Ten years on, I'm still prone to a townie's faux pas when I go deerstalking
TOBY YOUNG Ams a lover of good drama, my favourite week of the year falls in the late sumer when I make my annual pilgrimage to Scotland. The fabulous scenery, the weird and wacky costumes, the inventive use of language — it all adds up to a very memorable few days. No, I'm not talking about the Edinburgh Festival, but about deerstalking in the Highlands For sheer, heart-stopping excitement, it knocks spots off a trip to the theatre. If you're lucky, you'll come home with more than just a fistful of programmes, too — though hand-luggage restrictions make it advisable to stick such souvenirs in the hold.
Admittedly, it has taken me ten years to become fully conversant with the sport. On my first trip north of the border I was thrown into confusion when my host pointed down a corridor and told me to 'grab a piece'. I eagerly went in search of the gunroom, expecting to be faced with a choice between a Kalashnikov, an Uzi and .375 Magnum, only to discover a trestle table piled with sandwiches. Apparently 'piece' is the Scottish term for packed lunch.
Another beginner's error was to assume that a couple of brisk walks through Hyde Park would be more than sufficient preparation. After all, my fellow guests would be a collection of Scottish aristocrats whose diet consisted of wine, whisky and Marlboro Reds. In fact, the moment their green wellies hit the heather they developed the lung capacity of Kenyan long-distance runners. My host had to stay behind and wait with me while the others disappeared over the horizon. As I struggled to catch my breath, he told me to take my time. He didn't want to add my name to the long list of arrogant city-dwellers who'd dropped dead 'on the hill', whether from heart attacks, strokes or aneurysms.
My first shot was a disaster. The bullet went straight through the stag I was aiming at, wounding it in the stomach, and then hit a hind in the back leg. At the time I thought this was a huge triumph — two with one bullet! — and I basked in the praise of my fellow guests. I now realise they were just being polite. Wounding a beast is considered very poor form, the idea being to kill it with a single shot I've subsequently learned never to take aim at a stag that hasn't separated itself from the herd, thereby avoiding any collateral damage Even for a ten-year veteran, things can still go wrong. I experienced a minor emergency this year when I couldn't find my plus fours on the eve of departure. The idea of going stalking in anything else is unthinkable, so I stopped off at Harrods on my way to Heathrow with a view to buying a new pair. Unfortunately, no one I spoke to in the world's most famous department store had a clue what I was talking about.
Even the woman in the Riding and Outdoor Department on the fifth floor was baffled. (Have you tried men's casuals?' she asked.) I ended up having to wear my green cords — a faux pas on the same scale as teeing off at Swinley in a pair of jeans.
Still, at least I've never suffered the embarrassment that my friend Cromwell went through during a bout of 'corridor creeping'. This is the nocturnal activity that takes place after everyone's gone to sleep — or, rather, 'gone to sleep'. So popular is this pastime that many a society couple can claim to have first got together in the Highlands. Unfortunately, it's notoriously difficult to keep track of who's staying in which room — particularly after a couple of drinks — and several romances have begun when the heirs to some of Britain's grandest estates have drunkenly wandered into what they imagined were their rooms, only to be leapt on by nubile young fortuneseekers. Indeed, on one of my trips to Scotland I was warned about a girl known as `the ferry' on account of the fact that she went 'from peer to peer'. (I begged my host to tell her that I was the heir to a dukedom, but he wouldn't play ball.) Anyway, on one particularly drunken night Cromwell ended up in the room of what he took to be a beautiful young American girl and greeted her with a cry of 'Christmas has come early this year'. He whipped off his trousers and jumped into the bed, only to discover that the girl in question had metamorphosed into an elderly member of the Scottish peerage. With typical savoir-faire, the distinguished laird told the young whippersnapper to leave his present in a stocking at the end of the bed and return to his sleigh.