The Scottish Stag

Stags - Red-stag-bellowing.jpgHunter’s Song
The toils are pitched, and the stakes are set,
Ever sing merrily, merrily;
The bows they bend, and the knives they whet,
Hunters live so cheerily.
It was a stag, a stag of ten,
Bearing its branches sturdily;
He came silently down the glen,
Ever sing hardily, hardily.
It was there he met with a wounded doe,
She was bleeding deathfully;
She warned him of the toils below,
O so faithfully, faithfully!
He had an eye, and he could heed,
Ever sing so warily, warily;
He had a foot, and he could speed —
Hunters watch so narrowly.

— Sir Walter Scott

 

There are few animals more iconic of Scotland, and Celtic culture in general, than the Highland Stag – the Red Deer.

The European Red Deer may be found across the continent — and even as far away as southwestern Asia (Asia Minor and the Caucasus) and North Africa. Both Ireland and Scotland have their own sub-species (Scotland: Cervus elaphus scoticus).  The animal was introduced to the British Isles sometime in the stone age. It was known to continental tribes well before then and revered as a spiritual animal as well as a source of food, clothing and tool-making materials. Cave paintings showing the deer date from as early as 40,000 years ago.

Products - Fighting-Stags-Buckle-1.jpg This noble beast has been inspiring Celtic thought for thousands of years. In Celtic myth and religion, the stag personifies the power of the Other World (realm of the dead and/or the Gods), the forest and untamed nature generally. The animal is powerful, agile and sexually vigorous. Its antlers, which resemble the branches of a tree, are an emblem of the regenerative and cyclical pattern of nature — they grow throughout the summer, are used in the rutting duels, and drop off in the winter only to grow again next spring. The antlers also remind us that nature can be dangerous and violent, or benign.

 

 

 

Stags - gundestrup-cauldron-cernunnos-kilt.jpg The central figure on the famous Gundestrup Cauldron, usually assumed to be either a deity (Cernunnos ) or a shaman, is of a man with stag antlers. Folklore of the Insular Celts includes stories of supernatural deer and spirits or deities who can take deer form. Scottish and Irish stories feature the red deer as “fairy cattle” — herded and milked by a benevolent supernatural woman such as a bean sìdhe (banshee) or a goddess. In the West Highlands, it is this spirit woman who selects the individual deer that will be taken in the next day’s hunt.

Lore in the Carmina Gadelica mentions the ‘Creatair mor bracach ’s na duthchan thall’  — a huge, branchy-horned creature living in the countries beyond the sea (the fairy realm or underworld essentially).

Celtic spirits often take deer form. The goddess Flidais is one. Another is the Cailleach Bhéara (“The Old Woman of Beare”), who lives on an island off the coast of County Cork (The Beare peninsula is associated with the islands in the western sea that are the land of the dead). She takes the form of a deer to avoid capture and herds her own deer by the shore. Other mythic figures such as Oisin and Sadbh also have connections to deer.

 

Stags - Scottish-red-deer-stag.jpgThe “fairy lullaby” titled ‘Bainne nam fiadh’ speaks of deer power…

Air bainne nam fiadh a thogadh mi,
Air bainne nam fiadh a shealbhaich,
Air bainne nam fiadh fo dhruim nan sian,
Air bharr nan sliabh ’s nan garbhlach

On milk of deer I was reared,
On milk of deer I was nurtured,
On milk of deer beneath the ridge of storms,
On crest of hill and mountain

 

 

Hunter’s Song

The toils are pitched, and the stakes are set,
Ever sing merrily, merrily;
The bows they bend, and the knives they whet,
Hunters live so cheerily.
It was a stag, a stag of ten,
Bearing its branches sturdily;
He came silently down the glen,
Ever sing hardily, hardily.
It was there he met with a wounded doe,
She was bleeding deathfully;
She warned him of the toils below,
O so faithfully, faithfully!
He had an eye, and he could heed,
Ever sing so warily, warily;
He had a foot, and he could speed —
Hunters watch so narrowly.

— Sir Walter Scott

 

There are few animals more iconic of Scotland, and Celtic culture in general, than the Highland Stag – the Red Deer.

 

The European Red Deer may be found across the continent — and even as far away as southwestern Asia (Asia Minor and the Caucasus) and North Africa. Both Ireland and Scotland have their own sub-species (Scotland: Cervus elaphus scoticus).  The animal was introduced to the British Isles sometime in the stone age. It was known to continental tribes well before then and revered as a spiritual animal as well as a source of food, clothing and tool-making materials. Cave paintings showing the deer date from as early as 40,000 years ago.

