This was written in August, 1986, 26 years ago, but I hope it might still amuse a few keen shots!
When I made my annual pilgrimage to Scotland in search of the famous grouse I was lucky enough to stay in a lovely Victorian shooting lodge called Kindrochet, near Calvine, in the beautiful Perthshire hills, just north of Blair Atholl. However, we actually shot on another estate called Dalnaspidal which belonged to Roger Adams, and was once the northernmost of the Atholl Estates.
I was first introduced to the pleasures of Scotland by a very special friend called Digby Sinclair whose family had rented Kindrochet from the Duke of Atholl, and our annual gatherings there were always very happy family occasions with good natured conversation and friendly ribbing about each other’s sporting skills, or lack of them.
The Lodge accommodated twelve guns and their wives, girlfriends, children, dogs and and we also took two girls up with us, to cook for the week, who were nearly always enthusiastic ‘Sloane Rangers’, of varying degrees of beauty and culinary expertise, but generally good sports.
All in all, Kindrochet was a most convivial atmosphere, and its ageing decor can best be described as ‘shabby chic’, but it provided us with a wonderful place to relax after a day walking the hills, with deep cast-iron baths, and rooms for every purpose, from the gun room, to the various reception rooms for playing bridge, reading quietly, or behaving raucously playing post-dinner ‘charades’
As well as our shooting on Dalnaspidal we were lucky enough to have several fishing beats on the nearby rivers, Garry and Tilt.
However, although I always thoroughly enjoyed my shooting I had never been a particularly keen fisherman, which frequently left me at a disadvantage when the conversation turned to the complexities of the rod and the fly, the river conditions and the most promising ‘beats’.
Even my most kind and generous friends would have to admit that I was not, by nature or temperament, ideally suited to this gentle art, and so I always listened in blissful ignorance, and some awe, to the exploits of the Lodge’s more serious fisherman.
However, one year, for reasons which will become apparent, I determined to try and learn more of this mysterious art, and so I enlisted the support of our two most accomplished fisherman, Mike Parker, and Hugh Sinclair.
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I persuaded them to teach me the basics of casting, and listened attentively as we tried to put theory into practise on the lawn outside the lodge, or on our own little river, which was a tributary of the Garry, when we were not walking up grouse at Dalnaspidal.
Friends who had known me from years past marvelled at my new found enthusiasm until they later realised the reason for it.
Why, they wondered, when I had spent so many previous years merely spectating on the river bank, encouraging dedicated but luckless fishermen and proffering liquid refreshment whenever it was required (which was often) had I suddenly donned borrowed waders and joined my companions in the icy waters?
The answer soon became apparent. A gentleman called ‘John MacNab’
John MacNab is a legend in the highlands although it is doubtful whether he ever existed in reality. The story I have heard is that many years ago, when gentlemen had the time and money to enjoy their sport to the full, three young bucks were sitting in their London Club feeling rather bored.
To alleviate their boredom they decided to travel north and each in turn would attempt to poach, in a single day, a brace of Grouse, a Salmon and a Stag from one or another of their friends’ estates, without detection.
And it was agreed that if caught they would each answer to the name John MacNab in the hope of confusing the constabulary and remaining anonymous.
So successful were their antics that a certain legend grew up around them which John Buchan subsequently immortalised in his book, ‘John MacNab’, and even to this day, achieving a ‘Macnab‘ still has a special mystique about it, and I would guess that there cannot be more than a few hundred people alive today who have achieved it, if that.
Well, this whole topic surfaced when I was about to publish a book about, ‘Game Cards’ which had been conceived, compiled and written by the then Lord Ralph Percy, now His Grace, the Duke of Northumberland, and which I had agreed to publish under the ’Debrett’ imprint, since I was then a part-owner and the Managing Director of Debrett, and had a penchant for publishing books on shooting, not always shared by the Company Accountant!
During the preparation of this book, Ralph and I enjoyed sharing various sporting experiences and reminiscences and tales which we had uncovered or discovered in our researches.
