Dispatches from the rural front – the Buccleuch Hunt

February 10, 2001

A cold blustery Borders day. Don’t ask where – I’m a townie and this is open country. A fox flashes across a field. Two minutes later the hounds arrive, 40 of them, barking and yelping, milling around in chaotic circles. The red-coated huntsman toots on his horn, tries the guttural snarl that countrymen use to call their dogs. The horses turn up next, ridden by women raw-faced with cold. Perplexedly, they trot around the field. What’s happening? The wind, a foot follower explains: it plays havoc with the scent.

Ten minutes later we’re up on an old Roman road, the foot followers and I. Another fox runs across a ploughed field, doubles back and sprints along the line of a ditch. A handful of riders appear with a straggle of mud-spattered hounds. They hang about doing nothing very much. After a minute or two a footie tells them that we saw a fox, but he’ll be long gone by now.

There are all sorts of pleasures to be had following the Buccleuch Hunt. Schadenfreude. The stark beauty of the Borders landscape: churned red earth, snow-patched hills, beech hedges rusty in the pale winter sun. And the company of Ian Brodie, 67, retired joiner and lifelong foot follower. If you live in the city you may not have met anyone like Ian, but if you’re a country-dweller you’ll know the type: shrewd blue eyes and the raspberry mousse of broken blood vessels that is the countryman’s complexion. He’s out with the hunt twice a week in all weathers.

After the early excitement, we footies hit a luckless patch. Fox, hounds, riders, all elude us. We park at the side of the road. (Footies drive cars. While we’re at it, the riders are known as “the field”. It doesn’t do to get these things wrong, to be caught out on the wrong side of the town/country divide.) Thermos flasks are poured. Suddenly Ian tilts his head, his face rapt with pleasure and excitement and something else, a kind of religious awe. “I hear the hounds speaking.” We strain our ears. Carried on the buffeting wind is a faint high-pitched staccato. The steaming tea is tossed on the tarmac. We’re off again.

As we go Ian details the likely impact of a ban on fox-hunting. The spectre of bankruptcy hanging over the blacksmith, the riding stable, maybe even the local dealers of four-by-four vehicles. The grim fate awaiting the horses and hounds. The loss of countless social occasions binding the community together: hunter trials, point to point, the puppy show, balls and barn dances, hunt breakfasts, ladies’ lunches, dinners and do’s… Then there’s his own personal unhappiness. “I don’t know what I’d do – hang myself from a tree.”

In the country there’s no debate about fox-hunting. Only consternation. They can’t understand why a perfectly legal, well-regulated pastime is about to be outlawed. Whatever happened to tolerance, what about their human rights?

Mention fox-hunting anywhere in the city. Go on – try it. The debate doesn’t last long there, either. Cruelty. Barbarism. Sadistic upper-class gits. Human rights? What sort of human being finds killing foxes fun?

Richard and Lesley live a double life: city folk who weekend in the country. Lifelong Labour-voters who have spent ten sleepless years in the service of the NHS, their liberal credentials are impeccable. It’s just that seven years ago they discovered they enjoyed hunting foxes. They have no qualms about admitting this in the Border village of Kirk Yetholm where they own a cottage, but ask them to say as much in a newspaper read by their fellow-citizens in Edinburgh and they insist that their surnames are withheld.

Richard, 35, is a specialist registrar: tall, curly-haired, a passing resemblance to the actor Stephen Tompkinson enhanced by his Mancunian accent. He keeps nipping out to the kitchen to check the score in the Manchester United game. Lesley, 34, sits on the sofa cuddling Buster, a snoring Staffordshire bull terrier. She’s a consultant anaesthetist, originally from Falkirk.

The first time they went out with the hunt was a Saturday morning, she remembers. It had been one of those hideous Friday nights: working flat out.

“We headed off down the road to this muddy cowshed. I thought, ‘What on Earth are we doing this for?’ And we loved it. We’ve been doing it ever since and we spend all our time and all our money doing it.”

