The former Foreign Secretary speaks of his love of shooting and how visiting remote and beautiful parts of the country was a welcome escape from the pressures of high office
The Rt Hon Sir Malcolm Rifkind needs little introduction as the former Defence then Foreign Secretary who went on to chair the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament that oversees the UK’s security services. Yet any fear I had of feeling intimidated is soon dispelled by that familiar, affable soft Scottish accent as he welcomes me into the Little Venice flat in London he shares with his wife Sherrie, whom he married last November.
The well-lit room in which we settle features full bookshelves with titles devoted to the Scottish landscape, also to politics of course (including his own memoirs, Power and Pragmatism), plus framed photographs. One has him smiling amiably in the dark green, full regalia of The Royal Company of Archers – The King’s Bodyguard for Scotland. Another shows him with the late Queen at a beach picnic in Oronsay, Inner Hebrides.
He explains: “The Queen used to go on Britannia from the Clyde, round the north of Scotland to Balmoral. On this occasion, she had to visit the remote Ardnamurchan lighthouse near Mull. It was 1987 and I was Secretary of State for Scotland, so I needed to be in attendance when she made such visits to Scotland.” Just the two of them are in shot, both looking remarkably informal and at ease.
Sir Malcolm is a self-confessed ‘townie’
Such experiences aside, the role was “a hell of a demanding job”, he confides. “I needed something to be able to escape from the pressure of politics.” A self-confessed “townie by background”, he’d grown up in comfortable suburban Edinburgh yet he eschewed the local custom of golf, preferring “wilder, natural landscapes”.
In his late thirties, he took up riding but “did not have a natural sense of balance”. Next came shooting. A Dutch friend who’d settled in Scotland, the financier Peter de Vink, proved pivotal and persuaded him to try it. De Vink would go on to develop Huntly Cot, south of Edinburgh. “A very extraordinary shoot,” says Sir Malcolm. “Occasionally, you’d have four drives. The first drive would be up in the hills shooting grouse. Then two drives – pheasant and partridge – and after lunch, you’d go back on the hills to shoot grouse again.”
In the late 1980s, De Vink held the shooting rights at Arniston, the seat of the Dundas family. Sir Malcolm explains just how rewarding shooting turned out to be: “I wanted a sport that wasn’t competitive because politics itself is so competitive. Yes, you are aware of how you are shooting and assume others in the line are aware, too, but it is more about the camaraderie and the fresh air, enjoying the embrace of fieldsports – a gloriously relaxing way of spending a weekend or a day, not losing sight of the sport itself.”
Country pursuits did not distract from his progressing political career
He graduated from a cheap gun (“bought in case I didn’t like it”) to a Sabel pair, and he extended the range of shoots that he attended, geographically. While he does not name his hosts, he mentions a shoot on the Welsh border near Ludlow where the landscape is undulating and riverine, and “suddenly a kingfisher flashes past”, he recalls. “Getting to the point where you were standing with your gun required you to do a little climbing, then work your way down a narrow track to the precise spot where the pegs were.” His smile reveals his fond memory.
These pursuits did not distract from his progressing political career. He was one of only five politicians to have served at the ministerial level throughout the 18 years of the Thatcher and Major administrations. Then, “Blair chose to become Prime Minister and we were no longer required,” as he puts it. The countryside became a cause as well as a pursuit. He describes how the 2002 countryside march, which he went on with his son Hugo (now a journalist on The Times),was “the most extraordinary experience”, given the number of marchers thronging London’s streets.
“Blair has since acknowledged that the hunting ban was a great mistake. They thought that they were taking on a small bunch of toffs and that nobody else would give a damn. What they didn’t appreciate was the whole of the rural interest; this was a threat to a way of life, posed by townies taking the decision for political reasons.” He adds: “Virtually all of the hunts still exist and have adapted to what is legally possible, which is excellent. It is a salutary warning: Don’t take on shooting and fishing.”
Sir Malcolm and his work with the Supporting Wounded Veterans Rivers’ Forum
Political change and the health of his late first wife, Edith, along with the location of his two children, caused him to move from Edinburgh to London. However, Sir Malcolm has retained a love of fieldsports and has been able to parlay his wide-ranging experience into a set of causes close to his heart. A prime example is the Supporting Wounded Veterans Rivers’ Forum, which combines countryside issues (the quality of our waterways) with another great interest of Sir Malcolm’s: military veterans charities. He became chair of the forum in time for its conference in May, designed to coordinate the many different stakeholders in the water pollution issue.
“The single biggest issue is logistics,” says Sir Malcolm. “We know the solution: stop the pollution. The part we don’t tend to understand is where precisely the pollution originates, and this requires some intensive ongoing monitoring using measuring instruments.” At this point enter the veterans, who tend to excel at strategic thinking and coordinated fact-finding. The approach, built around widespread and intensive water monitoring, offers real hope for a cleaner future. We venture out into the Rifkinds’ long, green back garden created by Sherrie, where I admire the eclectic plantings – maple trees, an exotic 20-year-old palm tree, red bottlebrush – a reminder of how they have brought the countryside not only into his London home but also into his heart.