At precisely 7:45, I was awakened by the servant, who entered carrying a tray of tea and wafers. He opened the curtains, revealing a gray day and a vista of wet trees and formal gardens, with a huge Spanish chestnut tree, 500 years old, under my window.
I dressed in my warmest clothes—long Duofold arctic underwear, a heavy flannel shirt and hunting coat, with a bulky sweater and quilted vest to put on just before going outdoors. All these heavy garments proved to be needed.
After breakfast—porridge, eggs, kippers and sausages, served from long sideboards—we gathered in the outer hall. There, lined along the wall on chairs, each marked with a shooter's name, we found our boots, neatly polished, our shoulder bags for carrying raincoats, an extra sweater, gloves and shooting sticks, which most of the hunters carried to sit on while waiting for the birds to come over the shooting stands.
In the courtyard a line of Land-Rovers awaited us. We rode four to a car to the first shooting position, sometimes a mile or two from Keir House and sometimes 10 to 12 miles away. But wherever we went, we were always shooting on the extensive land holdings of the Stirling family.
These early-morning drives were invariably interesting—over winding roads running through the low hills, most of them topped with groves of Scottish pine. The meadows were green and lush, with heavy grass cover where Aberdeen Angus and woolly Highland cattle grazed. The fields lay dormant this time of year, but all of them were well tended, some neatly fenced with smooth wire but more often with stone walls lining the roadside and dividing the cultivated land from the grazing land. The distant hills were gray in the morning mist, or shining with snow when the clouds lifted for a glimpse of the ranges to the north. It was a beautiful and orderly and peaceful land.
When we arrived at our first shooting position we climbed out of the cars and our host gave each man his position. These had been marked by white-topped stakes that had previously been set in a long line, 40 yards apart, facing a bog, a wooded hill or a heavy area of underbrush. Each shooter was accompanied by his loader, who carried a pair of guns in light shoulder cases and a bag of shells. After loading the guns, he handed one to the shooter, and when all was ready we settled down to wait for the beaters.
These had previously taken their positions on the other side of the hilltop or other cover, and soon we could hear the noise of their coming, shouting, rattling sticks on tree trunks and kicking through the undergrowth. The dog handlers were with them, and the dogs worked the cover as carefully as the men. Well off to each side and in advance of the beaters were flankers carrying flags. Their purpose was to keep the birds flying straight ahead so they would come out over the line of shooters. In this hunt we used about 25 beaters and 12 men with dogs, in addition to the loaders.
As the beaters approached the front side of the cover, the birds—mostly pheasant—would begin to fly out, a few at a time at first and then in great numbers. The birds flew straight, often high overhead but sometimes they were low to the ground and hard to see against the dark woods. When they broke through in great waves, the problem was to pick one of the multitude.
The procedure was to take two birds on the incoming flight, pass the gun with the right hand to the loader and get the second gun in time to get two more shots at the going-away birds. To get two birds incoming was not too difficult, but I never could master the going-away shots. Once in a while I dropped a bird going away, but I never attained that true mark of distinction in driven-bird shooting of making four at a time—"two brace," as the natives say.
In grouse shooting, I am told, one shoots from butts made of rocks or peat, but we were too late for grouse, and our birds were pheasants, partridge, woodcock and an occasional snipe, plus ducks and geese, which were shot from blinds on a lakeside.