‘When the rut returns, Mother Nature’s easel will be in place with purple and crimson flashes of paint to splash her canvas.’
‘The Ruling Class’ by Jess Smith
Taken from Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland
Edited by Kathleen Jamie
Published by Canongate
The Ruling Class
Scotland’s windswept heather glens and snow-capped mountains, where balladeers sang of lonely lovers and broken clansmen limped home to low-roofed crofts after a long journey, is also the kingdom of the mighty red deer.
The red deer exist amid these magnificent heights, indigenous like the proud Celtic warriors who once ran barefoot across stone and peat to swim in the ice-cold waters of scattered lochans.
In the lower region of the forest floor, ambushed by bog and green marshes, it is easy to imagine the haunt of the mythical cross-legged Broonie of childish nightmares. Caledonian pine cradling osprey nests of stick and twig grow side by side with the ancient oaks believed to have been planted when the Romans left Scotia’s shores.
Rowan trees sprout from stone crags, defying the natural process of ground-held roots. Yet they grow healthily to scatter red berries across a sea of moorland and open countryside to feed flocks of visiting fieldfare.
Where jagged cairn locks horns with thunderclouds and eagles soar, there is no other place on earth more fitting a terrain for the herds of Highland Scotland.
One may wander among their territory for weeks and see neither hide nor hair of them. However this all changes at the rut, when the hinds are in season and a king is chosen. He must challenge and be challenged. Numbers can range from a few dozen to thousands but only one can dominate. At such a crucial time it would be a mistake to judge these usually quiet and shy animals as mild and meek – make no mistake, there is an intelligent savagery about the battle for control. It is precise, with no room for error. Mother Nature in her wisdom manages this powerful conflict: she has given the warriors their weapons, which grow like iron spikes from their rigid skulls.
High upon the tops an early warning of winter had sprinkled a dusting of November snow. The rut had begun! Across mountainous glens, braesides and thick forests and by deep lochan banks, the mating call can be heard for miles. The monarchs were on full alert. Their royal position was under threat. Challengers for the throne lined up to take control.
Twixt two formidable mountains the herd thudded flat the heather and dying bracken. Loose stones broke away from crags of jagged rock, rolling like thunder from almost vertical braes.
Who knows where the young stag appeared from, but he desired this harem, craved the territory and he was there to fight for it, a right afforded by Nature herself.
He had prepared well in advance by urinating across the bracken, leaving his smell on tree trunks and any place he could spread a trail for the harem to follow. Eager to womb another generation of their species, the hinds followed, as many as he’d ever seen, ready and willing to give their adoration to the future monarch of the glen. Each nosed his aroma, thick on the breeze.
His body stiffened as the rhythm of his loins grew ever more intense. The oncoming fury with the master would determine his strength and a wisdom offered to Nature’s chosen few. Others have failed: heavier, more powerful stags. What made him think that he might succeed?
His youthful lungs swallowed the sweet air; each breath sent testosterone racing through his body like mercury boiling to its limit.
The ‘play’ was imminent. He was never more ready to act it out.
Antlers thrashed the ground to lift and tear heather from its peaty roots, mixed with clumps of sphagnum moss. He roared from the pit of his stomach. From a distance he knew that he looked and sounded the part of a muscle-bound warrior, a mighty foe. Perhaps though, to the main player’s eye, one who had not yet mastered the art of deception. Was he just giving an appearance of a larger than normal beast or was he, in truth, a serious challenger? Would the mighty monarch see him as a worthy opponent or perhaps nothing more than a fly in a spider’s web, easily caught and disposed of?
The youngster had made his decision. To run away would be futile: it was rut time; the master of the herd would chase and trample him to death. He had to carry his battle plan forward. He roared from the pit of his stomach, so loud that it echoed along the river and across the glen.
The sound pierced the ears of the God-like ruler who stood erect on a jagged pinnacle of grey and white quartz stone. Who was this young buck that would take on the father of the herd without awareness of his formidable might? It was unlike a stranger to approach; yet not one of his seed surely?
From his viewpoint the old stag could see how his youthful opponent held himself. Unlike his own sixteen-pointers, the young stag had only twelve-pointed antlers but that didn’t mean weakness: it was how he used them that mattered.
Silently the master of the Highlands approached, carrying his heavy antler-bound head like a jewelled crown. He’d sharpened his crowning glory into needlepoints for this battle to remain chieftain of his clan. There was too much at stake. One one wrong move and his reign would be over.
