My great grandfather was a notorious hunter of wild birds, with a passion both overwhelming and devious. At the beginning of the twentieth century, when more and more species were being brought under legal protection, he was able to find a way of continuing to indulge his blood lust into the future. To this day, the organisation he established successfully melds together ideas of conservation with killing, and land management with sport, to ensure that the shooting of certain birds be sustained into the future.
Family legend has it that great grandfather was utterly single minded; as obsessed apparently with killing birds as I am climbing Munros. He saw the virtue of conservation only because he recognised that if he and his ilk continued to kill at their accustomed pace, there would be no birds left to shoot. So he jumped on the conservation bandwagon as a means to an end; not to protect birds, but to lobby for the rights of hunters to stalk certain species in the salt marshes and tidal mudflats that garnish many of the river estuaries on these islands, the areas between high and low water, which it is said “belong to the crown” or, in practice, to nobody and everybody.
I cannot claim that my great grandfather was the first to establish an organisation of this kind, for the culture of so called field sports is more or less an outgrowth of the system of landownership that has been maintained here for centuries. But he was one of the first to stand up for and enshrine the rights of working men to slaughter as freely on the unowned reaches between the tides as the landed gentry on their private estates. In his gun shop, which I knew as a child after my grandfather and his brother had taken over the business, he was always willing to offer a good deal on cartridges to those with a lust for shooting but insufficient ready cash. And whatever anybody may believe about the morality of killing birds for fun, because my great grandfather recognised the need at this moment in history to link killing with conservation, it is likely that the complete extinction of several species was prevented.
Be that as it may, I do not take after my great grandfather very much; I abhor cruelty to animals and do not like to kill them or see them killed. During my misspent youth I shot, skinned and gutted a rabbit for stew, and caught, cooked and ate several kinds of fish. But these days I cannot deliberately kill anything; I believe firmly that it is not hunting if the animals are domesticated, and that unless the hunter has as equal a chance of being killed as the hunted, it is certainly not sport. Which brings me to the point.
Much outrage was expressed recently, both on the interwebs and in the old fashioned news media, about a US huntress who hosts a television show in Canada and who came to Scotland to shoot an episode for her show. Her bag included a stag, a blackface ram and a feral goat. Trophy shots of her proudly smiling as she presents the carcass of the goat have been reproduced extensively. It is an loathsome image at many levels, the reactions to which have put on full display the hypocrisies of humanity and exposed the powers of the establishment to be lurking behind the usual prejudices.
Discursive battle lines quickly drew themselves up along several fronts; shots were fired at many straw men. There seemed nevertheless to be something universally repellent, something especially abhorrent to public consciousness about the image of this huntress, posing beside the bloodied corpse of a feral goat, smiling inanely behind immaculate make-up and full camouflage. Even one of the organisations that represents field sports in Scotland expressed distaste that this ostentatious display of blood lust is not quite the way we do things on this side of the big water, dismayed that hereby ammunition was being given to already politically motivated and misinformed opponents.
Defenders of field sports are always keen to label their critics as hypocrites whose lives are inextricably dependent on killing animals, or ignorant townies who do not understand the ways of the countryside, or radicals intent on threatening the livelihood of economies that provide employment to marginal communities, or all three. Because so many people in Scotland have been or still are dependent on these economies, debates are inevitably framed by establishment positions, after which they dissipate into little flurries about minor issues that obscure the powers that be and then fizzle out as the newsfeed is filled with some new scandal or moral panic. In this case, the most salient discussions clustered around badly defined notions of animal welfare – whether or not it is more compassionate to kill at a distance with a high powered rifle in one shot, than in industrial slaughter houses; food hygiene – how do different kinds of death affect the gastronomic and nutritional quality of meat; and land management – who knows best about what to do with the countryside and the creatures who live here.
Although my great grandfather was something of a working class hero, he was by most accounts grumpy, humourless and thoroughly unpleasant. He died only three years before I was born and his memory was fresh in the lives of the family I grew up in. My grandmother, his daughter in law, knew him as a bully who turned his sons against one another and emasculated her husband, forcing him to work six days a week in the family gun shop and to demand of his wife that she stay at home, being a wife. Even as a child I sensed her distaste for his boorish paternalism, her disdain for his toxic masculinity. This early impression was never falsified by anything else anybody ever said of him; the naked truth of the man probably remained hidden from me only because it was considered bad form to speak ill of the dead. In later life, I learned that the terms of his will threw the family into bitter dispute and extended the reign of his unpleasantness beyond his actual life.
