Having lunch with my Father in Glasgow a couple of months ago, he was telling a friend about a planned trip abroad during August when his friend interrupted,”But you’ll be away for the Glorious Twelfth! I mean, you couldn’t possibly miss that.”
My father put down his malbec, raised his eyebrows, looked up at his friend and said, “Aye.”
‘Aye’ to a Scot is a word with multiple meanings. The tone, the timing, the context is everything. My Father never has dressed up in tweed, sauntered off to a Scottish moor and shot carefully positioned semi-wild birds – and I am willing to bet any amount of money that he never will. ‘Aye’ in this context was an able substitute for an expletive filled sentence.
No one I know in Scotland goes hunting for grouse or partridge. Quite a few fish, and some do occasionally go pigeon-shooting, but never grouse. It is not something that people like me, us, do.
On returning from living in Spain, I began to consciously realise how differently we think of the countryside and shooting things in it. Hunting in most of Europe is something old men do in the country. Villagers get together and hunt: quails, partridge, pheasants. In France, more game is eaten in the countryside than in cities, and it is cheaper there. In Germany, hunting is something done by farmers, often as part of land management, and it is rare to find people in cities who are particularly interested in killing as sport. There is no great celebration in capital cities for the beginning of the season, no rush to be eating the first kill in the best place; it just arrives, as surely as wild mushrooms and figs. Elsewhere, the great Castillian writer Miguel Delibes often said in interviews that he considered himself a hunter who wrote. He would explain that his ability to express the language of the peasant in Castille, to understand the people of small towns and villages came from his many years hunting on the plains and talking to those he was with. I cannot think of any British writer who would say that hunting brought them close to the common man.
The issue, as with so many things in this country, is a class one, and is the result of more than 200 years of the upper classes idealising the countryside.
A perfect example of this is Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of Mr and Mrs Andrews in 1750. They have engaged an important portrait artist at considerable expense and have arranged a delightful rural landscape to be at the centre of the painting. Mr Andrews has both a hunting dog beside him and a gun. Mrs Andrews is in a well made, high quality material blue “shepherdess” dress, the 18th century equivalent of an Alexander McQueen peasant gown. There are artistically arranged bundles of wheat and the outline of sheep in a field in the background. This is not the countryside of poor, malnourished peasants tending to the land, or indeed even well-off, well-fed ones; it is a theme park for the super rich.
This rural playground was highly stylised and managed. The great landscape gardener Capability Brown made gardens such as those at Blenheim Palace seem like wild landscapes. The clusters of trees, the artificial lakes systems of dams and canals to create an illusion of rivers, were all an exercise in creating a pleasing, artificially tame countryside idyll.
Nowadays the super rich can hire hunting lodges and go shooting and fishing in a wild landscape that no longer needs Victorian stereoscopes to look like the stylised ideal. Heather is burned and trees prevented from growing to enable grouse to flourish. Moorland has been greatly extended at massive costs to trees and forests, and while certain types of rare wildlife flourish in moorland, the lack of forest affects other, equally important parts of the ecosystem. The wild, untamed Scottish moors are, in reality, about as wild and untamed as a back garden in Surrey.
Grouse shooting brings in an average of £30m per year to the rural Scottish economy, bringing a few badly needed jobs away from the traditional tourist season. £30 million sounds like a lot, until you consider that the pay day loan company Wonga recently posted pre tax profits of £84.5 million.
The Glasgow Herald was in jubilant mood last week quoting Visit Scotland’s Chairman Mike Cantlay: “The Glorious Twelfth provides Scotland with a great opportunity to showcase our country sports credentials to wealthy visitors from around the world.” Rich people coming to play country aristocrats in rural Scotland brings in £250 million a year. Merlin entertainments, who run Alton Towers, Legoland and Madame Tussaud’s, brought in £928.4 million in 2011 and made an operating profit of £222.5 million in the same year.
It is hard to make a living in the countryside; even modern farming is surprisingly difficult to turn into profit. Meanwhile, keeping vast tracts of land in a certain condition for the entertainment of the rich, deliberately creating land masses for the purpose of having enough suitable birds to make it easy to shoot them, making all these things “reassuringly expensive”, and having a class-ridden elitist ideal of these sports isn’t making enough money anymore either. Entertaining the rich, in these circumstances, just isn’t profitable enough.
It seems that these pared-down bloodsport theme parks for the British moneyed may well be finally going out of fashion.