Stalking the Hills of Argyll
Stalking the Argyll hills
From the end of September these hills begin to echo with the roar of rutting stags at dusk. “Oh, it’s a wild period,” says the stalker-cum-venison butcher, Winston Churchill. “It lasts about three or four weeks and you can really smell the change in hormones.” Winston, no relation to the other Winston Churchill, came here in the early 1980s from Northumberland where he had been a gamekeeper. He was soon settled at Balagowan at the head of the Holy Loch, working as a stalker and helping to keep the deer population in balance.
Winston is passionate about stalking and the thrill of being out on the hill and helping someone shoot their first stag, but he soon began to take an equal interest in the meat. It just seemed wrong that something so pure and wild, and above all local, was being carted off by dealers and processed centrally as ‘Scottish venison’, much of it exported. In Britain, people weren’t too sure about venison. It was the stuff of medieval banquets and Henry VIII, and it was surely too strong for modern tastes? Winston had no illusions that converting a nation raised on fish-fingers while watching Bambi on TV, was ever going to be easy.
Yet he also knew how deliciously tender and succulent his venison could be. First he needed to take control of the process by installing a full-sized game larder and learning how to butcher the meat in a purpose-built kitchen. Then, by selling people a first taste of the meat in sausages or burgers he proved how you can win them over through a burgeoning mail-order business and selling through the farm shop, local butchers, restaurants and farmer’s markets. His latest venture has been Scotland’s rock festivals like Latitude where the venison burgers sell like hot cakes. “I love ‘em. I think they’re fantastic!” says Winston who has become a true festival groupie, and is obviously thrilled that a whole new generation is discovering wild meat at its best.