Back in the day of my great grandfather, hunting was perhaps still a matter of the ingenuity of a man against the instincts and power of an animal, there were still perhaps wild places like the salt marshes and mudflats of the Humber estuary, where a man with a gun could hunt a truly wild bird. Perhaps not. But the gradual establishment of conservation certainly changed this completely.
There are no longer any places on these islands where truly wild animals roam. All of the animals and birds it is legally permissible to kill with guns are now domesticated to one degree or other, and they live on land which is deliberately managed to support the breeding of animals destined to be killed. There are also strict rules and restrictions about when, where and which animals and birds can be shot – which does not of course stop the illegal killing … sorry, unexplained disappearance …. of raptors on grouse moors. All legal hunting on these islands is to this extent canned and it differs from ordinary animal husbandry only in the method by which the animals are slaughtered.
During the twentieth century, killing animals for fun has become big business. Its allure has reached further than the landed classes who have for centuries enjoyed the pleasures of watching defenceless creatures crumple and fall under their power, while ensuring that the pursuit of profit is the most important motivation for how the land is used.
In the highlands of Scotland, it is more obvious than in other areas that for the landed classes, the only use for the people, animals or birds on their lands is to provide profit – as a source of labour, rent or meat. And when people have not been not profitable enough, they have been cleared from the land to make way for game – either by deliberately burning them out of their houses or by creating more subtle economic pressures and incentives. Which has resulted in a predominance of massive, denatured sporting estates through which those of us who seek the summits must pass, and to which we are expected to defer, or at least pay lip service. And we must always beware of their version of history.
Every time I gaze out from the side of a mountain into the denatured glens below, I see evidence on the ground of where people once lived, the outlines of ruined settlements and hamlets and shielings. People used to live here. Long before the many technological advances that would make living here again a lot less of a struggle than it once was. Of course, the establishment reaction to this line of thinking is immediate ridicule – even before it really gets underway – steamrollering any notions that things could be otherwise with the legitimacy of the way things are now, emphasising the responsibility of custodianship and conserving the natural order.
Which, given that if there is order it is anything but natural, rather indicates that this is the nub of the problem, the reason why any ostentatious public display of bloodlust goes too far, celebrates too brazenly the sheer power of a certain class or type of person to do exactly what they will with their property, too crassly exposes the legal status of creatures as the property of those who breed them or over whose land they wander, too obviously flies in the face of any notion of responsible custodianship or conservation.
For as long as we live in a country colonised by this particular system of land management, which is absolutely dependent on killing domesticated animals – whether in industrial slaughterhouses or by privileged wealthy people, who for whatever reason, get their jollies by shooting guns at defenceless creatures, we will remain complicit. For as long as governments at Westminster or Hollyrood represent the interests of this particular system of land management at the expense of any other, it will be experienced as normal, and anybody who believes otherwise regarded as subversive. For as long as we allow little boys and girls to grow up with an uncritical, unexamined desire to kill animals for fun, we will have forgotten that we too are animals.
Just because things are as they are, does not mean they should remain so forever, nor that they cannot be otherwise. Those with an interest in things continuing as they are cannot, do not or refuse to understand this basic principle, whether by choice or blinkered habit, and it seems unlikely in the current climate that any amount of persuasion will make a blind bit of difference.
There is a toxic culture infecting the planet at this moment in history within which it is acceptable openly to mock and to dominate the less powerful, the disenfranchised, marginalised and desperate, and to reduce the processes of democracy to a competition about who gets to exercise power. Increasingly, this is finding its way into political systems, with the normalisation of blatantly fascist ideologies and rising populist representation in many governments.
In Scotland we like to think that we are free of these disturbing tendencies, but we nevertheless remain under thrall to a foreign power desperate to hold onto lands it manages solely for breeding animals destined to be shot for profit at the pleasure of the wealthy. There is no more potent a symbol of domination than a photo of a huntress posing with the carcass of the animal she has hunted. For some this is an expression of freedom and legitimate superiority, for others it is just another example of the crass reality of things, that this is not a huntress at all but a tourist, and that she is not really hunting, but rather target shooting.