In those days farmers grew a lot of turnips for winter feed for cattle and sheep, and this made for some seasonal work in early summer.
The larger farms would have a row of cottages for permanent married employees; in addition some farms would have accommodation for single men. This accommodation was known as a bothy, and in some cases the single men would receive a quantity of oatmeal, milk and potatoes as part of their very low wages, which were the same as for married men. In other cases the single men's bothy was simply a dormitory and they would eat in the farm kitchen.
In a farm with the latter bothy set-up, I got a temporary job hoeing turnips and lived in the bothy. At six o'clock each morning we went to the farm kitchen where the maid would have the kettle boiling. We each would fill a bowl with as much oatmeal as we thought we could eat, from the meal girnal (a portable bulk container) a pinch of salt and a small piece of butter, and we stirred the mess as the maid poured on boiling water. The result looked like something you would feed a dog—with milk it certainly stuck to ribs—and it made a really sustaining meal.
It was now into the month of May and I decided to go to Nairn Market to get another job. The 28th of May and the 28th of November were term days when help was engaged for the ensuing six months. At the Nairn Market on the 28th of May 1924 a farmer, Mr. Joe Asher, approached me and asked if I wanted a fee. When I replied in the affirmative he offered me twelve pounds for six months. I returned home and got my clothes and reported to Mr. Asher's farm at Ardersier, the village by Fort George. My duties included looking after the livestock and ploughing the land with two horses and a walking plough. Once a week I went to Brackla Distillery for a cartload of draft, brewer's grain, used for cattle feed. On a cold morning while waiting for our loads, they used to bring out a bucket with several inches of whiskey, pure alcohol, throw a lighted match in and we could stand around and get warm. Such a waste!!
While at Ardersier so close to Fort George, I became quite intrigued with army life so I joined the local territorials, militia, the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. Fort George, although the depot for the Seaforth Highlanders, was in Cameron territory. My regimental number of 2925754-Elliott J. came out in orders in 1924, which fact gave me some seniority later when I joined the permanent force.
November came along and I left Mr. Asher's employ to go work with my father as his understudy gamekeeper and deerstalker at Cannich Estate in Glen Affric up above Beauly in the country of the Chishoms and Frasers under Lord Lovat. Our employer here was a Colonel Cameron, a retired Indian Army Colonel, and his daughter Countess DeCalry. They were both very keen sportsmen.
Countess DeCalry had married a French count, a cavalry officer in World War I, and when he was killed in action his charger, his mount, which was wounded at the same time, was brought to Scotland to live on in retirement. It was one of my duties to look after old Prince together with Cabouie, our horse for packing in the deer. The Colonel and the Countess were ardent fishermen and I had to accompany one of them as gillie. The Countess, although a wonderful shot on target, used to get buck fever badly so I didn't have much faith in her capabilities. One day out fishing for salmon she was standing on a rock about three feet from the bank when she hooked a large fish. There she was, the rod held up with one hand, dancing around and screaming, "Tell me what to do, tell me what to do." She looked so funny I couldn't help laughing. Meantime the reel was screaming as the fish tore off the line running strongly upstream. She should have been checking with the reel; however, the fish got into the next pool round some rocks and the line broke. She threw the rod at me and stamped off to the big house. I guess she did not think much of me. Mutual! Next morning when we went down to the gunroom, the Colonel came out ready to go fishing. He said, "I'll take John today." Off we went and before too long he hooked a twelve-pound salmon which he played out; I gaffed the fish, killed it and retrieved the hook and was preparing to change the fly. "Don't bother, we will go home." I gathered up the rod and gear and with the fish over my shoulder we headed for the big house. The ladies were sitting out in the lawn having coffee. As we got close he took the fish from me and proudly presented it to the ladies saying, "John's alright, he knows his business."
The highland glens were divided up into leases and each allotted a given number of stags to be killed each year. Our quota on Kerrow was twenty stags and fifteen hinds, females, the latter being killed by the gamekeepers during winter. The deer hunting season started in September but no stag could be shot till his antlers were free of velvet, so early in the season I had to accompany Countess DeCalry keeping watch on the hills and getting in good stalking practice. The grouse and deer country was covered only with heather which in the rankest growth was only about two feet high; there were a very few scattered clumps of scrubby birch trees. It was quite difficult to get within shooting distance because of the possibility of being seen as well as winded by the deer. We had gone out on one of these daily hunts and when I glassed the area from spy point number one through a sixty-power telescope I spotted seven stags on the opposite mountainside, one of which seemed to be free of velvet, so the hunt was on. Unfortunately I also spotted a small band of females and fawns on the valley floor between us and the stags. I started off followed by the countess, for it was the law of the stalk that the sportsman had to follow the stalker under his direction and to copy his every move. Keeping upwind of the deer and taking advantage of the ground we reached the valley floor, across which we proceeded crawling, watching the female deer; just as we were crossing a small running stream, one of the females threw up her head and we froze in midstream; cold water round our wrists and knees. There we crouched for half an hour before the alerted female returned to feeding. Once across the valley floor and at the foot of the mountain we were able to make better time, following gullies and folds on the mountainside. About three p.m. we reached the spot where I thought the stags were. No stags! We were pretty disappointed and proceeded to eat lunch, then I climbed a little higher and there were the seven stags in a small correy which I had not noticed through the telescope. One of the stags was indeed free of velvet. On telling the countess she started getting buck fever. I loaded her beautiful custom-built seven millimeter Mannlicker rifle and we crawled up to the edge of the correy and found her a nice boulder for a rifle rest. I signaled her to keep quiet as I intended to whistle when she was all set. It was the unwritten law never to shoot when the game was lying down. Boom! She cut loose, a clean miss, the stags took off, and the countess threw the rifle at me saying, "Get him!" They were running downhill and diagonally across my front when I pulled on the big stag. He went down. I had hit him but he got up and clear away before I could get another shot away.
On the very last day of the season my father and the countess grassed a big twelve-pointer who had a sear across his back, my stag, and who still weighed twenty stone, 280 pounds, large for a Red Deer stag.
As soon as the stags had the velvet off my father did the stalking with the countess and I worked the packhorse Cabooie. She was a highland garron pony, a mountain breed and very sure-footed, and although she packed all sorts of loads she would not stand for a rider as I found out one day.
During the grouse season the Colonel with friends would be on the moors and the ladies would meet them for lunch in the field. I would collect the lunch from the cook at the big house and meet the shooting party at a pre-arranged spot. One day I thought I would ride on top of the pannier but Cabooie dumped me in a patch of stinging nettles and spilled all the lunch. The cook did not bless me when I had to go back for a second lunch. Then of course I was late to meet the party. I was in disfavour everywhere!
Included with the lunch was the Colonel's whiskey in a large leather-covered bottle with graduations down the side. I used to have an occasional sip and before I met the party I would fill the flask up with bog water, 'twas the same colour as the whiskey. The Colonel never knew how much bog water he drank; it was his routine to check the whiskey flask as soon as it was unpacked.