They ride with the Buccleuch every week. There’s nothing like it for beating stress, she says. If she’s on call all night and has the next day off, she doesn’t bother going to bed, just collects her hunting gear and drives down to the Borders. By the end of the day she’s physically tired instead of mentally tired, and feels much better for it.

“If you’d asked me beforehand, I would have said it’s a terrible thing to do. I kind of did it and thought, ‘I like doing this but I don’t know how I can square it with my conscience. Now I can square it very easily with my conscience. It’s certainly no worse than other ways of controlling foxes.”

Inevitably, they argue with their friends in Edinburgh. The initial response is frankly appalled, but once they’ve explained their position, attitudes tend to soften. Most say they don’t agree with foxhunting but concede that there has to be freedom of choice. Maybe it’s because he works with cancer patients, Richard speculates. “They think there are worse things going on in the world.” After all, Lesley adds, “the last guy to ban hunting was in Germany in the 1930s.”

Both Holyrood and Westminster are processing bills to ban fox-hunting. Whether these bills survive unamended remains to be seen. Certainly the hunting fraternity has not given up the fight. They’ll summarise the relative merits of hunting, snaring and shooting at the drop of a hat. (With hunting the fox dies instantly, no gnawing its own leg off to escape the trap, no wounded animals trailing the countryside.) They’ll remind you that cats are the cruellest of all creatures, killing vast numbers of smaller mammals and birds, and yet city people love their cats. None of us would eat meat or eggs if we were truly concerned for animal welfare…They even have a theory about why the antis feel so strongly: the sight of groups of people charging about on horseback triggers a folk memory of ancient wars.

All very interesting, but for my purposes beside the point. All I want is the answer to one simple townie’s question: why? What’s the appeal of hunting foxes? It must be pretty potent to be worth weathering the storm of public outrage, so how does the pleasure work?

There has to be a suspicion that social cachet plays its part. The Buccleuch Hunt has existed since 1823. The ninth duke, Scotland’s largest private landowner, turns up at the meets once in a while, though he no longer rides, having been confined to a wheelchair by a hunting accident. Historically the Buccleuch was the classiest of the Scottish hunts, it used to be known as “the veiled ladies”. But the first thing they’ll tell you is that those days are gone. The Duke of Roxburghe may hunt with them, but so do various chefs, electricians and hairdressers, along with dentists, solicitors, wing commanders, pension fund investors… Hunting admits all sorts these days, as long as they can afford the £100 or so it costs to hire a horse and pay the day’s subscription.

Pat Marjoribanks is Borders born and bred, dark-haired, earthily glamorous, 50 years old, though you wouldn’t know it. (“Used to be married to the plumber, now she’s married to the fencer,” a hunt master says helpfully.) There’s a fox’s brush hanging in the hall of her home near Abbotsford, and a fox’s head mounted above the door to the living room. She has been hunting for 30 years. For a long time it was 95 per cent of her life: she was out with the Buccleuch three times a week. These days it’s once a week, weather permitting, but her passion for the chase is undiminished.

Everyone’s more equal now, but she remembers the snobbery well enough. She was working on her father’s farm when she started hunting. There was more aristocracy then: you had to be careful not to ride in front of them. Some of the characters were pretty awesome. Once she got off her horse to open a gate and had to stay there, knee-deep in water, as her betters rode through. “I stood with my boots filling up saying, ‘I don’t mind at all’.” Everyone hunts for different reasons. Company, physical exercise, love of the countryside, the bond between horse and rider, the adrenaline rush of danger, the technical appeal of a highly complicated sport.

Pat adds a new one to the list: she loves foxes. Beautiful animals. She can stand for hours watching them. Most hunting people feel the same.

This is country logic, hard for townies to get their heads around. Apparently banning hunting would be a disservice to the fox, maybe even hastening its extinction. Hunting is a form of natural selection, the weak are picked-off leaving the strong to perpetuate the species. It’s a sort of kindness.

