Fishing and Shooting: Keepers would start walking before dawn to cover the 12 miles for the day’s shoot

Until recently, if someone had said “Langwell” I would have thought of either the estate in Caithness or the one by Ullapool owned by Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail.

However, a “new” Langwell turns out to be in the middle of Ross-shire. It was a 40,000 acre estate, with a lodge on the Oykel. Yet in less than 80 years Langwell as a sporting estate has almost vanished from memory. And in a very few years it would have disappeared altogether; but for Calum Campbell, the keeper at Esslemont in Aberdeenshire.

Campbell acquired a collection of old photo albums that had been sold in a clearance sale in Dorset following the death of a Miss Debenham whose father had rented Langwell in the 1920s and 1930s from Sir Charles Ross (inventor of the Ross Rifle).

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Although Campbell had no connection with the area he realised that in these albums was an invaluable snapshot of sporting life in the Highlands. He has now published Langwell, a compilation of shooting, stalking and fishing photos taken by the Debenham family (nothing to do with the shop).

Of the photos of the pony boys with their garrons and shires he wonders of their expressionless gaze: “Was it because of their hard life or the way people posed in that era?” These were the days, as he writes, when keepers and dog handlers would start out walking before dawn to cover the 12 miles to the high-tops for the day’s ptarmigan shoot, and back again. The Debenhams and their guests would leave later on horseback. “I should think it was quite possibly more than 12 miles. But people didn’t know any different then,” says retired gillie Ronnie Ross.

Ronnie became Campbell’s guide through place names and local genealogy. On Saturday nights his father, head keeper at Langwell, would cross the Oykel on stilts with his fiddle to play in the local band. Stilts were still widely used to cross rivers in the 1930s.

Langwell was broken up in the 1950s although the farm remains. All the Langwell estate records were destroyed in a fire at Balnagowan, now owned by former Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed who has written the forward.

The only records that Langwell existed as a sporting entity are the Debenham albums and Campbell’s book. “It wasn’t made easier by the fact I managed to have a brain haemorrhage while writing it and the Debenhams seldom named people in their photographs, only their dogs!” Fortunately Campbell has recovered and is now back at work. The book is on Facebook and via [email protected]