The wild landscape of the Outer Hebrides provided adventure – and the ideal backdrop to a true sporting challenge
The Macnab Challenge is the ultimate sporting test, as The Field and Pol Roger’s Macnab attempt team discovered when they set out to Harris to bag a salmon, a stag and a brace of grouse in 24 hours.
Are you one of the bravest sportsmen or women, willing to set boot to moor and take on fieldsports’ ultimate challenge? Find out more about the Macnab Challenge, including what kit to pack, what type to attempt and which estate to take it on.
A TEAM MACNAB ATTEMPT
Some sporting days are simply better than others. Of course, we all love standing on the peg or coffee housing before a day’s shooting or hunting. But sometimes, just sometimes, there are days that take your breath away. Days that combine adventure, skill, luck, frustration, a hefty dollop of fun and hints of despair and joy. Days that involve land, sea and air. Days when the road trip is as much a part of the enterprise as the sport. Days when strangers become firm friends. Days such as the one when the Macnab Challenge was undertaken by The Field and Pol Roger team last October. Days like these are what gild a game book.
What had started as the word in London at the beginning of 2016, “A Macnab? On Harris? In October?” became flesh when Pol Roger and The Field gathered together a team of likely sorts to undertake the ultimate sporting quest as part of The Field’s Macnab Challenge, sponsored by the Pol Roger Portfolio. A Macnab attempt is not for the faint-hearted or easily distracted. To bag a salmon, a brace of grouse and a stag in one day requires a combination of skill, luck, fortitude and forward planning. To take one on Harris in the Outer Hebrides, a landscape wild with possibility, simply added to the sense of adventure.
Just as the literary Macnab (see John Macnab by John Buchan) started in London, those of us based near the capital bagged a spot on the sleeper train heading north out of Euston on the Friday night ready for our Monday Macnab attempt. The six runners and riders who converged on Inverawe in Argyllshire before casting off for the Hebrides were: Paul Graham from Pol Roger and William Parry of The Wild Wessex Plum Company, both veterans of the 2014 campaign; Isobel Barnes from Loyton Lodge in Devon; deer-stalker and crack-shot Robert Everitt from Hull Cartridge Co; Field columnist Tim Field; and Bertie Thewes, sales director at Inverawe Smokehouse. Add to this Edward Henderson, our filmmaker (the film will be available online in February), and myself, to keep the wheels straight, we made a merry little gang.
REACHING BASE CAMP
Thewes greeted us as we disembarked from the sleeper at Upper Tyndrum before heading for Inverawe, where Patrick Campbell-Preston, whose family own Inverawe Smokehouse, and Thewes welcomed us to their “bachelor hut”, Dahlnor. Both live in the south but commute to Inverawe for a week or two at a time and stay here. Already infected with the spirit of adventure, it was too much to sit and wait for the others to arrive so the morning was spent under Thewes’s expert direction picking chanterelles for supper and exploring the smokehouse – which delivers some of the best smoked salmon in the world.
There is only one thing to do on an unexpectedly braw day in the Highlands – picnic. So we did, overlooking Loch Etive and joined by William Parry and Robert Everitt. Paul Graham, who had missed the sleeper due to a family emergency, completed an exhausting daytime trek to arrive at 9pm in time for our foraged supper. The Macnab attempt team was complete.
Maps were brandished, routes checked and cars professionally packed by the ex-military element on the Macnab squad before we spun out of Inverawe at first reveille on Sunday, heading towards Uig on Skye and the ferry to Tarbert. Thewes piloted his Subaru with Barnes, Field and I packed in among the bags. “Team Range Rover”, comprising Graham, Parry and Everitt in matching navy jumpers (unintentional), agreed to meet us there, “as we’ll probably stop for lunch on the way”. But Aesop had something when he wrote of the tortoise and the hare. As our Highland host set his course for Uig, Team RR took in an unscheduled 50-mile detour due to a navigational blip, finally arriving at Uig in need of a stiffener. “The trip from Inverawe to Harris was one of utter joy,” said first-to-arrive Thewes. “This was the west of Scotland at its glorious best: peerless azure skies, vibrant hues on the autumn leaves and staggeringly beautiful views.”
As we crossed to Harris, the shimmer of excitement turned into a haze as the team slotted together like old hands and plans were laid for the morrow.
Harris is an otherworldly island, sharp with stone, bleak, brutal and beautiful. You can fall in love with the island and for those who have taken up its challenges it imprints itself upon your sporting soul. Our refuge was Amhuinnsuidhe – a Victorian, turreted, fairy-tale castle (best shelve conjecture about who was beauty and who the beast) set in 55,000 acres – our stay organised by Mungo Ingleby at CKD Galbraith.
Estate manager Innes Morrison welcomed us to the castle before taking us swiftly to the hill to zero rifles before dark. Anticipation grew as we headed back to dress for dinner, the giddiness enhanced by a riotous after-dinner game of Freda at the billiard table. But Macnabbers know when its time to retire, for sporting excellence is required on the hill.
