CHAPTER XVI. THE DEERHOUND
The Deerhound is one of the most decorative of dogs, impressively stately and picturesque wherever he is seen, whether it be amid the surroundings of the baronial hall, reclining at luxurious length before the open hearth in the fitful light of the log fire that flickers on polished armour and tarnished tapestry; out in the open, straining at the leash as he scents the dewy air, or gracefully bounding over the purple of his native hills. Grace and majesty are in his every movement and attitude, and even to the most prosaic mind there is about him the inseparable glamour of feudal romance and poetry. He is at his best alert in the excitement of the chase; but all too rare now is the inspiring sight that once was common among the mountains of Morven and the glens of Argyll of the deep-voiced hound speeding in pursuit of his antlered prey, racing him at full stretch along the mountain's ridge, or baying him at last in the fastness of darksome corrie or deep ravine. Gone are the good romantic days of stalking beloved by Scrope. The Highlands have lost their loneliness, and the inventions of the modern gunsmith have robbed one of the grandest of hunting dogs of his glory, relegating him to the life of a pedestrian pet, whose highest dignity is the winning of a pecuniary prize under Kennel Club rules.
Historians of the Deerhound associate him with the original Irish Wolfdog, of whom he is obviously a close relative, and it is sure that when the wolf still lingered in the land it was the frequent quarry of the Highland as of the Hibernian hound. Legend has it that Prince Ossian, son of Fingal, King of Morven, hunted the wolf with the grey, long-bounding dogs. “Swift-footed Luath” and “White-breasted Bran” are among the names of Ossian's hounds. I am disposed to affirm that the old Irish Wolfhound and the Highland Deerhound are not only intimately allied in form and nature, but that they are two strains of an identical breed, altered only in size by circumstance and environment.
Whatever the source of the Highland Deerhound, and at whatever period it became distinct from its now larger Irish relative, it was recognised as a native dog in Scotland in very early times, and it was distinguished as being superior in strength and beauty to the hounds of the Picts.
From remote days the Scottish nobles cherished their strains of Deerhound, seeking glorious sport in the Highland forests. The red deer belonged by inexorable law to the kings of Scotland, and great drives, which often lasted for several days, were made to round up the herds into given neighbourhoods for the pleasure of the court, as in the reign of Queen Mary. But the organised coursing of deer by courtiers ceased during the Stuart troubles, and was left in the hands of retainers, who thus replenished their chief's larder.
The revival of deerstalking dates back hardly further than a hundred years. It reached its greatest popularity in the Highlands at the time when the late Queen and Prince Albert were in residence at Balmoral. Solomon, Hector, and Bran were among the Balmoral hounds. Bran was an especially fine animal—one of the best of his time, standing over thirty inches in height.
Two historic feats of strength and endurance illustrate the tenacity of the Deerhound at work. A brace of half-bred dogs, named Percy and Douglas, the property of Mr. Scrope, kept a stag at bay from Saturday night to Monday morning; and the pure bred Bran by himself pulled down two unwounded stags, one carrying ten and the other eleven tines. These, of course, are record performances, but they demonstrate the possibilities of the Deerhound when trained to his natural sport.
Driving was commonly resorted to in the extensive forests, but nowadays when forests are sub-divided into limited shootings the deer are seldom moved from their home preserves, whilst with the use of improved telescopes and the small-bore rifle, stalking has gone out of fashion. With guns having a muzzle velocity of 2,500 feet per second, it is no longer necessary for sportsmen stealthily to stalk their game to come within easy range, and as for hounds, they have become a doubtful appendage to the chase.
Primarily and essentially the Deerhound belongs to the order Agaseus, hunting by sight and not by scent, and although he may indeed occasionally put his nose to the ground, yet his powers of scent are not remarkable. His vocation, therefore, has undergone a change, and it was recently ascertained that of sixty deer forests there were only six upon which Deerhounds were kept for sporting purposes.
Happily the Deerhound has suffered no decline in the favour bestowed upon him for his own sake. The contrary is rather the case, and he is still an aristocrat among dogs, valued for his good looks, the symmetry of his form, his grace and elegance, and even more so for his faithful and affectionate nature. Sir Walter Scott declared that he was “a most perfect creature of heaven,” and when one sees him represented in so beautiful a specimen of his noble race as St. Ronan's Rhyme, for example, or Talisman, or Ayrshire, one is tempted to echo this high praise.