From the corner of his eye the young stag watched the mighty beast step down from his vantage point of quartz, circle a patch of stony ground and snort the air.
Thumping heartbeats, loud as thunder inside his head, awakened every hair of his hide to stand stiff along his spine.
For one tiny moment fear crawled inside his testosterone-
filled arteries to momentarily cool his ardour. Here stood a mountain of a stag. Rays of intermittent sunshine glistened through those sharpened antlers like a headful of Highland dirks. But it was too late. The duel was imminent.
Avoid those pointers, he warned himself, but only the learned know how. He had little experience, had never fought before. A young ‘nose to the wind buck’ without knowledge would come out bleeding, that’s for sure!
He had wandered among several herds before settling on this crown. Watched others take on those red giants, picking up on their movements, sidestepping the torso stabs, and learned that heavy breathing and snorting nostrils told a tale of weakness – if there was the slightest sound of broken rhythm in both the snort and the breath, he might falter and fall!
That day neither master nor student failed to show any resistance to the oncoming crash of antlers. They faced each other full on. Heads were raised high on strong stiff necks as each roared from way down in his throat. Their thick manes of blackish brown bristled and shimmered in the dawn sunrise. The main bout was imminent!
For weeks lesser deer had tackled each other. Young stags had fought while the chief watched from his vantage point upon the pinnacle of rock. Instinctively he knew who would cause him problems but there had been none to worry him until this strong-backed stranger arrived. This youngster who had moved along his borders had been eyeing him up for days. He’d watched him sniffing the harem. There would be a fight but would the young stag have enough courage to see it through to the end? His strong muscled legs, stiff back and penetrating black eyes seemed already to be walking in the monarch’s footsteps and he held his head high, a sure sign of the pride which both had in abundance.
For a minute they stood at a safe distance and stared eye to flashing eye; then the battle began. For over an hour they fought, enraged with raw male dominance, locked together with nothing but brute strength. No man or beast could have intervened in such a fight. Every thud of head, turn of body was driven by raw power of muscle and bone as they rammed against any tree trunk that got in their way. Even the jagged rock did not hinder that almighty struggle for the crown. It should have been the challenger’s crown; he was younger, stronger, powerful. The chieftain’s plaid was ripped and torn; he should have fallen but for one single factor!
Wisdom gave the old master an advantage. Not the sharp points to his antlers, but the fact that he knew the terrain, the secure rocks and where to sidestep. What a force he used against the youngster to ram his left side, lifting him into the air so high that he lost all balance!
Over and over he tumbled off the precarious cliff edge, like a thistle-head being blown on the wind, like driftwood toppling from a raging waterfall.
His fight was over; the king would rule for another year.
Remarkably the young buck found his footing, he leapt on several narrow ledges and survived. But he was cut, broken and in pain. He limped onto the secluded forest floor. The battle was well fought; he’d lost to a wiser foe. He wandered far, took security behind a granite roofless ruin amid dead bracken and sapling pine to lick his open wounds.
He would join that clan but only when his opponent allowed it. And if a poacher’s gun or gamekeeper’s fancy didn’t cut short his life-force, he’d face his lord and master once again in the coming year, as a wiser, stronger buck. He had not challenged the monarch without learning wisdom from he of the mighty antlers, his cabar feidh.
Stags too injured and old will become loners and roam at will. Perhaps some will remain with the herd but only at a distance. Those aged and too far gone will give up the ghost in some secluded bog where Mother Nature directs her buzzards, red kite and raven to feast upon their flesh. And when the bog spews up their bones, the sun will bleach them bonny.
Young stags and those veterans of a similar battle will stay within the confines of a ‘male-only club’ and toe the line.
Winter’s frosted drum will bang for the chieftain to guide his pregnant harem to lower ground away from the bitter chill of north winds.
Life within the clan will centre around feeding and survival until spring sends them upwards to live in relative peace on the higher slopes.
Unlike man, their only predator, red deer do not harbour grudges. They do not pick quarrels or remain within the herd with aggressive tendencies.
They simply know and live by the rules.
When the rut returns, Mother Nature’s easel will be in place with purple and crimson flashes of paint to splash her canvas.
No mortal will eye her portrait: that honour she has given over to the red deer of Scotland’s mountains and glens.
It is their story.
Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland edited by Kathleen Jamie is published by Canongate, priced £20.00.
You can catch Kathleen Jamie talking with contributors Chitra Ramaswamy and Amanda Thompson at this year’s online Edinburgh International Book Festival. Book your free spot here.