BY Sam Thompson 

SCOTLAND | 1772-1852 


“William Scrope (1772 – 1852) was an English sportsman and amateur artist, known as a writer on sports…” 

As far as Wikipedia introductions go, I find that a modest one. The whole article totals less than 300 words, and mentions nowhere that this man probably played a more important role in creating opportunities for hunting in wild places than anyone else in history. 

William Scrope avidly fished for salmon on the famous River Tweed in the borders of Scotland, and while he was there, became friends with a number of notable Scotsmen including Sir Walter Scott, the acclaimed novelist and poet. His time in esteemed literary company, and a passion for salmon, spawned his first book, Days and Nights of Salmon Fishing in the Tweed. Highland Scotland at this time had a very different relationship with and standing in the world than it does now, still recovering from the 1745 Jacobite uprising, where Highland clans rallied behind the exiled Stuart Royal family. While we know that Scrope was a keen sportsman of all kinds, enjoying fox hunting and bird shooting, there are no records as to what drove him to try his hand at deer stalking, which at the time was practiced mostly by local men and the few Highland lairds that still resided in Scotland — little more than a food-gathering exercise. In the late 18th century and well into the early 19th, the land north of Edinburgh was seen as the frontier of the civilized world, in much the same way as Western America. Scrope was keen for adventure as well as recreation. 

Image used with permission from Euan MacDonald

He arrived in a landscape scarred by the Highland Clearances, where large numbers of Gaels had been evicted from their homes (generally to coastal villages, North America and Australasia) to make way for larger scale farms and better economics for land owners. In the case of Glengarry, a location mentioned extensively by Scrope in his seminal work The Art of Deerstalking, published in 1838, the chaplain (and later Bishop) Alexander Macdonell led families away from Scottish shores to settle in Glengarry County, Ontario. Whether Scrope was unaware of this going on in the background or he consciously omitted mention in his writings is unknown; perhaps there is irony lost on the modern reader in his prose of ‘untouched’ land in which ‘you find not a dwelling.’ 

The politics of history aside, there were two things that drew those with disposable time and income away from the civilized south of England and its cities at this time: the landscape and the deer. This was the era of fox hunting in Britain, where gentlemen and women followed a huntsman and a pack around the hedged and cultured English countryside. Top hats, cravats and stately homes aplenty, it held none of the intrigue that the Perthshire forests did to Scrope. Forests, in this case, were the Gaelic term nearly forgotten now, meaning a barren and empty land, not necessarily involving trees at all. 

While Scrope stalked and explored various parts of the Highlands in his time, the majority of his experience and writing focuses on the Atholl Estate in Perthshire. About 80 miles north of Edinburgh, comprising four deer forests, it amounted to some 190,000 acres. Hunting had long been a part of the estate, with records of deer drives carried out as early as 1529 during a visit by King James V. Accounts at the time talk of hundreds of tenants making a line over four miles long to surround over a thousand deer and drive them to the waiting royalty and peers of the realm. In July of 1822, Sir Walter Scott wrote a letter on behalf of Scrope, introducing him to the 7th Duke as a prospective sporting tenant. The letter is still kept in the archives at Blair Castle, the home of the Duke of Atholl to this day. 

Image used with permission from Mike Kenny. Knoydart Keeper, circa 1890


EDINBURGH, 9 JULY 1822 

My Lord Duke, 

I take the liberty to intrude these lines on your Grace at the request of Mr Scrope of Castlecombe, an English Gentleman of family and fortune, who has been for many years my neighbour in Roxburghshire during the fishing season. Having become an offerer to your Grace’s Agent for some ground which he is desirous to take, chiefly with the purpose of shooting, he naturally supposes that if his proposal should be agreeable in other respects, your Grace may desire to know something of his personal character. From the acquaintance of many years I am able to say that Mr Scrope is not only a perfect Gentleman, and incapable of indulging his love of sport otherwise than as becomes one, but that he is of highly cultivated taste and understanding as well as much accomplishments. 

Trusting that your Grace’s goodness will excuse this intrusion, I venture to add my respects to my Lady Duchess, and have the honor to be, 

My Lord Duke, Your Grace’s most obedient humble Servant, 

Walter Scott 


In 1823, Scrope took residence in Bruar Lodge at Atholl, and gathered a small army of locals to assist him in his quest. From the lodge, with his caravan of local men and boys hired as porters, hawks, dogs, fishing rods and guns, Scrope traveled and hunted his way between tented camps around the forest for the next decade. In this way, and with the assistance of some local foresters, he learned the skills of a deer stalker. 

Though sometimes accompanied by friends from farther south, Scrope often hunted on his own and always without a guide. To him, the attraction in this newfound pursuit was in his own skill. Working with nature was foreign to Victorian gentlemen for the most part, but something Scope found vital. Recording his escapades became the basis for The Art of Deerstalking and the inspiration for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to visit Atholl and then purchase Balmoral Castle years later, so Prince Albert would have his own land to hunt in the same fashion. Mixed with stories of the hill, and detailed descriptions of deer, stalking techniques and deer forests around the Highlands, the literary collection of these escapades made a formidable guide book for other hunters seeking adventure. 

