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Notes from an author: Charles Foster

A relationship with stags changes from bloodthirsty to empathetic, while their Highland home remains imperiously aloof

Notes from an author: Charles Foster
Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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The Highlands begin at Euston station. When you’re hunched over your microwaved haggis in the Caledonian sleeper, I suppose you’ll be breathing kidnapped Scottish air from the dying snorts of red deer, brought rattlingly down via Crewe, recycled through the lungs of passengers — tweedy, paunchy gunmen and slight, Gor-Texed first-ascenters with karabiners clinking in their backpacks. 

I always meet someone I know or half-know on that train, and they’re always off on slightly dubious adventures. John Buchan types, alive and scribbling their stories; though he’d give a Presbyterian frown at the gently libidinous glances that start if you’re still drinking at Carlisle. The restaurant car is where coups start. It’s because northwest Scotland is lawless. Of course, there are rules and roads and policemen and courts, but no one can stop the water racing off the hill down the route it wants to take, and no one can stop a mountain rolling off and crushing you. Water and rock are the real legislators here. That’s why you come, or why you stay at home. 

You wake up to something new. It’s not just new to you; it’s new to itself. The raindrops on the carriage window have never before had exactly that pattern. The blades of marram grass on the moor you see through the rain have never before had exactly the orientation to each other and to the grazing sheep they have on this grey, ecstatic morning. Yes, the same point can be made about the grass on the verges as you head along the M25, but here even I, woozy on Laphroaig, can’t miss the point. The land is strident. There’s possibility here, as there never is in London, Salcombe or Tuscany. And in that bigoted sentence, you see something important: the Highlands are confident, aristocratic and thrive on the denigration of lesser places. They’re bigger, wetter, more dangerous and they don’t need you. It’s exhilarating to be not needed.

For years, I went heavily armed to the Highlands to stalk red deer. I’d be met at Fort William by a thin, laconic man in a battered Land Rover and driven to a drafty lodge full of animal parts, and men who’d done things behind enemy lines, and their wives’ backs. When I’d had a cold bath in the brown, peaty water that coughed out of the taps, I’d shoulder my rifle and walk to the range. There the stalker would see if I could put three rounds of .308 ammunition within two inches of each other at 200 yards. If I failed, I’d be on the night train back to London. Mercifully (perhaps — I’m not quite sure) that never happened.

So I went out on the hill, and killed too many stags. I’m now very ashamed of it. Stags have to be killed, but not by me. I don’t want to do it any more. It wasn’t sacramental, as any killing should be. The queasy regret I felt each time wasn’t atonement enough. The killing should be done by wolves. I’ve sold my guns and subscribed to a veggie box delivery scheme. 

Yet, shameful though they were, those times taught me a lot. A man with a gun has a connection with his prey and with the land that a man with binoculars can never have. It taught me how scent oozes out the earth, surges up the sides of the glen in the heat and retreats when the sun falls, bounces off stone buttresses, ricochets around a glen like a ball in a pinball machine, and is bundled up like dirty washing and sent to the Uists.  

It made me wonder. I normally strode colonially through the world, six feet above the ground, feeling the ground through thick soles. I wrote about it, but my writing was a description not of the world, but of my thoughts about it; tediously self-referential. I had at least five senses, but used only one: vision — a lens that distorted my perception of the glens. What a waste. I said I loved the hills, but I couldn’t say my love was well founded. What did I really know about them? Wouldn’t it be useful, or at least fun, to try to see the Highlands as the deer saw them? They knew the land so much more intimately than I did. 

The deer became my teachers and guides, rather than my prey. Scotland is now a very different place — far more throbbing with colour, mystery and possibility than I’d ever imagined when I used to climb on the Caledonian sleeper in the bad old days. And so, for that matter, is the M25.

Charles Foster is the author of Being a Beast, a lyrical exploration of living and travelling like an animal, published by Profile Books. RRP: £8.99 (paperback). charlesfoster.co.uk

Published in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)