Mind Old Ginger the gamekeeper. Myths abound where he’s concerned.
Famous through the Borderlands, was Old Ginger; a legend to some, a purpling, heather-lurking menace to many more.
Pheasants and pleasant folk stopping in their weekend homes feared him equally, as well they should have. For the wee man wasn’t entirely right. Too long on the moors alone with his traps had turned him. Sent his head west, they said.
The man at the big house kept him on, though. He gave Old Ginger free reign and a good run of it, by all accounts. A job for life. So long as the birds were ripe for shooting come August when the red-faced brokers came yodelling through in search of fur, feather and fin, he kept the old boy in his employ. Left him to it.
More than that, Old Ginger had worked for the man at the big house’s daddy, and his daddy worked for his daddy before him, so sticking to the old ways of the laird and his gamekeeper ensured the old order was kept alive. Preserving continuity when all else on the island was in flux was important then. Still is, to some.
Only the man at the big house wasn’t a laird at all: he made his money first through inheritance and latterly, by selling knock-down sports clobber through a pile-‘em-high retail chain famed for its illegitimate working practices; he wouldn’t have known a title of the realm if it was pinned to his left nut by the Queen herself. And by then, Old Ginger was less gamekeeper, more a sadist with a cudgel and a growing grudge against yomping outsiders.
But still, the boss man had a family crest drawn up, and staff from down the town, and different cars for different days, and shooting parties that meant he could play the plastic laird, so he kept Old Ginger on out there at his behest, filling the feeders with grain, eyeballing the pine plantations and scouring the moors for prey of either the animal or human variety.
See, that was Old Ginger’s problem. Decades up here had him so entrenched in the landscape that he lost his ability to differentiate between man and beast; all was quarry for Ginger. His was a world of blood and snares, raptors and hares. His architecture was bog-bone and feather. Wind and rain. Grass and heather.
Blade and gullet. Gun and bullet.
It was his way or that straight-as-an arrow tarmac highway that the Romans cut through the red upland sod two thousand years ago, the moors his fiefdom and pity any poor bastard in a rustling kagoule that crossed it unawares.
You heard so many stories about Ginge that you just knew some of them had to be true. Like the ones about him leaping out on lone folk and battering them senseless. Or the dogs he kept in cages and fed with a special cake mash dosed with speed and whisky to keep them tightly wound and radge for ratting round the grain feeders, or shredding the foxes that got at his birds, or, most likely, to drive away any nosey cunt that might be nebbing round his sad, stone box of a house up on the moor edge.
They said he had had a wife once, but she couldn’t hack it. Got sick of the magistrates’ court and the freezer full of animal parts. Blood under his nails as he pawed at her with his big fingers. Pelts in the airing cupboard. Offal in the pantry.
You’d know his face if you’d seen him: wind-worn and head half bald, the rest of it crowned by a frayed red mane. Cod-eyed, too, was Ginger. One eyeball forever wandering to a place inside his little skull. Mind, he was short with it. You’ll find that most moor men of a certain bloodline are. The best ones, anyway. They say the tall lads blow over like firs in a gale, but the stout boys just lean into it and plough on through. Legs like hams, had Old Ginger. The same circumference all the way down. Shaped by the hills and made for walking, though his knees were shot from a lifetime of stumbling through rut and runnel, so in those later years, he took to riding roughshod on a quad bike instead.
And then there was his clobber, unchanged as long as anyone had known him: steel-toed boots and the same fingerless gloves. No coat for him, either, just layer upon layer of shirt and jumper, a few of each, all matted and wadded together into a fleecy carapace of sweat and dirt and wool that he was said to sleep in, upright in his living-room chair, banked fire glowing, logs popping.
Pity anyone who tried to lift a brace of pheasant or snag a few hares from the estate with Old Ginger about. Broken bones were their reward and that was not the worst of it. One lad he tied up in the top wood and humiliated with pine cones in ways that don’t bear repeating.
Pity the creatures of tooth and claw even more. Because Old Ginger had traps and snares set up well away from any prying eyes, a mile or two’s walk from any road or track. Right up top, tucked into a fold of the moor or buried in a copse. Lagged to a stone wall, shoved into a stump. He was always trying out new methods. Updating old techniques for the sheer thrill of it. Once, in cold vengeance against a fox that had been seen skulking the grounds with a pheasant in its mouth one too many times, he took a small piece of sprung steel and tied it up with some dissolvable catgut cord made from intestines. Then, he boiled up some meat parts with special herbs that he knew would attract the creature, and he shaped it into a fat ball around the steel and set it in a prime spot that it was known to pass on its dawn rounds. The fox was not seen again, sure to have died a slow and diabolical death somewhere, all cut from the inside.
And then there were Old Ginger’s cages: great big things, maybe six feet tall and fifteen feet across. Birds of prey were his quarry – the raptors that fed on the big man’s grouse and pheasant. Old Ginger wouldn’t stand for that. If the foxes hadn’t got at the eggs and they somehow made it through hatching, then it was likely they might end up swept away when they were still defenceless balls of down, so the gamekeeper liked to strike first, with no quarter.
