A day on the hill
Shortly after we began our belated Easter leave in late July 1982, OC Base Company, Major Bob, bullied me into accepting an invitation from Earl Dalhousie to the unit to go stalking on his estate near Balmoral.
Nobody else in the unit was interested, and the reason why I think very little of Major Bob is that he completely ignored my possible mental state and feelings after the blue-on-blue. I was already in the denial phase of developing PTSD and so acquiesced without a murmur. It would cost me ten pounds, as a tip for the ghillie. He ordered me to take Cpl Watters from Base Company with me.
We turned up at Dalhousie’s hunting lodge in my Nissan hatchback just after nine. I was dressed like a student on Day 1 in the field of the Royal Marine’s PW 3 sniper course. Watters, who was urbane, tall, and quite distinguished-looking with long hair, even by Four Five Commando’s standards, wore hairy lovat trousers, scuffed DMS boots, a pussers woolly pully with holes in the sleeves, and no insignia.
As we approached the front door Dalhousie came barrelling out, his hand outstretched. He was a tall, large, impressive-looking man, dressed in full Highland stalking regalia, with a very distinguished career in the army behind him. He had helped to defeat Rommel.
‘Good morning Sir, I am Lieutenant Shaw and this is Corporal Watters.’
‘Ah Colonel . . .’ replied the slightly deaf Dalhousie, as his hand swerved past mine and grabbed Watters’s hand instead ‘. . . you come with me. Shaw, you go with the ghillie,’ and off they went, as Watters threw a look of superior disdain over his shoulder in my direction.
Ab Taylor was a very keen young man, eager to impress, in a quiet understated Highland way. We boarded his battered landrover and bouncing over rutted tracks made our way up into the central Grampian mountains. The lowering grey sky promised rain. I was distinctly lacking in enthusiasm.
After a few miles of been jolted about we stopped, and two youths, one a very talkative female, appeared from nowhere and climbed into the back. There were no introductions or explanations. I began to wonder whose shooting party this was. Ten quid was a lot of money to a married acting lieutenant Royal Marines in those days.
Eventually we arrived on a crest of a hill and dismounted. I was now thoroughly bored. We walked up to the rise and sat on the grass, with the huge expanse of the interior of these undramatic uplands, with rounded contours and re-entrants, but no majestic peaks. Ab pulled out his Scout Regiment telescope and began scanning the distant skyline. The female chattered on to the other pimply youth, who had the good sense to remain silent. I shot her a vicious look, but she ignored it. I turned to Ab, and was about to challenge her presence, when he quietly lilted;
‘There’s aboot two thousand of them over there.’
I lifted my modern chunky pusser’s binos and followed his direction; but saw nothing. I began to sweat as he reeled off the different herds and groups of deer that were apparently covering the entire wide vista in front of me. Re-focusing, and even wiping the object lens with a dirty piece of flannellete for effect, did nothing to improve my ability to spot a single animal, let alone the thousands that Ab could see. He stood up and marched off purposefully with the weapon still in its case slung across his back. I stumbled along behind him; the Falklands veteran, with the binos glued to my eyes as I tried, unsuccessfully, to spot anything with antlers.
The rain held off as we moved downhill, slanting across rough heather, and after some time, turning to get the back-bearing - more by habit than necessity - I saw that the annoyingly garrulous/silent couple had vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared. I never saw them again.
About an hour later we entered a marshy re-entrant and began to walk uphill. Ab was still leading, and when he began to crouch I knew that we were close to the target. I copied him and soon we were on all fours, monkey crawling uphill over the boggy ground. This might have satisfied high fee-paying German clients who wanted the whole experience, but I was distinctly unimpressed with this route selection and a return to Exercise Hunters Moon when, as a nod, festooned with a gorse bush and scrim, we had been made to crawl all over Woodbury Common in Devon.