But in those days, apart from being a Debrett’s author, Ralph Percy’s principal occupation was that of a sporting letting agent, based in Northumberland, where he ran an outpost of Humberts and he had decided that, given the proper organisation, there was no reason why more people should not attempt a MacNab if they so wished
However, like all good theories this had to be put to the test and not with a ‘professional’ but preferably with someone who did not necessarily possess all the skills required; an enthusiastic amateur.
Enter one ‘guinea pig’ publisher. Ralph contacted me at the end of July and, out of the blue, asked me if I would attempt a MacNab. I was completely taken aback but at the same time immediately tempted by the challenge.
I quickly explained that I was not a fisherman, had never caught a salmon (or anything else) on a fly and had never stalked or shot a stag. He quickly dismissed my objections, telling me he would give me a ‘crash course’ in both.
We arranged that he would collect me at Kindrochet on the evening of Thursday 21st August and we were to drive up to Nairn that night to be at the Cawdor Estate at dawn the next morning.
Since he was coming to collect me, I invited him to a friendly clay-pigeon shoot between Kindrochet and Dalnaspidal Lodges which we were having that evening on the hill above our lodge.
This was always a friendly, but fiercely competitive affair and I certainly had some disapproving glances from the Dalnaspidal team when Ralph, shooting for Kindrochet, scored 40 out of 40 thereby securing the prize for us which alas turned out to be two bottles of English wine!
Later that evening at dinner the talk turned to MacNab and my friends around the table took much pleasure in ribbing me endlessly about my prospects for the following day. The ‘serious’ fisherman amongst us, especially seriously doubted my ability to land a salmon, although in sympathy and kindness, had lent me their waders and tried to teach me to cast respectably.
And so, after a raucous dinner, Ralph and I set off for Nairn where we were to spend the night in a very attractive Hotel which boasted one of the best fish restaurants in Scotland. Alas, we never had the chance to try it.
We arrived two hours after leaving Kindrochet just before midnight and having ‘checked in’ went straight to bed after requesting a wake-up call for 4am and breakfast at 4.30am!
But I did not need the wake-up call, for I woke on the dot of 3.45am, as if in anticipation of it and by 4.15 was dressed and packed and enjoying a very basic breakfast which had been left out for us as we had requested.
Ralph joined me at 4.30 and 5am we were driving through the early dawn towards Cawdor where the Earl had very kindly given us permission to ‘walk-up’ two brace of grouse on his moor (one each so that we could both attempt a MacNab if the opportunity arose).
We arrived at the appointed time and were met by the wonderful Head Keeper John Stewart and soon joined by his son Colin and another keeper, Roddy Forbes with their dogs.
We set off in the early morning with dew still heavy on the heather and as we walked across the first rather boggy strip of moor we saw a flight of duck coming across the early morning sky and then heard that wonderful swishing sound as they passed overhead.
God was smiling on us and the sky was clear, the air crisp and all seemed well with the world.
We had heard grouse when we arrived and soon put up our first covey. I shot, but missed, my hands cold in the dawn air and my arms still stiff from the night’s short sleep. But very soon another, smaller covey got up and I saw Ralph bag one quickly and cleanly.
It was a perfect morning and as the sun rose we saw the full beauty of Cawdor stretched out ahead of us. Our pace quickened a little and I soon had another chance when two grouse got up behind me, but I was off-balance with one foot stuck in a bog and so did not shoot
But our labours were soon rewarded and I shot my first bird of the day out of a small covey. We were in our stride now and minutes later Ralph shot his second bird, and emptied his gun.
I desperately needed my second bird so we could move on to the second part of our MacNab but it took another 15 minutes before I had another chance.
A large covey got up to my left and I selected my bird, aimed and fired. We each had a brace and the feeling of relief was palpable. I had visions of walking all day long whilst I tried to hit my second bird.
We left the heather and climbed back onto the road for the walk back to our car, deep in conversation with John Stewart about the previous days shooting. Cawdor is a driven grouse moor and the Earl is not too keen on walking up, so he had been kind to let us start our MacNab on his estate.
We took some photographs of each other with the keepers and our two brace of grouse as evidence, bade out farewells, put our guns and the ‘bag’ in the boot and headed towards the Spey, delighted with our early success.