Dave came into the Edinburgh Safeway super market where I worked as a 16 year-old shelf stacker. Unmistakable in Tweed cap, Tweed plus-twos, muddy wellingtons and a beaten-up old fake Barbour jacket, I thought he might be an angler (I’d already been bitten by that bug). We got talking and he told me he was a “shooting man”, and I didn’t know what that was until weeks later I was walking in line through a turnip field in Kinross-shire with good friends Graeme and Grant. I remember our first day perfectly: we were next to the “D Wood” on the border of Hilton of Aldie Farm and Parks of Aldie estate, tracts of rolling arable farmland that sit within a perennially damp patch in the Loch Leven basin, Kinross, Scotland. Staying in line and trying to mimic the alien cries of the pheasant beater, I remember Dave’s brown and white springer spaniel, Scamp – the most disobedient of his family of dogs, ferrets and Lord knows what else - as he pushed a huge cock pheasant into the air. And then what seemed like a lifetime as David patiently let the bird reach sporting distance before the first barrel of his old 12 bore pigeon gun brought it crumpling down, stone dead. This was my first experience of shooting – my first close quarters with a pheasant and a dog working cover; the first impressive discharge of a shotgun’s delayed blast - and it bit me hard. It was the beginning of my friendship with Dave Watson.
Everything about Dave was shooting, and everything else just had to fit round it. A wife or family were out of the question. You couldn’t sit down in Dave’s house without gaining a coating of dog hair. Ducks, pheasants, pigeon, snipe, grouse all hung to season in the coat cupboard. Pheasant pictures adorned coasters, blinds, cushions. Shooting party photographs looked down from the mantle; ferrets sat next to dogs on the living room floor; the shotgun always dismantled and drying next to the three-bar fire. Dave would sit there in rare downtime, occasionally breaking less interesting conversation to swing an invisible gun at an invisible bird on his living room ceiling - “co-cock, co-cock…over!!!” The place smelled liked a hunting lodge. I know this because I used to go to Dave’s on lunch-break from the store. He’d always make game soup or wild mallard sandwiches lathered in butter. Dave even ate shooting.
I don’t think I stopped going to Aldie with Dave for the next 15 years. I bought a shot gun and for a time shooting even surpassed my passion for fly fishing. We’d hunt rabbits in the summer, either walking in line over the moorland on the lower part of the estate, or using Albert and Daphne, his ferrets, to bolt rabbits from their holes (we lost Albert one night. He’d cornered a rabbit underground and died of a happy surfeit of best Scottish bunny). It was a great way to learn gun safety and how to hit a tricky target. Later in the year we’d focus on the main game – pheasants and gray partridge - and this we did either with just the two of us (Scamp was later replaced by black and white springer, Don), or with a group of 6 or 7 guns in the true rough-shoot style. Our bags were typically made of a few pheasants that Dave would spend off-hours drawing in from surrounding estates with his continuous feeding regime; and to that we’d add a partridge, a few duck from the stream bordering the estate (and in which I once released too many shots at a large trout before being the subject of much ribbing (“were ya trying to cut the wee thing intae steaks??”), a woodcock, snipe, some wood pigeon and ground game – more rabbits and brown hares. These were great autumnal occasions, as much about social lunchtimes in the barn as anything else. Dave would always produce a picnic hamper – it was cherry or apricot brandy all round. The afternoon beats were always more leisurely affairs.
|David Watson, front and center.|
At night we’d flight duck, usually into the Aldie farm pond, which again Dave would feed diligently with barley. He'd planted conifer saplings around the perimeter as cover, and today they're 25' tall. I’ll never forget the soft sound of wing beats and the rigid anticipation of birds circling overhead. On still, moonlit nights they’d pass nervously for long periods; us tucked down in undergrowth with breaths held and no smoking. A stormy night was best to bring the ducks fearlessly in, but eventually they’d descend into the bright fire from our guns, and if we’d done our job a mallard or teal would splash down into the pond sending the dog to work. I never tasted better meat than roasted wild mallard.
I was invited to many posh shoots all over Scotland because of Dave. I shot red grouse in the Pentland Hills; pheasants at Hopetown House. I missed pheasants at some of the very finest sporting estates, but Dave and his crowd were only ever encouraging, and he continued to give me the best stands throughout his time as gamekeeper on the neighboring Parks of Aldie shoots. Some days we’d make fine bags of 50 brace of pheasants and other assorted game, but Dave rarely picked up a gun himself. For the most part he did all of this, his life’s passion, to see his friends enjoying good sport. (When he did shoot, we knew he was the best of the group. I could try for the rest of my given days, but I’m confident I’ll never bring down a left and right at tiny, zig-zagging snipe on a bleak, wild moorland gloaming. I’m just glad I got to see it.)
|English Jonny and The Laird on his last day as Head Keeper, Parks of Aldie|
It was the casual days I enjoyed most. We’d plant trees for cover or release pheasant poults in pens we’d made. The Laird always played down our chances on a shooting day: “it’s just a walk. A piss-about day”, he’d say. This meant standing in woodland for the evening pigeon roost, or shooting the same birds over decoys in a crop field. Building hides and shooting snowballs when nothing came. In other slow times we’d trap carrion “hoody” crows or shoot a fox - once I saw Dave imitate an injured rabbit (put your mouth to the back of your hand and suck) to lure a stoat from its hiding place towards our guns. Per tradition, such vermin would be impaled on barbed-wire fences around the farm, a sign to the farmer that we were earning our keep (and that others should keep away). Dave was a gamekeeper first and last, always with a wink in his eye, but equally in demand as an after-dinner speaker to refined company.
I sold my shotgun a few years’ ago and somewhere over the Atlantic I lost touch with The Laird, safe in the knowledge I’d stand in line with my mentor again. Today I finally managed to track him down, only to learn that cancer claimed my friend in 2006, the year after I left Scotland for America. The boys went for a walk over Aldie to commemorate their great friend, and while I don’t know the bag, I’m sure Dave would have loved every minute of it.
He was my pal and I’ll miss him.