Eventually the leopard crawl was adopted, and shortly afterwards the first antlers came into view on the near skyline. Ab motioned me silently up alongside, as he slowly unslung the weapon case, and began to ease the beautiful rifle out. I had not seen it before and was wondering about the zeroing when he slid the bolt back, chambered a round, and passed it over to me. I was past caring at this point, as my professional pride had retreated into the new indifference bubble I had recently discovered. He pointed to a stag sat on the ground inside a circle of hinds, and whispered into my ear ‘that one, he won’t survive the winter.’
My thumb felt for the safety catch, located it, as I pulled the butt into my shoulder, and squinting through the telescopic sight brought the magnificent animal’s head into sharp relief. I could see his right eye; it was like a huge pool of lustrous oil. It didn’t look like an animal on its last legs to me. I began the breathing cycle as my thumb slipped off the safety catch, and my finger began to take up the first pressure on the trigger. The world held its breath, and as the pointer dipped with my last inhalation and was about to come up to the moment of firing, the animal suddenly vanished as a great stampede erupted and the only working four Rolls Royce Merlin-engined Avro Lancaster bomber in the world roared overhead at about two hundred feet. It was thrilling, and bloody infuriating, and for a few seconds, whilst it was still in range, I wrestled with the wholly natural impulse to shoot it down. Little did that crew realise that they had just flown over an armed Falklands veteran who had spent a week in Bomb Alley shooting at enemy aircraft with gay abandon.
Real snipers kill with no emotion, or so I have been led to believe. I have always found killing a very passionate and emotional experience, eclipsed only by not killing, which is a sort of coitus interruptus moment. As I lay back and began to shake, Ab took the weapon off me, made it safe and returned it to its case. He got out his flask and a packet of sandwiches and I did likewise. We munched in silence as the first icy fat drops of Scottish rain began to fall, triggered off, no doubt, by the annoying crabs.
Lunch over, we stood up and began again. According to Ab they would not have gone far. He was right, and after another hour of squelching across the grain we turned left up another small re-entrant and repeated the performance of the morning. Once more I was trusted to hold the crown jewels and to my utter amazement, as I was just settling into the prone supported position, the entire herd galloped off out of sight. We stood up, and in the very far distance, on a remote skyline, saw a figure in a bright orange jacket.
That was it. Ab must have read my mind and grabbed the rifle off me before I could take aim. The rifle went straight back into its case and the long, really boring, trudge back to the wagon ensued.
It was dark, cold, and raining hard when I rang the bell on Dalhousie’s lodge. He greeted me with a huge smile and great bonhomie and beckoned me into the warm cosy living room, boots and all, where I found the ‘colonel’ and he were well into a bottle of famous something or other, deep into a discussion comparing tactics and strategy in the Falklands and the Western desert, and conveniently ignoring the fact that Watters had not deployed further south than Dundee. Having exhausted the limits of Watters’s meagre knowledge of real facts, as opposed to those reported in the papers, Dalhousie asked me how we had got on. On hearing my pathetic news, he immediately rang the station commander at RAF Lossiemouth and lodged a formal complaint, and then ordered the Chief Constable of the Tayside police force to arrest a trespasser moving west across his estate whilst wearing an offensive jacket. Then he issued another invitation to return, which I thought was very kind of him.
I did not take up the offer but instead lounged about at home in a strange non-mood. The weather was good, but inside I was deteriorating already.
One day the phone rang, and goody goody, it was my favourite major again. This time Lord Inchcape, boss of P&O shipping and owner of the Glen Shee estate, had offered Four Five an invitation to murder some animals on his property and again, nobody in the unit was interested. Except me, apparently.
This time I refused to take any aspiring smirking generals with me and also decided to leave the ghillie suit behind, but to take an L42 service sniper rifle instead. I had carried one right across East Falkland without firing it. This time I was optimistic I would.
