A for a laugh

For the first time, a camera crew has headed for the hills to chronicle a year in the life of a Scottish gamekeeper. But is it likely to make city folks more sympathetic to the huntin’ and shootin’ brigade, wonders Eddie Gibb.

Despite his favoured garb of army camouflage jacket and a lovingly oiled collection ofguns. Charlie Pirie does not spend all his time banging away on the hillsides of Petthshire. but much of his year‘s work is geared towards a handful of shots from the high- velocity rifles which are used to fell deer on the Atholl Estate in Glen Tilt. As head gamekeeper. he decides which deer are shot during the stalking season of September and October; visitors to the estate pay up to £300 a day to pull the trigger.

The Guntekeeper chronicles a year in Pirie‘s life. Who knows why people agree to be the subject of television documentaries. Often it seems that a combination of vanity and sheer curiosity about how television is made overcome any doubts about the invasion of privacy. No doubt these were factors in Pirie‘s decision to allow a BBC Scotland film crew to trail him for a year to produce this ‘fly-in-the- heather‘ series. But it‘s clear he also feels the sporting estates of Scotland could do with a bit of an image boost. It seems there is concern amongst the huntin‘. shootin’ and fishin’ fraternity that anti- bloodsports activists may be winning over public opinion.

‘l've never been filmed before and I did it with a lot of reluctance at first. but now I’ve discovered what you can put across,’ says Pirie. ‘For country pe0ple. this is a way of life. It may be sport to some pe0ple. but to us it‘s a method of controlling the deer. People have paid for the privilege of pulling the trigger. which is part of the economy of the estate. I can understand the pleasure they get in the sport it’s something in their blood.‘

The Red Deer Commission. which regulates the annual cull on Scotland’s hillsides. has just announced that the number of deer that will be shot this year is one of the highest ever. The target of nearly 60,000 for this stalking season has been set to prevent a population boom amongst the most common species of deer in Scotland. This is the result of hundreds of years of land management which have upset the natural ecological balance. nature's own mechanism for regulating population growth. Pirie accepts that man has created the conditions which make the deer cull necessary, but he argues that without it there would be a ‘hillside holocaust’ as the deer population expanded beyond a size the land could support.

Although The Gunzekeeper uses plenty of footage of '

the stunning scenery of Glen Tilt. as the winter snow on the mountains dissolves into spring green and the purple of the heather. it has not shied away front showing the harsher side of Mother Nature. The first epsiode of the six-part series features a lingering shot 0le young deer. decapitated by a fox with its eyes peeked out by crows. Pirie is anxious to use this as an example ofthe way that survival of the fittest can be

‘People have paid for the privilege of pulling the trigger. I can understand the pleasure they get in the sport it’s something in their blood.’

at least as brutal a struggle as dodging the bullets of a tweed-clad stalker.

Series producer and director Stuart Greig spent much of last year crawling along mountainsides and wading through burns in an attempt to keep up with Pirie and his crew of under-keepers known as the ‘bothy boys‘. The intention. says Grieg. was never to question directly the morality of hunting and private estate ownership. but to try to bring the issues to life by focusing on one man. ‘l'm not anti or pro-hunting


The liamekeeper: Charlie Pirie loads a dead stag onto a pack pony


I‘m a city person.’ says Greig. ‘What I'm saying is. there are arguments on both sides. This series is about life in a Highland glen. about land management; how it’s done and why it‘s done this way.‘

The picture that emerges in The (Jame/reeper is ofa way of life which is utterly alien to anyone brought up in the city. Fora start. there is the strange. almost feudal relationship between the Duke of Atholl by all accounts a paternal but well-respected laird and the people who work on the 150.000 acre estate. From the head keeper down to the part-time waitresses in the local hotel in Blair Atholl (one of whom is Pirie's daughter Carol), everyone's livelihood depends. ultimately. on a steady stream of well-heeled visitors prepared to pay good money to shoot game. llll’ (Jame/(eeper is a unique glimpse into a way of life which has. Land Rovers aside. changed little in the last century. But one question remains unanswered; what tnotivates this desire to shoot grouse and deer for fun‘.’

The (Ianrekeeper begins on Friday 28 July at 7.30pm on BBC]. An m‘emn/mriying book The (Iurnekeeper: A Year in the (ilen is published by BBC Books at £74.99.

The List 28 Jul- 10 Aug 1995 77