Pat is impatient with talk of the fox-hunters’ bloodlust. They don’t crowd in to see the kill. They’re usually kept well back so the hounds can do their work. She’s seen it perhaps half a dozen times in 30 years, and only then because she was whipping-in the dogs. She hasn’t seen a blooding (where a child out for the first time is daubed in the fox’s blood) for 20-odd years. And as for that sentimental twaddle about foxes being torn to pieces: it happens, but only after they’re dead. “I don’t eat my steak when it’s still on the hoof and the same applies to the hounds.” It’s a wee reward for them when they’ve been working well. “There are other occasions when Charlie’s got away and you’re quite delighted. You think, ‘Well done him’.”

Charlie? After the 18th-century prime minister Charles James Fox, apparently. Which explains everything and nothing. It’s not just that fox-hunting folk give their quarry a name, many seem to credit it with a personality, too. They’ll talk up his cunning (it is always a he), the way he’ll throw the hounds off the scent by running through water or across a field spread with slurry or along the top of a wall. They’ll tell you they’ve seen him climb a tree and look down smugly on the hounds, or change places with another fox, taking it in turns to be chased. This is why drag hunting will never be an adequate substitute. They don’t want to hunt a man trailing an aniseed rag over a predetermined course, they want an unpredictable opponent, a creature with its own distinctive intelligence.

“To me it’s about the only natural thing, as near a natural hobby as you could have nowadays. Everything else is contrived or mechanical or electronic or computerised. Even shooting and fishing are not as natural as they once were. No foxes are reared for hunting. They haven’t been semi-domesticated. They’re totally wild animals and have wild instincts. It’s really pitting your wits against nature. One animal pitting its wits against another one.”

From the urban perspective the obvious question is: why don’t people who hunt feel guilty? From the rural side of the divide the answer is no less obvious: it is the hounds who hunt, following their instinct, as the fox follows his. To call it cruel is to misunderstand nature. “What people tend to forget is that, as far as I know, foxes don’t think like humans: they’re wild animals. The hounds don’t think like humans either: they’re animals. And in the animal kingdom everything’s got its predator. They expect to be hunted down.”

After a few days in hunting circles, something dawns on the urban visitor: they’re not just putting a brave front on a barbarian pleasure. They think it’s OK – more than OK: they believe that fox-hunting is right. There is a look in their eyes when they explain it to the townie: the confidence that comes with the moral high ground.

Carolyn “Snippet” Innes, 44, comes closer to the townie’s cliché of the fox-hunting type, with her Oxfordshire vowels, her grand pink house in Lauderdale, her tennis court and stables. Even the childhood nickname that stuck (a reference to her size). She used to run a children’s clothing company but these days being one of the Buccleuch’s five hunt masters takes up most of her time. I find her in the stables, a tiny figure in wellingtons, muddy anorak and multicoloured hat, draping a double duvet over a huge bay hunter. A fox-hound puppy nudges my legs inquisitively. Its coat is dotted with blue dye, the result of a neighbouring farmer trying to turn it into a Dalmatian. Country people, they’re a different breed.

It turns out that Snippet is thinking along similar lines. They have no seasons in the city, she says. She’s seen them, driving round in their shirt sleeves in the middle of winter. They have no idea that sausages are made of pig. They think milk comes from the carton, not a cow. Faced with a lumberjack at work, they ask but doesn’t that hurt the tree? “I don’t think they understand the fox will kill not one chicken, it’ll kill the whole lot and maybe take one to eat.”

There is an aggression in all of us. Far better to get it out through hunting than to channel it in other ways. “You very rarely see people who ride and hunt in any sort of drug trouble.”

She talks me around the eight horses in the stables. This one’s an ex-racehorse, that one had the breeding but never grew big enough, this one won 17 races before being retired. “His life wouldn’t be much good if hunting went…” The implication is clear. A ban won’t save the foxes, the farmers will resort to other means of pest control. All the animal-lovers will achieve is the shooting of the hounds and horses.

