A bell to warn the late-night corridor creepers to return to their own bedrooms rang at 7am. Half an hour later there was a knock on the door of Henry Guthrie’s bedroom; a maid entered, switched on an ancient Belling heater and announced that breakfast would be served from 8.30am.
It was Henry’s first time in Scotland. The 28-year-old broker had been born and bred in London, and his experience of the British countryside was limited to Countryfile and Glastonbury mud. The invitation to spend a week with the parents of his girlfriend, Julia Herriot-Smythe, at their sporting estate, Glenloch Lodge, had come out of the blue. On the advice of his colleagues he’d invested in a Barbour jacket and a pair of Hunter wellies, and in the last week of August he arrived alone at the Gothic house late in the evening (Julia was meeting up with him in a couple of days). After a welcoming stiff whisky, he’d been shown to the Blue Room – counterintuitively painted an uncertain cream, and stuffed with listing brown furniture.
Half a dozen tweed-clad chaps were breakfasting in the large dining room when Henry appeared in his fleece and designer jeans, and busied himself with choosing victuals from a variety of morning grub. “What’s your pleasure today?” trumpeted James Herriot-Smythe from behind his Telegraph. “Stalk? Fish? Shoot?” Henry was taken aback; the nearest he’d got to any of the aforementioned was dangling a worm from Brighton pier two decades previously. “Erm…”
“Right! We’ll get you a stag,” Herriot-Smythe roared. After breakfast, while the tweed chaps collected guns and fishing rods, a weather-beaten Scot in a Sherlock Holmes hat, who addressed Henry as Sir, briskly led the young financier to a Land Rover. After an hour of bumping across what seemed like the entire length of the Highlands, the two men got out and began to walk. Three hours later, Henry was still walking. Four hours later, he was crawling; then, after lying in a bog being attacked by midges for nearly an hour, he was handed a rifle and ordered to shoot at a scraggy stag – which, with considerable aid from the stalker, he duly did.
That evening, after a peat-coloured bath, he joined the rest of the house party in the sitting room. There was a score of guests staying in the 20-bedroom lodge, which appeared not to have been re-decorated since the 1920s. The group itself could have been beamed in from a sozzled beano at Downton Abbey: clasping a large drink, Sir William Rawley brayed about his day’s bag of grouse, while Lord John Cumberland swanked about the 13lb salmon he’d landed. Henry’s first kill – which had been reported in detail to the company by the stalker while Henry dressed – was discussed with a mixture of merriment and mockery. Over dinner, conversation switched to the marriages and amorous proclivities of the local landed and titled gentry, before the now quite jolly party peeled off to play bridge and snooker, and in some cases to continue to refresh itself.
The following day, James suggested Henry have a go at casting a fly on the Herriot-Smythes’ beat on the River Spey. Henry felt his stomach drop; but rather amazingly, in the short space of time when he was not busied with unsnagging his fishing line from the riverbank – and with much help from the gillie – he somehow managed to catch a fish.
That evening, in honour of his sporting prowess (although “luck” now struck the company as a more appropriate term), he was seated to the right of his hostess. As a perfectly pink poached salmon made its way around the table, Lady Herriot-Smythe politely asked Henry to tell her about his day on the river.
“It was exhilarating,” said Henry, and, proudly holding up his fork, added, “there’s nothing more enjoyable than savouring in the evening what one has caught that day.” There was a long silence, then a communal outburst of amusement – tittering from the ladies, guffaws from the men. It was left to his hostess to explain that it was not, in fact, Henry’s catch they were eating: “As one is never sure if one’s guests will be… accommodating in that regard, we have our salmon sent up daily from Harrods.”