Duck your head and remain hawk-eyed to enjoy the falconry demonstration in Scotland's Dunrobin Castle
I got whacked, hard, on the back of my head. For a moment, I didn't know what hit me; and then I saw the great brown wings, felt the whoosh of displaced air, and had an uncomfortable close-up of barred talons. There was, simultaneously, a collective gasp, about 50 startled ‘oh's, but before I could take any comfort in the sympathy, the crowd dissolved into laughter. Looking back, it was actually quite funny; there I was, all earnest and enthusiastic, bagging a front-row seat for the falconry demonstration at Dunrobin castle (in the far, far north of Scotland) and taking a few hundred pictures of the superb flying display, when one of my much-photographed subjects — a Harris hawk — brusquely tells me it's had enough of my big, fat camera. Rubbing my sore head, and throwing a dark look at the bird — now gracefully circling one of the famous turrets of the castle — I remember wondering if the trip up there was worth all the effort…
It was sweet serendipity that actually took us to Dunrobin Castle. Talking to a friend — an old, well-travelled Scotsman — a few weeks before our planned rail tour of the north of Scotland, I mentioned our ambitious plans to take a train from Inverness up to Wick or Thurso, the farthest north trains go in Britain. But the friend scrunched up his face — never a good sign — and told me it might be way too wet and windy there. “Why don't you get off at Dunrobin castle? It's a request stop, so don't forget to tell the ticket examiner when you board.” It was the concept of the request stop that really hooked us, and so, late that April, we sat by the window, as the Far North line train swayed along a splendid coastline, hugging a foam-kissed beach here and slicing through fat rolling hills there, grandly telling the lady ticket examiner to stop the train at Dunrobin castle.
“What a glorious day to visit Dunrobin! Don't miss the falconry demonstration, Andy is very good, and his birds are marvellous,” she told us. Several other people in the compartment joined her in heaping praise on the castle. “Do go down to the beach, it's gorgeous”; “walk along the coast to the next village, take the train back from there”. And so, much to our amusement, our itinerary was planned by a dozen complete strangers, and touchingly, they all waved furiously when we got off. The station — a private one, that's open only during the summer — was remarkably quaint, clearly a relic of more stately, relaxed times. The castle was just across the road, and we walked — our family and a Glaswegian, the only other passenger who alighted — through the tree-lined avenue. Our friendly banter, however, abruptly stopped when we saw the castle; it was such an other-worldly concoction, all tall, pointy turrets and stout, rounded walls, that we almost expected Rapunzel to wave cheerily from a high window, lower her long plait and haul us up…
Home to the Dukes of Sutherland, Dunrobin castle, around since the 1300s, is one of the country's oldest, continuously occupied great houses. Walking in was a little like walking back in time, a time before central heating in any case, given the chilly interiors. But the fine displays and fabulous art took our minds off the cold, although every glimpse of the beautiful gardens egged us on to step out quickly for the falconry demonstration.
So popular are the flying displays that the chairs were taken some 30 minutes before Andy arrived with the hawk, and cameras were poised, paparazzi style, to capture the elusive birds of prey at close range. With enviable skill, Andy took the birds (the hawk was followed by a falcon, vulture and snowy owl) through their routine, making them soar, dip and dive, all the while keeping the audience engaged with tidbits of information. And what seemed like mere sport, we learnt, was, historically, actually a way of putting food on the table; the birds with their keen eye sight and remarkable agility were trained to catch fast-running game animals in difficult terrains.
After the clout I received from the magnificent but slightly mean Harris hawk, I remembered to duck my head every time the birds swopped over us and we enjoyed the rest of the demonstration, particularly, the morbidly fascinating spectacle of the snowy owl swallowing a dead rat whole.
With time running out — trains in those parts were neither frequent nor plenty — we wandered over, as advised, to the beach for a little sit-down. The sky, late afternoon, was a brilliant crayon blue, the clouds tiny wind-chased puff-balls, and the coastline had drama written all over it. The spray drenched the moss-covered boulders, drew puddle-patterns on the wet sand, and the ancient, upturned shell of a boat lent it an elegant ‘film-set' air. One look at the clock had us scuttling back to the station, where we waited with outstretched hands, bus-stop style, to stop the train. Hopping back in — and regaling the same ticket-examiner with my hawk-tales — we sat back with the satisfied feeling of a day well spent, in the far, far north of Scotland…