Michael Scott retired from hunt service after 26 seasons with the Old Berks on 1 May. Marcus Armytage – a former Old Berks MFH – talks to him about a life in hunting
IT may not quite have panned out as anyone would have wanted for a swansong with a few intermittent days between lockdowns but, after 26 years with the Old Berks, its understated, highly respected and popular huntsman Michael Scott hung up his horn on 1 May.
James Andrews, master of the South and West Wilts, once reflected when he returned to judge at an Old Berks puppy show that the best thing he ever did as master of that hunt was to bring Michael, now 57, to Faringdon as his kennel-huntsman in 1995.
The son of a watchmaker in the Scottish Borders, Michael’s first brush with hunting was when he, aged 13, saw the Berwickshire hounds meeting in the square at Coldstream. He followed them on his bike and he was hooked.
“A former neighbour followed the hounds every Saturday in his car and his wife came to the shop the next week asking if I’d like to go hunting again on Saturday,” he recalls. “It was foxes that first interested me. I wanted to see a fox and then everything else that surrounds it. That led me on to looking up where the local packs were meeting in the local paper. I used to get the bus 12 miles to school and I worked out that if I could miss the bus I could use that day to go hunting.
“In the October holidays when all my school mates went picking tatties, I went cubbing six mornings a week – that’s how fanatical I became about it. I even cut out photographs of huntsmen and stuck them on my bedroom wall. Is that sad?
“One abiding memory was the North Northumberland killing a fox mid-stream in the Tweed as it tried to swim from England to Scotland. I saw the huntsmen of these packs as my mentors and the more I went, the more I wanted a career in it.”
He got little help from his school careers adviser when he said he was interested in hunt service, so he wrote to local masters.
Christopher Spalding invited him to spend a week in the kennels with Michael King at the Lauderdale, and he was away. Michael put him in touch with the Fitzwilliam’s stud groom Bill Taylor, where he spent two years as second horseman; a job which filled in another gap on his CV – learning to ride.
He then did stints with the Taunton Vale and the Quorn.
“It’s a lot harder for young hunt staff these days,” he says. “I grew up in the 1980s whipping-in to the Quorn. It was such a good education. I did all the stopping on Tuesdays and Fridays. I was so happy, Michael Farrin had to persuade me to move on.”
When James Andrews moved on to the South Pembrokeshire, Michael assumed the Old Berks would replace him with another amateur: “I never expected to get the huntsman’s job but the chairman, Lord Astor, knocked on my door one day and said could I be the huntsman of the Old Berks Hunt?”
You bet he could.
A match made in heaven
THE Old Berks might not be the hunting country it once was, but where is? Like all packs, its territory has been compromised by development, particularly Swindon’s move eastward, the urbanisation of the old Vale villages, increased traffic and, ironically, the growth of sister field sport, shooting.
The Great Western Railway which carves through the middle – well, that is nothing new; it has been a hazard for Old Berks since 1840.
Michael and the Old Berks country was a match made in heaven, though. His unflashy style suited the country.
“The best days were when all the stars aligned, you moved off from the meet and the hounds hunted continually until dark,” he reflects. “You didn’t have to hunt them on those days. Occasionally the scent could be too good and they’d fly, which could be a bit of a nightmare in tight country and with the railway. But we used to take the hounds down to Dartmoor most springs and it was great to see how they adapted to open country.
“Would I do it all again? Not starting from now, I wouldn’t. Hunting faces so many challenges. There are far more boundaries to work within.
“Shooting has affected it in a huge way but without their co-operation we wouldn’t be able to manage, so we have to be grateful they accommodate us. There’s still a lot of goodwill out there in the population – if we were on hound exercise, most motorists would stop and take a photo.
“But there’s still a lot of great hunting to be had with the Old Berks. They are still hardly ever on a road except to cross it.”
Michael Scott’s affinity for hounds
OCCASIONALLY other hunts tried to poach Michael, but he was loyal and never gave offers a second thought.
“I was very content,” he explains. “The masters trusted me to run the kennels in the fashion I wanted. It was a good set-up and a well-organised mastership. I loved hunting the country and the people.
“Some asked me whether it was all a bit predictable, hunting the same country after 26 years, but you still never knew what would happen from one day to the next.
“People ask, ‘Will you miss the riding?’ I won’t miss that, but I’ll miss the hounds and hunting them most. I don’t think you can teach someone to be a houndman – you have to be born with an affinity for them.
“I once took 32 couple out autumn hunting without a whipper-in. I did get a strange look from [former master] Mrs L-P [Jessica Leigh-Pemberton] when she asked how many hounds we had out.
“Bringing hounds into the world at birth – not always straightforward – and watching them grow and develop, making sure they have a good life, entering to hunting, witnessing the achievements it makes during its lifetime, that’s something very special.”
Michael, who runs 10km races for the White Horse Harriers, met his partner, Sandra, while singing for the Cotswold Male Voice Choir, making him one of the few huntsmen to have a CD in the shops, although Ed Sheeran is not looking over his shoulder quite yet.
His son Archie is training to be an aircraft engineer in the RAF while his daughter Katie is a semi-professional cyclist with Cams-Basso, one hurdle and a bit of luck away from a professional career in road cycling.
Like a lot of huntsmen who have spent their working lives keeping kennels immaculate and colourful, Scott is as talented with plants as he was with hounds. He is already working as a gardener and about to take a Royal Horticultural Society gardeners course at Bampton.
“You only live once,” he explains, “and I wanted to give something else a shot while I was still fit and able.”
This exclusive feature is also available to read in Horse & Hound, on sale Thursday 8 July
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