Those who succeeded explain what completing The Field Macnab Challenge 2021 means to them
Off the back of over a year of lockdowns, the quest to complete the The Field Macnab Challenge 2021 has perhaps never been more tempting. Here, those who were successful recount what it means to them.
Keen to enter The Field’s Macnab Challenge next season? Take a look at how to choose your Macnab type.
Find out all about John Macnab: who is he, and why has his name given rise to the ultimate sporting challenge?
THE FIELD MACNAB CHALLENGE 2021
“We need to do something drastic. Nothing seems to be working,” said Ward Svarvari’s gillie at breakfast after three days of flogging the North Esk river to no avail. “These Atlantic salmon were maddening,” remembers the American, who had made the trip to the Gannochy Estate in Angus from Kansas. “They were constantly jumping, taunting us with their presence, while we flailed our spey rods in vain. It was an extremely humbling experience to the point of hopeless despair. So [our gillie] Ali pulled out the unconventional Red Francis. A dozen casts later into Witch’s Pool and I was in business. As Ali netted the 9lb buck, the first Atlantic salmon I have ever caught, a scream of unbridled exuberance and excitement was unleashed. Unlock the mountains! My Macnab was on.”
After more than a year of lockdowns, there is perhaps nothing more liberating than the prospect of being set free in the Highlands; the more bracing the wind the better. Throw into the mix a quest to complete The Field Macnab Challenge 2021 – bagging a salmon, stag and brace of grouse within one day between dawn and dusk, as inspired by John Buchan’s 1925 novel John Macnab – and the taste of freedom is intoxicating.
Svarvari was one of five Americans who ventured to Scotland this season (a feat in itself with all the travel restrictions to navigate), their hearts set on completing the devilishly difficult Classic Macnab. “As we walked down [the hill after completing it], I was in utter wonderment, in a daze as to the day’s events. To complete a Macnab successfully with what was my first Atlantic salmon, my first brace of grouse and first stag, I would venture to say is the crowning achievement in my sporting career, one that most likely will not be surpassed,” he says.
With Svarvari at Gannochy was Illinois Blasdel, also from Kansas, who bagged his brace of grouse in no less dramatic fashion than the rollercoaster of fishing on the North Esk the pair had experienced. “Minutes after our entourage was assembled on the grouse moor, the dogs were released and on point in a matter of seconds,” he recounts. “Tension building, I walked through the point to the visible group of birds and repeated over and over to myself a lesson learned from shooting quail back in the States: pick one bird. The covey got up and I shot my bird. Dead. But then another bird fell. Dead. My brace had been achieved with one shot. A jubilant ride down the hill, a quick change into stalking apparel and we were off to the deer forest at approximately 2pm. After accompanying my companions on two successful stalks that week, I was ready for a gruelling hike over several peaks. But a herd with suitable stags was spotted on our side of the mountain, so it was more of a crawl than a hike through the heather as we approached. I took the selected stag at approximately 3.45pm, followed immediately by a whisky.”
A GANNOCHY QUEST TO COMPLETE THE FIELD MACNAB CHALLENGE 2021
Gannochy has garnered a reputation for Macnabs; its position in Glen Esk and savvy management by owner Allan Hemmings and headkeeper Colin Lanyon creating the perfect recipe for thrilling sport. After catching a fish just before 8am on a late September morning on the estate, Devon-based Simon Channing was able to bag a bird quickly after breakfast before the nerves began to mount on what was his first Macnab attempt. “Two further points resulted in two missed opportunities and a howling gale didn’t help my somewhat rusty shooting,” he remembers. “It took quite a while before my German short-haired pointer, Wisp, went on point again but this time I managed to take a fast breaking old cock bird, much to my relief.”
After an agonisingly slow start to the stalk, the day looked to be running away from Channing. “I really felt the challenge was over when Colin somehow managed to spot a lone stag way down in the valley leaving us no choice other than to descend at breakneck speed in the fading light,” he says, recounting the mounting pressure of the final crawl. “Thankfully, things went smoothly and a magnificent 12-pointer completed my first Macnab and finished a day that I will cherish forever.”
For Macnab old hand Joseph Thompson, who completed the challenge again at Gannochy this season, familiar territory doesn’t diminish the thrill. “The most challenging part of my Macnab [attempts] is catching the salmon. This year was particularly hard as the North Esk is a spate river and we had very little rain, so the fish were finicky and the water was low and clear. I ultimately caught the fish in Upper Bridge pool – reaching it required that I climb up a rather large boulder and then lower myself back down the other side with a rope.
