The winter Macnab

James Henderson takes up Buchan’s hunting challenge and roams moorland, rivers and seas for hind, woodcock and a single scallop

Preparing to take a shot at a hind on the Benmore Estate
Preparing to take a shot at a hind on the Benmore Estate | Image: Alamy

A Macnab – as derived from John Buchan’s novel John Macnab – hovers on the edge of the lexicon. I lob it into conversation one day.

“Isn’t that catching a salmon and then shooting a brace of grouse and a stag, all in one day?’

Not quite, as it happens, but near enough, and in itself a cracking challenge for a weekend. Great. However, as it is put to me one summer’s evening – not in a gentleman’s club as in Buchan’s book, but in a London art gallery – by Hugh Raven, manager and part owner of Ardtornish estate, it dawns on me what a demanding test of skill and physical endeavour it is. And then, on parting…

“How about a variation on the theme?” he says, “… a winter Macnab?”

My brow furrows inquisitively.

Red deer in the Highlands
Red deer in the Highlands | Image: Alamy

“I’ll email you.”

Friday 2045

I find myself headed to the sleeper for the west coast of Scotland. I arrive early. Luckily, since there’s a three-quarter-mile walk along the platform to the Fort William carriages.

Necessarily, a winter Macnab is a Macnab with a difference. By late October, the season is closed on the standard quarry. So, instead of a stag, it’s a hind. In lieu of salmon, Raven suggests picking a scallop (no disappointment there; the nearby Sound of Mull has some of the finest temperate diving in the world). And thirdly, woodcock. Each a daunting challenge in itself.

On board, there’s time to dip back into Buchan’s novel. The author was known to visit Ardtornish, and you feel the authenticity. Few men these days suffer the “ennui” of his protagonists – though I’ll admit to a certain summer lassitude. Modern man is expected to turn his hand to anything from a yacht to a round of bridge to a shotgun. Question is, not being a natural country sportsman, have I a chance of completing the challenge?

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The original Macnab had an additional “poacher’s” twist: the three men, each targeting a different animal, announced to their neighbours that on a certain day they would creep onto said neighbours’ land, catch the quarry, and leave it at the estate front door, paid for. There was a frisson in the illegality.

“The keeper wouldn’t be impressed with that,” says Raven. A fair point.

Still, if the legality of the plan is to my advantage, the elements certainly are not. The days are short and, of course, the weather in late autumn and winter is, er… unpredictable.

Saturday 0745

I look out onto Scotland’s cloudy, raw moorland as we trundle along. It is strangely luminescent, a snow-induced gloaming. A small herd of deer scatters at the train’s approach.

James Henderson and Bramble shoot woodcock
James Henderson and Bramble shoot woodcock | Image: James Henderson

In the village of Crianlarich, I am met by Alan Kennedy, assistant manager of the estate. We drive through Glencoe to the Corran Ferry and in five minutes we are across, heading for Ardtornish. I am given my programme for the weekend. First up, it’s the woodcock, then the scallop – hopefully in time for dinner – and tomorrow, the hind.

Morvern is high, bleak land, but we re-emerge into habitation at the coast, and the heartland of Ardtornish. After a quick stop at the Boathouse – my accommodation, right on Loch Aline – to change into suitable gear, I am collected by Simon Boult, the keeper. And by Hazel and Bramble, his pointers. Straining in the back of the vehicle, they are keen to get moving.

Saturday 1100

We track a river through sparse, soaking oak and birch. This is “shooting over pointers”. Hazel and Bramble take it in turns, bounding left and right around us, scouring the ground. Their collars track their movement; when the occasional double bleep turns to single you know that they are still, pointing. You walk up past them and flush the bird out.

The single bleep sounds, so we head towards it. Bramble is in a tight gully, hunched, expectant. I creep past her, shotgun held high. And the woodcock tears off. They are canny birds and use any cover. This one darts behind a tree trunk, then turns quickly, tracking right behind a branch – only emerging in sight thirty yards off. I don’t even get a shot off.

The dive fishing boat on Loch Aline
The dive fishing boat on Loch Aline | Image: Glenn Dearing

The rain spots. The pointers fossick in thickets, investigating broken logs and bracken. Woodcock like this shelter; it keeps them out of the rain. Four more get away, just. The challenge is looking in doubt. We move to another wood, above the estate and Loch Aline itself, where the clouds open occasionally to reveal the magnificent peaks of Mull. After a sandwich we set off uphill, through mixed land of sparse forest.

