The Glorious 12th refers to the date – 12 August – when the grouse shooting season begins in Scotland. There is usually substantial competition to get the first birds to the tables of expensive restaurants in London and other major cities in the United Kingdom
The grouse is perhaps the game bird most associated with rural Scotland. The red grouse – the one that is usually hunted – is medium-sized with a plump body and a short tail. There are four related grouse: the capercaillie, a rarely seen large black bird; the black grouse; the red grouse and the ptarmigan.
The red grouse thrives in heather moorlands and although populations fluctuate from year to year, there is some stability for hunting as much grouse shooting occurs on managed estates where grouse are reared for this purpose. The heather is usually burned in a rota to manage the grouse moors. Birds prefer to eat young heather shoots and burning the heather encourages new growth. A well managed grouse moor has, therefore, short heather, sufficient to provide both cover and food for the birds. Newly hatched grouse, on managed estates, may be reared in boxes.
The heyday of shooting parties at lodges was in Victorian times. Shooting grouse has been a popular sport among the upper class since the 1820s. Hunting, especially grouse shooting and deer stalking became very fashionable from 1852 influenced by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria’s trips north which caused a craze for all things Highland.
The Balmoral estate was bought in 1852 by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria at their own expense as a Highland retreat from the stresses of London life. Prince Albert initiated many improvements, including the building of a new holiday home, Balmoral Castle, in 1853-5. Prince Albert’s passion was deer stalking, and during his stay at Balmoral Castle, he hunted every morning.
Many Highland landowners took advantage of the trend and used their vast tracts of land to attract the attention of wealthy English visitors. The Highlands were covered in large shooting lodges which were used for shooting parties. Many of them now lie unused and in ruins. However, grouse-shooting remains a popular sport in many areas of Scotland and is enjoyed by locals and visitors who can take part in organised shooting parties.
Organising grouse shooting requires a fair amount of people. During the year, the gamekeepers manage the estate and undertake the rearing of the grouse. In addition, there are ghillies, beaters, picker-ups and kennelmen.
The gamekeeper organises the shoot and looks after the guns. The beaters beat the grouse out of the heather towards the guns. Huntsmen are often arranged in groups at grouse butts which are made from timber or stones with turf camouflage. Such hides are used by the huntsmen who lie in wait to shoot wild grouse. Picker-ups have highly trained gun dogs that retrieve the birds when they plummet to the ground. The gun dogs are usually labradors or retrievers, but springer spaniels, cocker spaniels, German pointers and vizslas were also used. The dogs are trained to hold the birds in their mouths without damaging them and to release the birds to the handler or gamekeeper.
Traditionally wild birds are hung before plucking, drawing and cleaning ie innards still intact. They are suspended by the neck in a cool, airy place, to tenderise the meat and develop flavour as the deterioration process begins. Opinions vary on how long to hang a bird or whether to hang game at all but 3-5 days appears typical. Today, for hygiene reasons, game birds damaged by shot are often prepared quickly.
An example of the often outrageous methods employed to get the first grouse to restaurants is shown at right. Tom Dickson parachuted into the grounds of the Gleneagles Hotel in 1973 with the first brace of grouse, shot on the Glorious 12th.
Image © University of Dundee Archive Services, Hulton Getty, National Trust for Scotland, National Museums of Scotland – Scottish Life Archive, The Scotsman | Licensor Scran