His cages had trapped hen harriers. Peregrines. Buzzards. Kestrels and sparrowhawks aplenty. Enough owls to stuff a mattress. Red kites were especially fine catches, but you had to be careful because they were wing-tagged following reintroduction a few years back. Even possessing the bones of a stripped red kite could spell time inside.
Only once had he snared himself a golden eagle. Its wingspan greater than the height of him, its beak like a sharpened shank. Talons like something from mythology. He dreamt of it for months afterwards. It haunted his sleep.
And here’s the worst bit. Old Ginger’s preferred method was to live bait the traps. Crows, mainly. But a trapped blue-black bird wasn’t enough of a lure for him. No. He would get himself a crow or blackbird or any hoodlum nesting in the estate’s wide-ranging woodlands, and then he would heat a spike in the pit of a fire and press it into that poor thing’s eyes. First one, then the other. Blinded it. And the crow would be screeching and squirming, but Old Ginger just bound its beak with an elastic band and gripped it tighter until the job was done.
Then he put it into the cage and left it there, and the bird would think it had died and gone to the next world, but a world where a cruel wind still blows in across the moor, whatever the season.
There was a gap at the top of the cage. The raptor would see the crow, swoop down, and then find itself stuck like a lobster in a Craster creel, too daft or disorientated to retrace its steps. And then it was his, ownership passed from branch and eyrie and sky to Old Ginger. In his hands lay the bird’s fate.
Old Ginger’s undoing was he never took a drink. He never went down the town to sink a few with the boys and that was his downfall. Because the boys will always turn a blind eye to a transgression and look after their own. They’re tight like that. Passing time and country tradition has made them that way. He claimed he didn’t like the taste, but it was people that bothered him. Being around them. Trapped in rooms with them. Their conversation. Their false laughter. Still, maybe if he had taken a drink, he wouldn’t have crossed swords with Young Kipper.
Now, Young Kipper ran a tight team of game boys. Poachers to a man. They did it for the sport, for the challenge, for the same reason their father’s fathers had. Hares, rabbits, pheasants, grouse. It didn’t matter what. Foxes and badgers. The occasional deer. They too liked to keep the old ways alive and try out the techniques their grandads had taught them as soon as they could walk: the slipknots, the big lamp, the long net and all of that. They were grafters, Kipper’s crew. Workers by day and poachers by night. They sold their beasts on the sly to the outdoor markets or to butchers in far-flung towns, or else they kept what they caught for their own pots. One was known to cook up a rabbit cassoulet good enough to serve in a Parisian restaurant.
And where Old Ginger was cruel, Young Kipper was mad. Next-level mad. The old boy never caught him at it but he knew what Kip’s boys were up to, and it galled him to see this new generation filching his best birds. Only once did he confront him, out on the moor, one on one, but the younger man just laughed and cited his right to roam and that was that. No square go, just festering resentment.
So the gamekeeper took revenge. He plotted until he found a weak spot. Young Kipper had two ravens. Beautiful things. He’d raised them since day one, turned them into pets. He’d been on the telly with them; he was damn near famous for his ravens, was Young Kipper. Well, naturally, Old Ginger had to have one of them. And that’s exactly what he did, snatching it one night, though no-one ever knew how, for Kipper kept them locked up good in his long garden at the end of town. Seemed Old Ginger was the greatest gamekeeper turned poacher of the lot of them.
Not long after Kipper found one of his beloved ravens vanished, a night raid on Old Ginger’s cages solved the mystery when it was found dead and blinded. Live bait gone wrong. He was inconsolable, and all of his boys knew this could only end one way. Retribution was as inevitable as the turning of the leaves, though none of them knew what form this justice might take. Calculated resolve took over; Young Kipper left it a week or two, then went out alone. He stalked the stalker. Put in the hours.
In the gloaming of an October evening, when his back was turned, Young Kipper pounced, bundling Old Ginger into one of his own baited cages up beyond the reservoir, the most remote one there was. You think you know what happened next, but you’re not even close, pal. For in that cage Young Kipper pulled out some pruning shears that he had sharpened up good with stone and oil, and he took a few bits of Old Ginger back for his remaining raven. An eyelid. A fingertip.
An earlobe. A lower lip.
He put them in his pocket and then he left the cage and walked out across the moor with only the waxy light of a hunter’s moon to guide him.
Old Ginger made it back, just about, minus a few vitals. Six stints of surgery sorted some of the physical aspects, but by then his head had fully gone, part of him forever in that cage: blood from eye and hand and ear and mouth slowly pooling in the blackening night, bird shit and feathers coating him as he writhed in the dirt, reaching out into the darkness, saying nothing, the maudlin song of the moor on the rising breeze.
Photograph by Daniel Rao / iStock