Saturday 1500

There are three more false starts that afternoon, but near the end of the walk, Hazel pauses, pointing into dead bracken. I advance past her, feeling my way with my feet, not taking my eyes off the ground even for a split second. Then, a flurry. A blur, rolling and darting left and then right. On instinctive aim, I follow and fire. And manage to pick the bird off. Yes…

It has taken most of the day, so it is too late to dive. However, after a soak in the tub at the Boathouse, dinner arrives courtesy of the Whitehouse restaurant’s kitchen, where I am allowed a scallop starter – in acknowledgment of a presumed catch the next day – pan?seared with white truffle risotto and braised Scotch oxtail. The woodcock is rich and delectable, particularly roasted with liver spread on toast and a Tobermory whisky jus with watercress from the garden.

Sunday 0800

Guy Grieve at The Ethical Shellfish Company’s pier
Guy Grieve at The Ethical Shellfish Company’s pier | Image: Glenn Dearing

As soon as it is light I am at the pier in Lochaline. Guy Grieve has been picking scallops for his Ethical Shellfish Company here for four years. He briefs me on the dive and scallop hunt. There is a two-knot current running. Then, even in our drysuits we wrap up warm for the 20-minute speedboat run, bounding at 25 knots over the small swell beneath the hulk of Mull.

Once the sonar announces a suitable spot, we heft on our cylinders and huge weight-belts. After a quick regulator check, the RIB (rigid inflatable boat) begins a starboard turn. We jump in and actively swim down, equalising our ear pressure quickly and repeatedly. It is bitterly cold and I can feel the current sheering my fins. Suddenly there is an extraordinary, eerie world. The low winter light gives a wonderful green gloom. Kelp forests stand 20ft high, angled on the current. Having passed through their “canopy”, we descend among the stems to the rocky sea floor.

Just as you approach deer from downwind, so you pick scallops heading into current. This is not tactical, rather to prevent a “stoor” – kicked silt and shell fragments that obscure the exceptional visibility. We swim and pull ourselves along the bed, hand over hand on the rocks and grasping the knuckles of the kelp stems.

Apparently we are looking for the tell-tale “pipe” of a disturbed scallop, the tiny puff of silt as it snaps shut its shell. Otherwise it takes a very experienced eye to spot their tiny mounded, camouflaged hideaways in the sand. As for me, it takes a while to calm down enough to focus. Eventually, Grieve points to an area to search and I claim my prize, seven inches across and ribbed, from its hiding place in the weed.

Sunday 1100

Ardtornish Estate
Ardtornish Estate | Image: Alamy

There is only enough time for the stalk now, so we head inland, into the snow-capped tops and hillsides running with streams like craggy white fingers. In the drizzle, Boult indicates the route we’ll follow over the ground – a steading, a fence line and waves of hills towards the open top. We zero the rifle at the roadside.

After 30 minutes, sooner than expected, we bump into five. They scuttle off, heads held uncomfortably high, imperiously high. Cautious as we crest the next rise, we see a small herd in the distance. A couple of individuals are grazing or sitting out the rain. We track back and go around, weaving through the dead ground and following a stream at a crouch – even the movement of water works as camouflage. And then we crawl to a lip overlooking the bowl into which they have walked. The rifle is set up and I take a bead.

“Hold there a moment,” says Boult, raising his binoculars. “I’ll check he’s not a wee staggie.”

It’s the deer’s lucky day. As he grazes and closes the ground between us, two small points come visible between his ears. We withdraw, eventually looping back around him onto the higher ground. Here, the wind and rain are howling, tracking visibly across the hillside, billowing like some massive, macabre negligee. The upwind logic is clear – the deer will scarper at the slightest whiff of man – but it means that the rain and sleet are remorselessly at our faces and hands.

Sunday 1400 

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Then, as we peer over a crest, Boult holds up his hand. We withdraw and move left to a firing point. I crawl up. Twenty hinds and juniors are gradually moving. Again, I set up the rifle and take a bead, quickly before the scope steams up. In this stiff wind, even at 70 yards, I am told to aim off five inches.

With the bang there is confusion and the herd scatters, except for the single yearling, who sinks to the ground. Up close I feel a moment’s grief, but she’s gone and there’s the mucky job of gralloching. After which we return for the argocat, load her up and clear the hillside. I notice that I am very cold. Unsurprisingly. Not a single part of me is dry. I was drier underwater.

Sunday 2000

I am back on the Corran Ferry in time for the sleeper back to London, a scallop wrapped in my luggage. All the illegality turned out rather badly for the original John Macnab trio. But like their ennui, any weariness with my life has evaporated in the sharp-eyed and intensely physical satisfaction of achieving a winter Macnab.

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