The heraldic deer on the gateposts gazed fixedly at one another as I passed between them. Maybe it was the early morning hour, but I could have sworn that the left-hand stag was curling his lip, while his fellow guardian of the drive to Glenveagh Castle looked momentarily as though a bad smell had brushed his distended nostrils.
With their heads held high, and a pair of real antlers fixed in each stone brow, they exuded aristocratic disdain. But that was nothing to the glare of utter disgust I received half a mile further on from the big red stag who had somehow got himself down to the shore of Lough Veagh below the drive. I'm sure he should have been safely on guard with his posse over on the wide moors of Derrylahan beyond the lough. Whatever about that, he gave a snort and cantered off, rolling his eye back to keep me under observation.
Glenveagh National Park is the pride and joy of Donegal, a haven not only for Ireland's largest herd of red deer but for plants, trees, bog insects, birds and anyone of the human persuasion who loves these things. You'll rarely walk in a more carefully preserved landscape than this. Glenveagh was acquired by the Irish nation in the 70s and 80s after more than a century of being managed as a private sporting estate, and its mountains and lakes retain an atmosphere of existing in some delightful time-warp outside the modern world.
I strolled by the dark waters of Lough Veagh, looking out across the lake to the lumpy spine of the Derryveagh Mountains, until the turrets of Glenveagh Castle peeped out of their trees ahead. The path led through sunken gardens and flowery dells to the massive granite walls of the castle -- no medieval stronghold, but a fine 'big house' built in Scottish baronial style in 1870-73 by one of the harshest of all landlords, John Adair. Inside the grim keep, Adair had a luxurious country house interior installed. He was notorious for having evicted 244 of his tenants in the bleak winter of 1861, in order to incorporate their land in his park. But when it came to pleasing his new American wife, Cornelia, no expense was spared.
Back along the beautiful loughside, I went down from the Visitor Centre through a Scots
pine wood to emerge in the wild moorland of Derrylahan, cradled in sunlit mountains of such beauty, it made me gasp. Pink fairy bonnets of lousewort spattered the bog. An electric-blue dragonfly manifested itself in front of my nose, hovered there for a second, then dematerialised, to reappear by magic a few feet away. Then red deer appeared, two dozen of them, trotting with grace over the hillside beyond a stunted oakwood.
It was Cornelia Adair who established the red deer herd at Glenveagh after John Adair died in 1885. Local people liked her as much as they had despised her arrogant husband, it's said. After he was gone, she enhanced the little kingdom of Glenveagh with flowers, trees and the free- running deer, and everyone is the beneficiary of that generous vision today.