‘This is Where You Want to Aim’– An Extract from Hindsight by Jenna Watt

  25 Aug '22   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Early Autumn is the peak period for deer stalking in the Highland estates of Scotland, a practice that is both controversial and inaccessible to most of the population. During this time three years ago, award-winning theatre writer Jenna Watt took part in a deer stalk on the expansive Highland Estate of Corrour. Hindsight explores Jenna’s transformative experience, including the discovery that some of her own ancestors were gamekeepers, and delves into contemporary ideas of rewilding, ecofeminism, and ecological grief. Here is an exclusive extract of Jenna’s innovative new nature writing:

I get out of the car with my kit and put on my walking boots. This is it, I think to myself, as I slip the gaiters up my calves and attach them to my boots. I consciously surrender to whatever the rest of the day might bring, sling my backpack on and wander up the lane to the courtyard. I notice a faintly familiar odour: it’s musky, maybe earthy, strong and distinct. In an almost Proustian way, it evokes something, but I put that thought aside as a man, whom I assume is Allan, strides across the courtyard to greet me.

He’s tall and friendly with a reassuringly local accent and is wearing a fairly traditional stalking outfit – wool plus-fours, gaiters and a deerstalker hat. His attire is definitely in keeping with what you would expect from a deer stalker, but it does make me reflect on what the difference is between a costume and a uniform. Regardless, it makes the stalk feel very formal and serious, which is as it should be, given what’s involved.

‘How was the drive over?’ Allan asks.

‘Beautiful. I think I saw an eagle.’

Allan, interested in the sighting but sceptical, says, ‘Could have been, but we have buzzards too.’

Unable to dispute this, I have to accept that it probably was a buzzard. I take a quick look around the courtyard. It’s quiet, empty, except for a dog kennel. There’s no troop of enthusiastic stalkers standing around with rifles – maybe they’ve not arrived yet or are in another building finishing their cooked breakfast.

‘Is anyone else coming?’ I ask with some trepidation. ‘It’s just us and Ethan,’ says Allan. Ethan’s our ghillie.

I wonder if this scenario, which I find out later is quite typical, is better or worse than what I was imagining. At least in a group I could blend into the background or chat to people about why they were on the stalk. On my own, I’ll feel much more exposed and quite shy. And I’ll definitely be confronted with pulling the trigger.

Ethan stealthily appears in the courtyard, seemingly from nowhere. He’s a young, friendly guy, dressed in more contemporary stalking gear.

A ghillie is a person who acts as an attendant during the stalk. It’s usually a seasonal role carried out by a younger person who might be learning the practice of stalking. Ethan doesn’t speak much, but I don’t think ghillies are supposed to talk to clients unless spoken to first. I’m a client now. This dynamic always makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, firstly because I’m very rarely a client of anyone, and secondly because I find this sort of deference inherently classist. It feels a little like I’m being asked to play a role today, one where I’m from a different social background, and I’d rather we just didn’t. This dynamic only exacerbates my concern at there being just three of us. In fact, I start to feel a kind of pressure, the pressure of expectation.

‘Have you stalked before?’ asks Allan.

‘No, first time,’ I reply.

‘Let me show you.’ He signals for me to follow him into one of the buildings.

We enter a very small, slightly chaotic office space, the only source of natural light being the entranceway. The smell from earlier is even stronger here.

‘This is where you want to aim.’ Allan points to an illustrated poster stuck to the wall. It has pictures of deer from all angles with heart-shaped blobs marked on the translucent bodies. These show the optimum bullet placement for a clean kill. We’re straight into business, I realise, and I study the illustrations.

‘We’ll try to get one in this position, with its right flank exposed.’ Allan points to one of the deer.

‘Best to split this section from knee to shoulder into thirds, and aim for the top of the middle third here.’ I nod confidently. That seems clear enough, but I steal a moment to take in as much detail as possible. If I go through with it, it has to be a clean kill. I couldn’t live with myself if it wasn’t.

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