As soon as I saw the itinerary I had my suspicions that joining the guests at Ackergill Tower in the far north of Scotland for a Wild Goose Chase house party in November would be no ordinary wildfowling trip. There were too many references to little luxuries not normally associated with the rigours of dawn and dusk flights on the mudflats. Words such as canapés, champagne, oysters and warming aperitifs sprang at me from the printed text – and that’s just for starters. I read on, intrigued by references to black tie dinners and visits to an opera house, but when I received a request for my boot size, followed by a hand-addressed envelope containing luggage labels with eau de Nil-coloured ties and the name of my room on the back, my suspicions were confirmed. This assignment for The Field would be different to any that had gone before.
I arrive too late on Friday for the evening shoot but in time for the wee dram that is pressed into my hand within 10 minutes of my arrival at Wick airport, which lies just fields from the hotel. Actually, the 15th-century Ackergill Tower is not really a hotel at all, but rather an “exclusive use retreat” standing on a bluff overlooking the North Sea and available for private hire. If you don’t have the wherewithal to take over the whole place or the friends to fill it, there is always the opportunity to join one of Ackergill’s open house parties, which are cleverly timed to coincide with much of what makes Scotland great; Hogmanay, the month of August, a celebration of Scottish food around the time of Valentine’s Day and, of course, the autumn wildfowling weekend in November.
I am shown to my room by Jackie – the staff here are so brilliant at remembering guests’ names that the least I can do is return the compliment – who informs me that none of the rooms has a lock. Whether this is to encourage shenanigans in the style of Downton Abbey or to give guests the impression of staying in a private house she does not let on. But Jackie does open the wardrobe to reveal my own kilt, although I am advised that dress for this evening will be jacket and tie.
Suitably attired, I make my way down to the drawing-room to meet the other guests, and find a mix of property and City entrepreneurs, a florist and the chef of a two-star Michelin restaurant in Mayfair. Call me a cynic, but the fact that most of the men are accompanied by glamorous other halves is a teeny bit of a giveaway that sport might just cede first place to other, intramural activities…such as food.
What I wonder, will scallop mousseline or shellfish cappuccino taste like to my uncultured palate, or for that matter, toasted grains, cauliflower and squid risotto, orange and cardamom ice cream. The answer is mind-blowingly delicious, and I now realise why those restaurant critics dunk words such as subtle, fragrant and historic into their reviews. But there is no time to congratulate head chef, Kevin Dalgleish, for it’s “we’re off to the beach now” from Ackergill’s jolly events manager, Lisa Coghill. We follow her through the night to a lone piper playing in front of what resembles an Indian funeral pyre on the seashore. There is a wooden shack stocked with malt whiskies and an Orkney lighthouse blinks intermittently through splinters of rain. The setting is wildly romantic or completely over the top depending on which way you look at it or, to be fair, on whether you are alone or with your beloved. When drizzle turns to rain the Alpha Male of our group – a former City whiz kid who farms in Yorkshire – stands up and announces, “enough is enough”. We follow the sea wall back to the tower in silent agreement.
Guides, Hamish Steven and Colin Richards, are waiting beside a blazing fire in the gun hall at six the following morning, along with coffee, tea and bacon butties, lest we feel peckish after five hours’ slumber. Hamish sorts us out with guns, cartridges and waders but we have already been allocated our own gumboots and Barbour coats. We each borrow an Ackergill gun except for AM, who has brought along a 12-bore that has the longest (camouflaged) barrels I have ever seen. When the estate Land Rover leaves the Tarmac 10 minutes later Hamish switches off the lights and we drive in darkness alongside a muddy pipeline, with the moonlit Wester Loch glinting pewter grey in the distance. Colin disembarks with a couple of guests near the outflow leaving me, Hamish and Michelin chef, Robert Weston, to cover the inlet where the loch is fed by a small burn.
As daylight unravels from the blanket of night I hear a cock grouse chortling in the heather, the cackle of geese somewhere on the mile-long sheet of water in front of us, and the rumble of vehicles bumping along the pipeline, their headlights on full beam.
On this penultimate weekend in November dawn rises over a Caithness landscape that is overwhelmingly grey – grey skies, grey water and flocks of grey geese that are now lifting in rafts to head inland and glean the stubbles but not, it seems, over us. This is hardly surprising, for as daylight emerges we are left so exposed on a promontory that in these windless conditions no self-respecting goose would venture within 200yd, let alone within range of even AM’s shotgun. Hamish is doing his best to entice geese in with his call but, like turning off his Land Rover headlights, the gesture is more likely to impress guests than local wildfowl.
A flock of shrilling oystercatchers executes a fly by, the light now strong enough for us to pick out white wing bars and slender orange-red beaks that briefly brighten the canvas of dawn, and then a shot rolls out across the water from the far end of the loch. The time is 7.33 and for the next half-hour the bleak landscape is punctuated by a dozen or more reports that add a pinkfooted goose and a handful of mallard to the bag, but there is less luck at our end as successive skeins of geese, together with mallard, wigeon and teal, bank away sharply on spotting us.
I ask Hamish in a whisper why there is nothing to hide behind. “You’re the first person that’s ever said that,” he replies. Hamish is a charming chap and I have no idea whether to interpret his response as a compliment or an insult, but he gets my drift. “We did put up blinds once,” he admits, “but they got washed away by floods and have never been replaced.” Considering how much attention the management lavishes on guests once they’re inside the front door of the Tower, the extent to which sport has been neglected is quite out of character: temporary blinds erected a few weeks earlier could have made all the difference.
We return to the loch seven hours later for the evening flight, but this time I choose the outflow where I can see distant flocks of wildfowl paddling beneath salmon-pink skies as they wait for nightfall. There is a terrific flight of snipe lifting from sieve beds but I hold my fire, reluctant to emulate the man who ruins the first drive by loosing off at an early pigeon. Two or three duck are shot away to my right before hundreds of whooper swans head straight for us on heavy wingbeats, whistling eerily in the gloaming. We have been warned not to mistake swans for geese but in the seconds between pushing the safety catch forward and moving it back again as long, wobbling, necks take shape in the gloaming, I feel a pang of solidarity with anyone who has inadvertently slain the albino goose.
Before dinner I discuss shooting with Ackergill‘s manager, Helen McKenzie Smith, and her husband Drew (there’s now a new manager, Jeanette Montgomery). We agree that wildfowling is an unpredictable game but that more could be done to improve the odds. To flight the same water for wildfowl several times over a long weekend does not make sense, and although the Wester’s SSSI status prohibits supplementary feeding, scrapes could be created elsewhere on the estate. There are prodigious quantities of wildfowl swarming all over this corner of Caithness, and no reason why well-sited flight ponds would not produce superlative sport – and a little barbed wire would deter curious cattle should the management reinstate the blinds at Wester Loch.
Having spent the Sabbath shooting clays with Hamish, there is a last chance of a goose on Monday morning, when the chef’s reward for feeding us like royalty is to join the dawn flight. If there is any justice in the world he will get his goose, but only whooper swans fly honking over his head.
With frequent flights between London and Wick it can only be a matter of time before the likes of AA Gill visit and put Kevin firmly on the culinary map, but would I recommend Ackergill to Field readers? Despite the comfort, I find myself repeating,”wild goose chase by name and wild goose chase by nature” over and again, and therein lies the answer.
Ackergill in November is about being spoilt rotten between the odd shot at dawn and dusk. According to Kevin Hall, one of many who regard the place as a second home, “Ackergill is like nowhere else on earth; you are alone with your thoughts in total peace.” Come seeking peace and you will not be disappointed. Leave your winter woollies behind, for they and everything else you could possibly need during your stay are provided. Everything except for geese.
Call Ackergill Tower on 01955 603556.