Hardened sportsmen, “accidental” participants and a brace of Americans were quick to pick up the gauntlet dropped in the August issue with the launch of The Field and Hunter Balmoral Macnab Challenge. The honour of first blood went to accidental hero, Dr John Davies. He’d been invited to see in the 12th of August on the Gannochy estate, in Glen Esk, Angus. The party was there for three days’ walked-up grouse. Wandering down to the Esk for a pre-breakfast chuck on the 12th, he “hooked a small grilse at 8.15. And that sealed my fate”. He was subject to the breakfast rule imposed by estate owner, Allan Hemmings: anyone who catches a fish before eggs and bacon should try for a Macnab. It’s a story repeated by a further five successful Macnabbers, all of whom did the deed at Gannochy.
As soon as he’d swallowed some toast, the doctor was on the moors, where he swiftly despatched a leash of grouse. That left the deer. “I’ve never shot a stag before,” he admits. “But after five hours with Lee, the apprentice keeper, as my guide, a lethal shot was fired. It started off as 80% stress and 20% happiness and ended with 100% happiness.” A very happy accident. The Macnab board that hangs in the gunroom at Gannochy was started six years ago when Hemmings bought the estate and bagged a Macnab in his first year as owner. What is the secret of this record year?
“The salmon have been especially obliging,” Hemmings says. It is common currency that the salmon is the trickiest part of the Macnab – the scourge of many failed attempts. “The North Esk cuts through Gannochy and has been very productive this year, with the highest count on record for July, August and September.” He also credits impressive grouse management in the Angus glens. “It is paying rewards now, with grouse numbers back to their glory days,” he adds.
“Did you know that everywhere in Scotland is uphill?” a jovial American voice demands. Joe Thompson and John Fields Jr, who work together in Georgia, USA, visited Gannochy at the beginning of September. “The Macnab had been discussed in the lodge, and the more the guys talked about it the more we turned on to it,” says Fields. “We’d only fished before with a normal 9ft rod, but Sandy, the gillie, taught us to use a 15ft Spey rod,” adds Thompson. He caught a salmon on his last cast of the morning and it was so unexpected that Fields had to run to the lodge in his waders to procure a net for the 81⁄2lb catch. “The return journey was slightly easier – he made it in the BMW,” Thompson chuckles. The game was well and truly afoot with a stag and brace of grouse following. “My 125yd shot at a stag was the neatest part. After it dropped the entire herd came within 10ft of us,” he adds. By 4.15 Thompson had claimed his Macnab. “Everyone else went back to fish. I went to drink Scotch.”
Fellow countryman John Fields Jr bagged a reverse two days later, taking the stag first, then the salmon. “The headkeeper said I had to get a fish, so with Allan’s coaching I managed my first ever Atlantic salmon,” Fields reveals. “Big game and flying birds are fine, but fishing…” He was dispatched to the grouse moor with Lee, the apprentice keeper and headkeeper David’s 11-year-old son. “We’re looking forward to doing it again next year,” he says. “This year was rather expensive, though. One of the chaps innocently asked Joe, ‘Is it just the one gun, sir?’ He’s now looking to buy a pair.”
Daniel Riddle and his brother-in-law Stuart Hudson also chalked up their Macnabs at Gannochy. For Riddle it was his third in three successive years on the estate. “You should never pass one up. I was up at 5 o’clock but it was 7.30 before I caught the fish. It always seems to be 7.30,” he ponders. “But I do catch 90% of my salmon before breakfast.” It was only over the eggs and bacon that he decided to take up the challenge. “I was dressed for a walked-up day but everyone looked surprised,” he adds. “They sent me back upstairs to get changed into stalking gear.”
Riddle headed out with Lee to the Golden Stairs, the north side of the estate. “We had to go robotically slowly as every time we came over a blind brow we were in full view of the herd. Getting the rifle up was tricky but I finally managed the shot,” he says. “I was quite nervy by the time we got to the grouse. You never know where they’ll spring from, but after I missed a couple I hit the next two. It made for a very special day, and there was a lot of celebrating that evening.”