It felt better this time as I arrived at the estate offices and met David Grant, the head keeper of the estate. This was royal treatment, and I knew I was in good hands. He did not complain when I produced the weapon but instead suggested a few sighting shots before deploying. Having satisfied him with a tight group at two hundred metres and feeling quite confident, my heart sank when I saw the orange Toyota landcruiser we were to use to get us up the hill. What kind of deer would fail to notice this?
Once on top we got out and following David we circled the hillcrest until we saw the deer away on the left and high. He instantly got down on all fours and began monkey crawling along a wire fence, consisting of just three strands of 4 mm wire, in full view of the herd. When I suggested that it was scant cover for two men, he replied that they only saw the fence, which went some way to dispelling my belief that deer were intelligent animals. This was quite difficult for me because I had not brought a weapon case with me and instead held the rifle under my body, which left only one hand and two knees to do the crawling. As we crawled down into the dead ground David was smoking a cigarette, to check the wind direction. I thought; ‘that should impress the Germans, and maybe the deer as well.’
Once in the wettest part of the stream we turned left and began to crawl up into a fire position. After about one hundred metres the antlers came into view, the fag went out, and David slithered through 90 degrees in front of me, to act as a weapon rest. Slowly he pointed to the obvious target and I began the process of safety catch, breathing, calming, and seeing an ancient stag close up, who was chewing the cud in a very languid fashion. As the pointer came up onto his temple and my exhalation expired, so I squeezed the last pressure and the rifle banged into my shoulder. Through the sight I saw the stag stop chewing suddenly, to look quizzically in my direction, all of seventy-five metres away, before thinking that something was wrong and deciding to lope off over the crest. David turned sideways, also with a quizzical expression, as I stared in disbelief at the heels of the vanishing herd. In the hands of an experienced sniper, it is not unusual to guarantee a human head shot at six hundred metres with an L42. I had just missed the proverbial barn door at seventy-five. David stood up, said nothing, lit another fag, and began walking back towards the Toyota.
After a few crazy moments of unreality, I decided I had to know what had happened and so stopped, made ready, and fired at a peat hag. The splash was way off. Adjusting the drum on the sight I brought the rounds onto the target, as it dawned on me that my crawling with the weapon held close to the body had disrupted the sight. This was sheer unprofessionalism, and once again the Falklands veteran felt distinctly uncomfortable.
Back in the vehicle we slowly drove off the hill, when suddenly the herd appeared on the left flank.
“Have another go,’ said David excitedly. I slid back the side window, as the herd began to race in a mad circle, made ready, poked the muzzle out, took rough aim over the sight, shotgun-style, and shot a sprinting hind straight through the left ear, killing it instantly.
“Bravo!” he shouted. “What a shot . . . and from a moving vehicle at three hundred metres.” He stopped the wagon and applied the brakes to shake my hand vigorously. I simpered . . . it was nothing really.
But I was a liar . . . it was a pure bloody fluke.
The carcass went to the estate, which relieved me of the obligation to tip anybody, and the antlers came home with me. A sort of win win really.
From that day to this, I have killed a few trout by fly fishing, to eat, and countless mosquitoes, but nothing else. Those antlers helped me to define my philosophy about killing. Ever since my father bought me a Gat ·177 air pistol when I was about 6, and then a BSA ·22 air rifle when I was 10, I have always had a fascination for weapons. Back then it was simply the ability to stalk and kill birds, rabbits, rats and other small creatures. When that became boring, I found greater satisfaction in shooting at other people’s windows, and getting away with it.
However, when a 7·62 Self Loading Rifle was placed into my hands at the age of twenty-two, it took on a very different feeling. Much later, as a trained commando soldier, I held an L42 for the first time, and fell in love.
Today it is impossible to define that feeling. I have changed considerably from the boy who first pointed a real weapon and took a life. But only last year I passed an old-fashioned field sports shop in Aberystwyth and saw an immaculate air rifle in the window. For a few moments I pondered on the possibility of owning it, but fortunately I am very poor and cannot justify the expense.
As I walked away from that other person I realized that I was glad I was poor. Those days are gone. I am content.