Soon others followed suit, intrigued by these wild lands of mountains and deer. Grimble, Chalmers, St John and others joined the Lords, Ladies and Dukes that took a new interest in the wild Highland hunt, renting and buying estates of their own to make sporting paradises. The late 19th century saw countless estates turn into deer forests, with grander and grander lodges being built all over the highlands. This period, known as “Balmoralism” after Queen Victoria’s creation of Balmoral Castle in 1853, threw hunting into the center of Scottish culture. For the gentry of London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and New York, heading to Scotland in the autumn in pursuit of stags, grouse shooting, and fishing was the most fashionable pilgrimage one could make. 

While it’s easy to look back on this period of hunting history and wonder how it applies to the pursuit we see today, this change in hunting culture was significant. These were men and women who first championed fair chase hunting, and were the first real sportsmen as we see them today. Previous to this, sport hunting was always a matter of game being chased toward waiting hunters or the hunter coursing the game on horseback. Deer stalking was the first form that championed not strength or speed, but guile and cunning, being at one with nature rather than trying to better it. Scrope extolled the virtue of imitating the animals around him; the antelope, eel and greyhound are all related to the competent deer stalker by Scrope — just as they could be today. 

The ethics of pitting the hunter directly against their quarry without assistance soon spread into Europe, where hunting chamois in the alps followed a very similar form. It then made the jump over the ocean to North America, with the great fathers of the North American Model of conservation bringing the ethics of the noblemen to the American public with the Boone & Crockett Club. In Scotland, the legacy of the Victorian patronage lives on too, but the stalking has changed. Scrope and his original group of compatriots were lucky in the luxury of being able to spend entire hunting seasons in the mountains, but the people who followed them were not. 

Royalty and captains of industry had other things to do beside learning the techniques and assays of the deer stalker, and so they employed local men to guide them in their hunting season and look after the deer populations through the rest of the year — hunting predators and poachers with equal resolution. Clad in uniforms of tweed, with patterns unique to their estate, these armies of gamekeepers built pony paths through the mountains to aid extraction of harvested deer, bolstered populations by introducing animals from prized blood-lines, and honed the craft of understanding and managing deer. 

Some things pass, and some things remain. There are few gentlemen who still stalk deer in the Highlands without a guide, and the term Deer Stalker is now used to denote a professional deer manager and guide, with the traveling sportsman called the guest. Our management ideas have changed too, with a focus now not on carrying the largest number of deer, but instead the optimum carrying capacity of the limited land, with a focus on making our environment and hunt as sustainable as possible. Without the deep pockets of industrialists and nobility in many places, stalking now has become a commercial business that pays for employment and conservation in these otherwise unprofitable wild places, open to anyone able to travel and pay. 

Scotland’s game laws exist without a tag system and with limited government intervention. We are allowed to manage our cull numbers and herds as the landowner sees fit. With the vast majority owners honouring the traditional principles of fair chase and responsible management, this system operates with some debate and disagreement, which is inevitable when there are many different management objectives.

Return of the deer stalkers, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1827. With thanks to owner Dr. Raymond Matte in Sherbrooke, QC, Canada.

Thankfully, our management practice of selection has remained. In Scotland, the most honour and pride has always been placed in shooting not the largest animal, but the eldest or the one with the weakest genetics — a trophy of the poorest animal. Particular emphasis is placed on the shooting of ‘switch’ stags; an animal that grows antlers without tines — historically referred to as ‘murder’ or simply ‘killing’ stags. At the rut, these are the animals most likely to kill or maim the better stags of superior genetics and fitness, so they are the least wanted in the herd. The shooting of good stags is actively frowned upon, and the decision of the Deer Stalker is always final. Woe betide the guest who shoots a larger stag than he is told to. 

While most estates have changed hands many times since Scrope put pen to ink, the average estate in the upland red deer range is still estimated at 14,000 acres, allowing some measure of landscape scale conservation to flourish. Private ownership often means large injections of money into conservation and improvement programs — work that would likely be cripplingly expensive if funded by the government. Very few upland estates manage to break even year over year, let alone turn a profit, and so our conservation and land management relies on estate owners and visiting sportsmen who pay to come and stalk deer. Often surprisingly cheap, this means that deer stalking now is more accessible to the public than ever before. It’s possible to go stalking in the Highlands for as little as 200 pounds for a day. 

As wildlife management changes, constantly evolving with the latest science, environmental changes and political pressures, it is perhaps strange that many of us in Scotland still champion a system such as our own. Maybe there is an element of clinging to what we know, but the benefit to this voluntary principal of management is that it is entirely flexible to local pressures and conditions. 

The Deer Stalker of today is a blend of many roles. He is a hunter, a trapper, an ecologist, a guide, a foreman and often more, but the best deer stalkers are the ones who have mastered those skills writen about by Scrope in his book so many years ago. As Scrope did, they aim to learn and understand deer and how they move, considering the conditions, the landscape and the effect that their actions today will have on the herd tomorrow. The experience given to stalking guests in the modern era is, of course, different from those of the early years (the Scotland of those days was possibly more comparable to Tajikistan today) but the stalking remains the same — man working with nature, to harvest a worthy and challenging adversary. 

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