Not to be outdone, brother-in-law Stuart bagged his first in the same week. “It was my first ever salmon and I’ve been fishing since 2004,” he says. After taking the elusive fish at Gull’s Pool the 9-pointer stag came next, followed by a brace of grouse. “The salmon is going to be mounted, along with the stag’s head. It’s a day I’ll remember forever,” says Hudson.
“It’s all The Field’s fault,” accuses Dean Hemmings, whose Macnab was also bagged at Gannochy. “I visit for every Twelfth and this year I left with salmon, venison and grouse for the larder, and my second Macnab.” The beast was driven all the way back to Hampshire and made part of an excellent birthday feast.
Marc Sale had designs on doing the real version, a poached Macnab, at the Duchally estate but thought better of it when he recalled that friend and head stalker, Donald, was ex-forces and might present too staunch an opponent. So he plumped for the classic, planned with military precision. “A 5am start and we got the stag,” he says. “It went down with the first shot exactly where it was standing, but to our surprise a knobber also went down. The bullet had deflected at an acute angle and exited into the nearby knobber.”
An easy pick at the grouse was thwarted as Donald’s springer was caught in line. “I was worried about the grouse,” says Sale. “Donald is one of the best stalkers there is and my father’s an old gillie hand on the Oykel river – he had been assessing the pools on the Cassley (which runs through the Duchally estate) to point me in the right direction: but it is not a commercial moor.” The shot eventually came. A battle with the midges on the river accompanied the final salmon. “It was then definitely time to retire and celebrate,” recalls Sale.
Alex Brant also claimed a brace of stag, but with “a left-and-right” as part of a double Macnab taken from the Hope estate and the Tressady estate. With the stag and a pair of salmon on the Friday, and a double brace of grouse the evening before, the double was fitted snugly into 24 hours.
Tony Terry had never considered a Macnab but he and his nephew, over from Barbados, set their caps at it. With a 6lb salmon caught by nine o’clock, it was a nervous wait to see whether his nephew could do the same. At 11.30 he hooked a sea-trout. “We wished it had been a salmon,” says Terry, “although on any other day we would have been delighted with a sea-trout.” With his nephew out of the running Terry plucked a right-and-left, finishing with a stag at 4pm. “I’ve been coming to Strathspey for 20 years and the Macnab was a great all-round experience,” he says.
ONE FEMALE MACNABBER
The Macnab was the only challenge in his sights when Ruairidh Cooper went to the Balavil estate in Inverness-shire. “After a nerve-racking discussion planning our method the night before, the stalkers suggested we go for the stag first,” says Cooper. The first day of his first attempt and Cooper was greeted with heavy rain “and the certain knowledge that the salmon was going to be tricky”. An early foray into woodland to look for the beast was abandoned in favour of the hill, followed by an efficient brace of grouse and on to the river by one o’clock. It was five tense hours before he hooked a fish. “I didn’t know whether it was a sea-trout or a salmon,” admits Cooper, “I knew it was my last chance as darkness was looming. It was a 3lb salmon and it made my day.” Perseverance rewarded.
Our only successful female Macnabber showed first-class sporting skills – even if the suggestion to take to the hills had been fluttered past the headkeeper Richard Fraser at a very good party the evening before. But she was not to be daunted and the deed was done inside four and a half hours, including taking the stag with a 220yd shot and landing a salmon first and last thing. “I was incredibly lucky on the day,” says Jackie Weller, “but it was very exciting”.
“Jackie is a formidable fieldsportswoman and I’m amazed at how she managed the Macnab on such a difficult hill – to my knowledge there hasn’t been one on Forest Lodge (Blair Atholl) since Lila Charrington in 1987 and this is only the second in 26 years of my guests trying,” says host and witness Sten Bertelsen.
With the real Macnab still up for grabs – and we hear three Liverpudlians have issued the challenge to a landowner and are taking to the hills in an attempt to re-create Buchan’s derring-do – the compe-tition has bought out only the best of sporting spirits. At the Macnab Challenge Dinner on 2 December the tales may get taller, the hills steeper and the shots trickier in the re-telling, but we have nothing but praise and single malt for those who have taken part.