Not that she believes hunting will be banned. In Scotland several members of the rural development committee have complained that Lord Watson’s bill is unworkable. In England, there is talk of a compromise after the general election. To concentrate the legislators’ minds, the Countryside Alliance will march on Westminster next month. Her phone rings constantly with people wanting to join the protest.

The horses attended to, we move into the house. The walls are covered with photographs of Snippet competing on horseback, sleeping dogs huddle against the Aga. A collection of riding crops hangs in the loo along with her red hunting jacket.

It may be that the traditional costume has to go, she says thoughtfully. The red coat makes the hunt officials visible to the field, the white stock doubles as a bandage when horse or rider is injured, they’re warm and practical, but they carry certain connotations. Their loss is a small price to pay if hunting is to continue. Fox-hunting is seen as a toffs’ sport: hostility to the unspeakable looms much larger than concern for the uneatable. “You see the most ghastly things on television, the most awful violence, and then one little animal gets killed… there’s an awful lot of hypocrisy. I think it’s as Mr Prescott says: ‘those bastards in their red coats’.”

The disinterested observer – if such a thing exists in the polarised debate over fox-hunting – will notice a curious similarity between the pros and the antis. Each believes the other is obsessed with class, each thinks the other is disingenuous about their motives, each sees the other as an oppressor.

But in one crucial area they diverge: while the anti-hunt lobby preaches civilisation – that city dweller’s ideal – the fox-hunters lay claim to the integrity of Nature. Strip away the layers and even the fox becomes irrelevant. What we have here is a fundamental disagreement about what it means to be human.

Half-way through the afternoon Snippet mentions the right-wing philosopher Roger Scruton. Wonderful man. She has met him out hunting with the Beaufort. He’s written a book, Animal Rights and Wrongs. Terribly good. She bought a batch of ten to hand out to her friends. Have I read it? As it happens I have. Scruton believes that hunting stirs up “evolutionary sediment”, bringing out the hunter-gatherer in men. Of course, Snippet is female, along with some 60 per cent of the Buccleuch Hunt, but she’s prepared to overlook this bio-determinist wrinkle. He’s married now, she says: that should straighten out his ideas.

In essence Scruton’s theory is this. We no longer need to hunt to eat, but the desire for guiltless killing endures. Hunting is a homecoming to our natural state – or as close to it as we can hope to get. Identifying with the pleasure of horse and hounds, we feel our kindred nature with the animals. Consciousness takes a back seat to instinct, and the guilt of consciousness, by-product of the ceaseless judging of ourselves and others, is forgotten. In the co-operative enterprise of the hunt, the individual rejoins the tribe. Likewise, the fox becomes the sacrificial representative of a sacred species. According to Scruton, the rider who praises Charlie’s cunning is engaging in the atavistic practice of totemism.

Surely Snippet and her chums don’t buy this primitivist stuff?

“I think you do. The whole thing flows. It feels a very natural thing to do. If you’re lucky enough to see a fox hunting a rabbit, or you watch these nature programmes which people are addicted to and you watch the lion hunting, it’s the same feeling – but you happen to be taking part in it.”

You get foxy people, she says: people who have a feel for the way a fox is going to go. There are natural huntsmen too, a golden thread links them to their hounds. “I love watching a pack, it’s like a tide, a wave, like water flowing down a hill. And then off they go, heads down, and the sound of a pack of hounds in full cry – it’s just thrilling. You’re jumping big fences and galloping down steep hills, slightly frightened.

“The horses love it. They’re a herd animal: they like galloping along in a herd. As soon as the hounds speak they stand, ears pricked, waiting. If you went into that yard and gave a holler or tootled on a horn every horse would start to shake with the excitement and the buzz of it. Nowadays when everything is so manicured and squeaky clean, it’s lovely to be able to do something which is completely unexpected.”

I have to admit it sounds like fun. But like something more serious too: culture, ideology, ritual. Something much more complex than Royal Ascot over rough country, or bloodlust in natty threads.

By the way, they finally caught a fox the day I followed the hunt. Being a townie, I was sorry. But I wouldn’t want my sorrow to be given the force of law.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications