Who is John Macnab, and why has his name given rise to the ultimate sporting challenge? The man behind the Macnab Challenge is more than meets the eye

Who is John Macnab? “A tall bravo with a colonial accent” or “a gnarled Caliban of infinite cunning and gnome-like agility”, speculates Janet Raden, the indomitable female interest in John Buchan’s novel John Macnab. The second most popular of Buchan’s novels (The Thirty-Nine Steps claims top spot) was written in 1925. Unlike the majority of his work, sixpenny thrillers with spies and codes, John Macnab is a sporting adventure and required reading for any sportsman worth his powder. It is, after all, where the most modern and invigorating of sporting challenges kicked off.

John Macnab - fishing

A brace of John Macnabs

Buchan’s novel follows three men, each successful and set fair but afflicted by a dreadful taedium vitae. No physical ailment hampers them, just a loss of spirit and a want of interest in life: the type of ennui that encourages you to watch an hour of the shopping network for want of finding the remote control. Or take up something truly horrid, like fartlekking.


The three protagonists are old friends: Sir Edward Leithen, barrister and former Attorney General; John Palliser-Yeates, City banker; and Lord Lamancha, cabinet minister. At their club, with the help of Sir Archibald Roylance, whose Highland retreat will be their base, the ruse that will shake off their boredom takes shape.

As even the pleasure of shooting has palled, the three plan something “devilish difficult, devilish unpleasant, and calculated to make a man long for a dull life”. Adopting the nom de guerre John Macnab, they send letters to three Highland estates warning that a salmon or a stag will be killed and removed from the property during 48 hours, from midnight to midnight, and returned to the door of the big house. John Macnab will stand the cost.

The cost of their success will be £50 to a worthwhile charity, the price of failure, double. Like Ripon caught practising with his loaders, they all know that their kudos could be seriously if not permanently damaged by discovery. The frisson of danger is a devilish attraction.


“You’ve got to rediscover the comforts of life by losing them for a little,” insists Lamancha, and so the gentlemen poachers make their way north to Roylance’s house at Crask in the Highlands. The three estates where they test their mettle epitomise British post-war society. Glenraden, owned by Lord Raden, accepts the challenge in suitable spirit. Strathlarrig, where Sir Edward Leithen takes his salmon, is well defended by the American incumbents, but Haripol, owned by the newly enriched and distinctly serious Lord Claybody, proves to be the most difficult bastion to crack.

The three champions are consummate sportsmen, essential when engaging in enemy territory. Palliser-Yeates is an excellent shot, having stalked nearly every forest in Scotland. Leithen is an artist on the river, and Lamancha no mean shot himself. Leithen’s straight delicate casts and skill with the fly are vindicated as he is the only one of the allies who brings off John Macnab’s dare.

John Macnab stag

We seek him here, we seek him there…John Macnab could be anywhere.

The novel is derived from the real-life derring-do of Captain James Brander Dunbar. In a letter to The Field of 17 November, 1951 he clarified just what had given Buchan the idea. A dearth of shooting invitations and the assertion that he could kill a beast in any forest in Scotland was duly challenged by Lord Abinger. A .303 carbine rifle hidden inside a golf bag was his only attempt at mustering a semblance of stealth. After two blank mornings and on the verge of chucking in he took a six-pointer in the Iverlochy Forest (not quite a match for the Earl of Lamancha’s 13-pointer). He evaded pursuit by crossing the River Spean and carried off the head and neck ready for mounting. Presenting himself at the castle in the afternoon he received a cheque made payable to J. B-D., POACHER. After the book was published Buchan wrote to Brander apologising for failing to get his permission to use the story, but his vim was a great hook for the tale.

Today the competitive spirit outranks boredom as the driving factor for those taking to the hills in pursuit of the accepted modern version of a Macnab. It pits skill and endurance against the clock and unpredictable quarry.

Anyone can stand in the line and crumple a stately pheasant, but to take three species in one day requires another type of expertise altogether – and good fortune if a stag, salmon and brace of grouse are to be taken within 24 hours. Perhaps a little less thrilling than Buchan’s original, it’s still a sporting feat that can delight the most jaded sportsman. Many sporting lodges offer the chance to notch up the Highland triple in return for an appropriately serious certificate and sporting satisfaction. So whether it’s at a lodge, on your own land or on the down-low, we encourage everyone to have a go.

Whether the ennui has set in or Buchan’s poachers inspire a craving to take to the hills in the guise of a tramp, we urge you to take up the challenge, don the correct kit and start planning your assault.