The Macnab is considered the greatest countryside challenge in luxury fieldsports, says Kate Gatacre.
“It will be verra, verra deeficult. I said the odds were a thousand to one, but I think ten thousand wad be liker the thing.”
Thus Pronounces Wattie Lithgow, the old stalker, to the three adventurers in John Macnab. It is unlikely that author, John Buchan, could have foreseen that, more than 90 years after his novel was written, sportsmen up and down the country would still be taking up the challenge and attempting to complete a Macnab.
Amazingly, the novel was inspired by a true story – that of Captain James Brander Dunbar, who, in a letter to The Field in 1951, explained what had given Buchan the idea. Captain Brander claimed he could kill a beast in any forest in Scotland, and was duly challenged to do so by Lord Abinger. Hiding his .303 carbine in a golf bag, he set about his adventure, shooting a six-point stag in the Iverlochy Forest on his third attempt. He escaped by crossing the River Spean, carrying the head and neck for mounting.
The original Macnab, that of the novel, involved poaching a salmon or a stag from an estate that had received a warning of the adventure.
Today the challenge does not involve the illegal poaching element, but instead has upped the ante by demanding that participants claim a brace of grouse, a salmon caught on the fly and a stag, all in one day. These must all be bagged between dawn and dusk and, ‘the game must be poached (in a legal and sporting manner) from an owner who accepts the challenge in good sport’.
It is no easy task, as those that head to the Highlands year after year in pursuit of the elusive title can attest to, but that is the thrill of the thing.
Most start with what is probably the hardest and most unpredictable element: the salmon. There are debates as to whether you should next pursue grouse or stag, and many would come down in favour of the stag. A good stalker will get you in range of your beast with little disturbance to the surrounding ground, but inevitably your quest for grouse, whether walked-up or over dogs, will send the stags in all directions. Some estates, it is true, have enough ground for this not to matter, and would opt to try for the grouse before the stag.
Niall Rowantree, of West Highland Hunting, says there is no doubt the salmon, “Is the grinder. You get that and the rest should be achievable.” However, having all the logistics of completing a Macnab worked out before you start is vital, too, according to Rowantree: “We have the stalker and dog men on standby if we’re trying for a Macnab, so that the moment you’ve grassed your salmon, you can head to the hill. It’s important not to lose any time in between the stages.” Rowantree only organises Macnab attempts over a week: “That way, your chances are better, but you also get some good sport out of it!”
Mungo Ingleby of Sporting Lets argues that half the battle is luck: “You need luck with the conditions and luck with the weather. There are a number of estates where people have taken a week every year for over a decade and still not managed the fish.” He suggests it might be worth putting together over several estates: “It’s all about the fish. If there’s no water, you’ll be wasting your time.” Ingleby also advises having a back-up plan in case of the river being low, adding that, “It’s well worth spending an extra £300 on a beat downstream if it is fishing better. I’d pick estates that were at the top of the Tay, Dee or Spey.”
All the skills of stalker, keeper and ghillie will be to no avail, however, if you are not prepared. Fitness is, of course, a vital part, for just a day’s stalking can be punishing enough. Throw in the efforts of walking up a brace of grouse and the concentration and craft required for a salmon on the fly and you will find that your stamina, will and focus, are tested to their absolute limits.
The plan in the novel was considered “devilish difficult, devilish unpleasant, and calculated to make a man long for a dull life”. The modern-day version is certainly devilish difficult, but can be enormously pleasant and will give you an unrivalled thrill. The race against the clock, each stage an accomplishment in itself, and the chance that you can fall at the last hurdle make this the toughest field sports challenge there is. And remember that above all, it is not just success that counts – it is all about the spirit of the adventure!
One person who has had three chances at a Macnab is Marc Newton, managing director of Rigby Gunmakers.
“I had three days back to back when I caught a salmon and shot a stag, but decided not to go for the grouse.” It might sound inexplicable to some that this chance would be thrown away, not once, not twice, but three times. Newton’s explanation is one that is in the true spirit of the original novel: “I’ve been incredibly lucky in my sporting life, and have hunted all over the world for all sorts of game. So, I decided I wanted to save this amazing challenge for later on in life!”
Other Sporting Options
For a fun alternative, the most reasonable Macnab is undoubtedly the Macvermin, which according to The Field’s Macnab Challenge consists of ‘an impressive rat, a chalk stream pike and a brace of magpies’, however you might be hard pushed to find a guide for that – as it might be for the Macmarsh, which consists of ‘a foreshore goose, a pike and a fallow buck’. The Southern Macnab, of ‘a couple of snipe, a sea-trout and a roebuck’ and the Macnorfolk, ‘a bass on the fly, a brace of wild grey partridges and a fallow buck’ are perhaps the best alternatives to attempt if you do not have the mettle to undertake the traditional Scottish challenge.
And, for those seeking exotic locations, there are plenty of options. Take the Macscandi, which requires a moose, capercaillie and trout on the fly, or the Macafrican, for which you will need to shoot a brace of sandgrouse, an impala and catch a tigerfish!
There are, of course, people who would like to complete the Macnab challenge without having to fire a shot, and even this is possible, with the Maccharlie: riding to foxhounds, harriers and staghounds all in a day.
Kit & Caboodle
A Macnab requires plenty of exertion, so the last thing you need is to carry extra weight. Most estates will be able to provide equipment and, if it comes to a choice, the shotgun is more important than the rifle, as it would serve you better for the tricky task of shooting a brace of grouse. Try phoning ahead to find out what flies the salmon are taking, and to get any advice your ghillie, or stalker, can give.
Superior footwear is vital for covering ground fast and efficiently. A blister or twisted ankle will bring the entire event to a grinding halt. In terms of clothing, you want to be protected from the elements without working up a sweat. Layering is always the best way to do this, so lightweight, windproof and waterproof outer layers are best. A small backpack can hold these layers, as well as your lunch. It will also act as a good rest for your rifle during the stalking. Best is to carry nothing but your gun and ammunition, and a pair of binoculars for the stalking element.
Jonathan Young, editor of The Field, has completed two Macnabs – a Classic, in which he took a 10lb salmon and a Royal stag, as well as a ‘Macmarsh’ – taking a pike on the fly, a goose from the foreshore and a fallow buck. So, what would Mr. Young’s advice be?
“In terms of kit, always use that with which you are familiar. During both my Macnabs, I used my .243 rifle, my 12-bore and a twelve and eight-weight bonefishing rod, as that is stiff enough to subdue both salmon and pike. I believe that unless you’re experienced with double-handed Spey rods, you’re better off fishing half the river properly than covering the whole of the water badly.”
As much as anything, Lady Luck plays a part. Dylan Williams, founder of the Royal Berkshire Shooting School, certainly had fortune on his side: “About ten years ago, I’d been invited to try for a Macnab. Driving up the Glenshee Valley, the rain was biblical. I was lucky – I was fishing the River Garry, and my ghillie was Ally Gowans – who created the famous fly, Ally’s Shrimp. The river was like gravy and I was convinced I didn’t stand a chance. But three casts in and I had a fish on the bank.”
“By 11am we’d stalked and shot a stag. Considering shooting is my profession, I was surprised the grouse were what gave me trouble. I think we covered most of Perthshire before I shot one!” And Mr. William’s advice?
“It’s part luck, part having the right people to guide you through it. I had both of those. It is the ultimate sporting challenge. But it’s also about sportsmanship, and whether you succeed or fail, if you are a good sportsman you’ll have one of the most fantastic experiences of your life.”