As The Field’s Macnab Challenge returns for 2023, intrepid sportsmen will set out to achieve this most famous feat guided by seasoned Macnab mentors of the game
Most sporting sorts know what a challenge it is to undertake a proper Macnab, by which we mean the modern classic iteration, inspired by John Buchan and tweaked for the modern sportsman in the pages of The Field. That is, to catch a salmon, shoot a stag and complete it with a brace of grouse, all taken between dawn and dusk in one day. We are delighted to launch The Field Macnab Challenge 2023 in association with Blaser, an apt partner that can fit you out with a rifle, shotgun and all the right kit for the hill. The Macnab is an undertaking that combines fieldsports and conservation, traditional and modern sporting techniques. It places the grouse, the red deer and the salmon on a pedestal, is concerned with their success, and demands an understanding of their environment and situation. To achieve a proper Macnab requires a number of crucial ingredients: skill, planning, dedication and that most elusive sporting component – luck. All these elements are bolstered by the gillies, gamekeepers and stalkers who put aspiring Macnabbers in the right spot and guide them to triumph. These Macnab mentors put in countless hours behind the scenes to ensure the best chance of success.
MACNAB MENTORS AND THEIR STORIES
“It’s definitely a team effort, with all hands on deck,” says Adam Hunt, a fishing gillie and stalker on Amhuinnsuidhe Castle and Morsgail estates in the Outer Hebrides. “Even though it’s the most stressful time of the year for me, it’s a great experience.” This coordination between gillie, keeper and stalker is of paramount importance, according to Hunt. “Each part of the Macnab has its own unique challenges. With salmon fishing you can’t see what you’re after, whereas with stalking you can see the stag, plan a route and then have it all end in disaster as the wind turns the other way.”
Innes Morrison, estate manager of Amhuinnsuidhe, agrees. “The specialised skills on each part of the Macnab are crucial for success,” he explains. “The difference between handling dogs for pointing grouse and stalking a stag is very particular.” The planning differs on many estates but for most it starts in the same way. “We usually begin with the salmon,” says Morrison. “Most people who come to us for a Macnab think the fishing will be the easiest; however, we rarely ever start with the grouse or the stag.” The salmon has been a nemesis of many prospective Macnabbers due to weather conditions, fish numbers or an overhasty strike.
Gannochy estate is renowned for its Macnab success rate, and headkeeper Colin Lanyon says one of the reasons for this is because their guests typically stay for a six-day week. “This maximises the chances of somebody landing a salmon, and in a normal Scottish summer on the east coast, rain can be a scarce commodity.” The estate has a cut-off time of 1pm for catching a salmon. “This gives us sufficient time in the afternoon for kitting up for grouse over the English pointers followed by a re-kitting for rifle zeroing and stalking,” Lanyon explains.
Lanyon has been at Gannochy for more than 25 years as a beatkeeper and then headkeeper. “The key thing for me is to never give up once the challenge has been taken on. I have been present at many successful Macnab attempts, with a sprinkling of occasions when the final part eluded us, usually due to failing light. Sometimes the stars align and the whole thing is achieved by mid-afternoon; on other occasions we are beaten on the hill by fickle winds, midges, mist, hillwalkers or simply running out of time.” With many Macnabs to choose from, Lanyon recalls a few that have stuck in his mind. “The ones where the attempt is achieved at the last knockings. So, a salmon landed at 12.57am on the Saturday would be up there. For these I take special delight in making the rest happen,” he says.
“Similarly, we were attempting to secure a shootable stag late into the evening with the salmon and the brace of grouse secured six or seven hours before. The stalking had been fraught with difficulties all afternoon. The focus and physical exertion required to pull a stag out of the bag in the last light when all seems hopeless, and failure looks certain, is extremely special for me.”
Hunt has fond Macnab memories to treasure as well. “I see the joy on the client’s face when they have achieved a Macnab and take so much pleasure from that. I have been fortunate enough in guiding three clients in a successful attempt and they each required different approaches and held their own challenges.”
Morrison holds the same view: “To see the achievement and the look on the client’s face when they have successfully completed the challenge is one of the best things for me. It is a special thing and quite an honour to be a part of.”
Many magical events happen on Macnab attempts. “I have seen a novice hooking and landing a salmon in hopeless conditions of blazing sunshine and low water and then shooting a right-and-left out of the first covey flushed. It all happens,” says Lanyon. “Another attempt that I was reminded of recently was when I was teaching a regular guest how to tie a small Willie Gunn tube fly in order that any subsequent salmon he caught would be on a fly of his own making. The finished tube would often be adorned with a small cone, but given the low water conditions I decided that the best thing to do would be to omit this and simply flare the end of the tube with a cigarette lighter to finish. It turns out superglue is highly flammable when wet, which meant the head of the fly immediately burst into flames on the vice, rapidly spreading to the body materials before we extinguished the fire. What was left of the fly was christened a “Flaming Gunn” and went on to catch a salmon the next day.”
These Macnab mentors have seen it all and experience the same feeling of disappointment when it doesn’t come together. “The bitterness of failure is as much a part of the experience as the elation of success,” Lanyon says, “though the whisky tastes better after the latter, of course. Not all handle it in the same way but all we can do is our best.”
This year we invite you to do your best and to take up the gauntlet and attempt The Field’s Macnab Challenge 2023, in association with Blaser.