 

 

This noble beast has been inspiring Celtic thought for thousands of years. In Celtic myth and religion, the stag personifies the power of the Other World (realm of the dead and/or the Gods), the forest and untamed nature generally. The animal is powerful, agile and sexually vigorous. Its antlers, which resemble the branches of a tree, are an emblem of the regenerative and cyclical pattern of nature — they grow throughout the summer, are used in the rutting duels, and drop off in the winter only to grow again next spring. The antlers also remind us that nature can be dangerous and violent, or benign.

 

 

The central figure on the famous Gundestrup Cauldron, usually assumed to be either a deity (Cernunnos ) or a shaman, is of a man with stag antlers. Folklore of the Insular Celts includes stories of supernatural deer and spirits or deities who can take deer form. Scottish and Irish stories feature the red deer as “fairy cattle” — herded and milked by a benevolent supernatural woman such as a bean sìdhe (banshee) or a goddess. In the West Highlands, it is this spirit woman who selects the individual deer that will be taken in the next day’s hunt.

 

Lore in the Carmina Gadelica mentions the ‘Creatair mor bracach ’s na duthchan thall’  — a huge, branchy-horned creature living in the countries beyond the sea (the fairy realm or underworld essentially).

 

Celtic spirits often take deer form. The goddess Flidais is one. Another is the Cailleach Bhéara (“The Old Woman of Beare”), who lives on an island off the coast of County Cork (The Beare peninsula is associated with the islands in the western sea that are the land of the dead). She takes the form of a deer to avoid capture and herds her own deer by the shore. Other mythic figures such as Oisin and Sadbh also have connections to deer.

 

The “fairy lullaby” titled ‘Bainne nam fiadh’ speaks of deer power…

Air bainne nam fiadh a thogadh mi,
Air bainne nam fiadh a shealbhaich,
Air bainne nam fiadh fo dhruim nan sian,
Air bharr nan sliabh ’s nan garbhlach

On milk of deer I was reared,
On milk of deer I was nurtured,
On milk of deer beneath the ridge of storms,
On crest of hill and mountain

 

    

 

A hind’s head is one of the most common images on Pictish carved stones, often in hunting scenes. In fact, the stag was the premiere prey animal of the medieval period. In the Celtic tradition the hunting of a Stag was symbolic for the pursuit of wisdom. This thought was carried over into the Middle Ages with the lore of the White Stag — a mythic beast which always eluded capture. No matter how hard the hunter chased it, the White Stag would always be one step ahead, leading the pursuers deeper and deeper into the forest, a liminal place where worlds intersect. The White Stag was a bringer of omens, either good or ill.  In several stories, a chase of the White Stag is a prelude to the main action, often a warrior becoming a king.

 

    

 

 

Similarly, the stag came to symbolize God’s power, nobility, freedom and purity (not unlike the unicorn). For all these many reasons, it was a popular motif in heraldry and may be found on many Scottish Clan Crests.

Chasing the stag has been a sport of the nobility since ancient times. The meat, venison, was restricted to the upper classes as well. It is still a tradition that the Queen of England offers gifts of roast venison to important personages, just as her forebears would have honored loyal nobles. Sale of the meat was also restricted until the mid-20th century, so most folk who desired some simply dealt with the local poacher (often a family business).

Deer stalking was taken to the ultimate level in the 19th century with many estates in Scotland dedicated to providing game lands for their noble landlords — sometimes Scottish, often English. The growth of these estates, in some cases, went hand-in-hand with the dreaded Clearances of the Highlands. Many estates in Scotland kept their own herds for hunting, similar to estate forests in England.

One outgrowth of this culture was the development of the profession of the Ghillie – a seasoned hunting guide. (sometimes also the local poacher!) The term is no doubt familiar since it has been used to describe certain elements of Highland wear. One is the Ghillie Shirt — based loosely on 18th and 19th century work shirts. The other is Ghillie brogues — now dress shoes, once theoretically shoes for trekking, with holes to allow water to drain out and ankle laces to prevent losing one’s shoe in the mire. Hunting sporrans were another Victorian invention with decorative “leaves” instead of tassels which would not make noise while one was in the bush. And of course, the tweed jackets we are all so fond of were once standard gear for trekking outdoors and stalking the “Monarch of the Glen.”

Today anyone can go deer stalking. Many estates are no set up for hunting tourism, with professional ghillies and miles of terrain to hunt. But be warned — it is a very demanding hunt. Be prepared to hike for miles, and to drag your kill down the mountain side by hand.

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