“I have completed several Macnabs over the years and for me it is about the close friends I have made in Scotland, the unbelievable hard work and dedication of the keepers, the passion for conservation, fair chase sport that Allan Hemmings has as well as the deep respect for the game.” As to his advice for hopeful Macnabbers: “Be in shape and be on the river before sun-up,” he says.
At Amhuinnsuidhe Castle on the Isle of Harris, “nature did not yield her prize easily,” says American Daniel Ongna, who had brushed up on Buchan’s novel before making the trip from Wisconsin with his wife, Peggy, to be faced with two days of rain and gale force nine winds on the Outer Hebrides. On the final day of the trip, organised by Mungo Ingleby at Sporting Lets, the weather cleared and by 9.30am Ongna was being blooded for his first red stag after an easy half-a-mile stalk.
“After delivering the stag to the cooler we hurried to Castle river for a salmon and the fishing gods truly favoured me that day. Just 45 minutes of casting found us netting a pretty five-pound salmon,” he says, as excitement mounted with the Macnab now tentatively in sight.
“We quickly returned to the castle and told estate manager Innes Morrison of our stag and salmon success. He wasted no time in getting us back out on the hill with headkeeper Mark Smith and his pointer, Fly.” On securing his brace (thanks to grouse bursting from the heather at the 11th hour as he returned to the truck ready to admit defeat), the castle beckoned for celebrations with the horn blaring and a wee dram in hand.
The day before, the slowly calming winds had tempted fellow American Sean Delaney onto the moor with headkeeper Mark Smith, as well as Delaney’s friend, Jon Smith, and springer, Sid. “At around 9.30am Mark’s pointer, Fly, went on point and Sid flushed a grouse on my side. The bird went up and luckily I got it on the second shot. Game on!” recounts Delaney.
With a brace in hand, Jon Smith and Delaney turned to each other as if to say: “Now what?” before heading for the hill. “I don’t think that I have crawled that much since I was a child,” says Delaney. “The situation was such that we could only get to within 180 yards of the stag and so we rested for a bit to let my nerves calm down and my pulse slow. After a few minutes the stag rose and presented a good shot, so we took it. Now the game really was on.”
As the wind began to stir again, Delaney found himself “wet and shivering” in pursuit of the final hurdle, with a “sense of gloom with each passing minute”. On a second attempt at Lady’s Loch, he at last had a take. “But there was no tension on the line and I couldn’t set the hook,” he recounts. “Another notch down on the mood, but proof of life. Finally, after another missed opportunity, I had a salmon on the hook. He took several runs, and even jumped out of the net once when gillie John Wildgoose [Goose] tried to scoop him up, but, finally, at 6.53pm, we had a salmon on the grass and Goose let out a huge whoop. We did it.”
When Chris Littlemore headed to Glen Lyon in Perthshire in mid-August from his home in Wiltshire, the prospect of a Macnab was buried at the back of his mind. “I attempted a Macnab previously several years ago but failed to catch a salmon and consequently had let the possibility of ever achieving this feat disappear from my ambitions in the field,” he admits.
For nearly 40 years, Littlemore’s family has been visiting Glen Lyon and for the past 12 they have gone to the Meggernie Estate. “This August was no different from the norm, we had two weeks fishing on the River Lyon and a day’s stalking and a couple of days walked-up grouse. There was no preconceived goal of a Macnab,” he explains. It was only after shooting a stag by lunchtime and landing a 6lb fish after tea at the bottom end of Suspension Pool, one of the deepest parts of the river on the estate, that it dawned on him that a Macnab could be possible.
“We called Steven Macdonald, the headkeeper, to ask if we could go back up on the hill for a brace of grouse. He called the estate stalker, Adam Jamieson, who said he wouldn’t miss it for the world. Adam and I met again on the track below Loch Damph with Adam’s excellent pointer, Tyne, at 7pm and headed up towards Meall a’ Phuill. Unsurprisingly, my very modest shooting skills completely deserted me for the next hour with one grouse shot after the first three points. I then received a severe ‘talking to’ from Adam: ‘For goodness sake, concentrate man, you’re panicking.’ Fortunately, this worked and the next point produced a right-and-left resulting in a brace and a half and the Macnab bagged. On the way down, Tyne went on point again and I had a further shot producing another grouse to even up the bag with two brace. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. Adam’s fieldcraft and hill knowledge are second to none and his company is delightful. It is due to his skill and my luck in landing the fish in the late afternoon that this day was possible and I cannot thank him enough.”
Indeed, however a Macnab unfolds – planned to perfection or out of the blue with a hefty dash of luck – it’s the craftsmanship and conservation of the keepers and gillies that make it as memorable for those lucky enough to call themselves a Macnabber as the thrill of the sport.