We woke before dawn, scoffed a breakfast liberally dosed with Stornoway black pudding and headed to the boot room. The Macnab stockings in bright blue topped with orange that Graham had ordered from Almost Unwearoutable made an appearance and rifles, rods, shotguns, pieces, film, footwear, flasks and fags were loaded into the vehicles. We were away.
Graham and Everitt headed straight for the hill while the other two teams sought a salmon on the castle river system to start. On the sea pool in front of the castle Field felt his fly connect. As Morrison and head gillie Ian Jones ran to the pool, Field muttered the fateful words, “I’ve got a 100% strike rate fishing on Harris and Lewis”; the fish jinked and was lost. “There was a feeling of total astonishment when playing a fish within 20 minutes of sunrise,” said Field. “We were on. Followed by total disbelief and a few expletives when the brute came off.” As he struggled to overcome the frustration we jumped into vehicles to head up through Glen Meavaig on the Meavaig track to the estate fishing hut on Loch Voshimid. One of the most productive freshwater salmon and sea-trout systems in Europe, we held high hopes for this loch, neighbouring Weedy Loch and the River Voshimid that flows for three miles down towards Loch Reasort. We passed the stalking team with their stalker, Finlay Owen, heading for the hills, wished each other sporting luck and headed straight out onto the Voshimid.
As Parry and Thewes fished the loch, Barnes and Field walked down the Voshimid towards Long Pool. Guns were unsheathed and Jones’s black labrador, Fern, scouted for grouse as we plashed through the peaty, boggy ground, interspersed by drumlins, poking their ancient noses from the earth. Salmon were plentiful but those keen to be bothered by a fly were wilfully less numerous. As Barnes and Field fished and fished, a solitary sea-trout made the bag. “I have never been so disappointed to catch a fish,” remarked a disconsolate Field.
“But what a privilege it is to join this rather romantic, literary-inspired adventure, now as much a woman’s challenge as a man’s, although on this occasion it was not to be,” remarked Barnes as we contemplated our return to fishing hut, soothed by a sloe gin. Time for pieces and a rethink.
We were joined by Thewes and Parry, who had had similarly dismal luck. “A salmon jumped out of the water onto the rock I was standing next to,” said Thewes, who had been wading the shores of Loch Voshimid. “If I had had my gun I would have been tempted to shoot it,” he joked. Despite a gusting 40mph wind, the fishing party had taken to boats but the salmon didn’t appreciate the change in form. “First cast at first light and all looked well for a spectacular day,” mused Parry, “but eight hours of fishing later with no success to trouble the scorers, how wrong was I.”
Perhaps the stalking team had fared better? Exhausted and beetroot hued they returned from the hill with a similar tale of bad luck. The buffeting, swirling wind had caused chaos on the hill.
“I have 29½in legs and Paul has 39½in ones; it takes him about four strides to get up the hill and me about two days,” laughed Everitt debriefing on the stalking morning. Like the fishermen, they had been out at first light, intending to get round a beast lower down as they were hoping for two stags. “We spotted a group about 900 yards up from the track including a switch and a young stag, which looked like potentials. But with the wind up we decided to climb to the top to look over the other side.” Having dropped down to scout into other corries the pair spent an hour and a half in one corrie edging onto a stag at a vertiginous angle below, which gave Graham a fleeting glimpse before being winded. “Each time we sighted a group the wind seemed to change. The second stag was a 250-yard shot and it was agreed the shot wouldn’t be taken. When we headed back to the first group we had spied in the morning they had disappeared.” After a large stag was spotted on top another climb took the stalkers to the boulder-strewn landscape above. He was couched up among the rocky ground but was winded again. “The wind was incredible, so strong that it nearly blew both of us off our feet,” said Everitt.
There followed a brief pit-stop to eat their piece in the hut before chasing grouse. Six hours on the hill stalking was followed by some very tough walked-up grouse in the flailing wind.
Having crossed a waterfall the pair headed back down Glen Meavig towards Loch Scourst, where Graham took a well-shot brace of grouse, snap shooting in the increasingly extreme conditions, before returning to the hut to get kitted up for the lake. Everitt waded out bottom deep in his breeks to tempt the fish. But, sadly, the right species did not sniff at his fly, although two sea-trout were tempted.
“Champagne Pol Roger was a wine founded on one man’s spirit for adventure and a belief that he could endeavour to create one of the world’s finest wines. It is with this element of bravery and desire to go beyond the ordinary that we were so happy to be a part of the Macnab Challenge,” explained Paul Graham. “It was the unpredictableness that was to be our undoing, fickle nature does as it wishes which is very true of planting vines in such a marginal climate as the Champagne region. The ultimate goal was not realised, of course, but the camaraderie and joy to be on the hill was enough to say the Macnab attempt was worth every moment.”
With the salmon still elusive, Field and Everitt had to be prised off the water as the decision was made to head back to Amhuinnsuidhe in the gloaming. At the castle, they made one last ditch attempt to catch a fish on the castle system as the sun set and the rest of the team slipped inside for baths before dinner.
A long way to go for a brace of grouse? Undoubtedly. A long was to go for the adventure of a lifetime? Not at all. Here’s to blood, as the gillies toast, and next time.