Leading shot Mike Yardley looks at this unique Scottish sporting achievement from its legendary inception to the institution it is today
The Macnab has become rather fashionable of late (possibly too much so). I have stalked in Scotland, shot driven and walked-up grouse and other quarry birds there, and fished for salmon and trout. I have never completed a Macnab, though I have tried for one. The challenge is, of course, to shoot a red deer, a brace of grouse and catch a salmon, all in a single day. I might add that I have discussed the magic Macnab with many experienced shooting and fishing friends, and only three have actually accomplished the feat (right and lefts at woodcock are far more common by comparison). The internet would appear to bear witness to a number of other success stories – and some Scottish estates offer what might be described as the Macnab opportunity – but Macnabs are very uncommon.
The Scottish Highlands remain, however, a majestic, inspiring sporting destination. This is no cliché, they are breathtakingly beautiful. As someone who recently made their bi-annual sporting pilgrimage for grouse and deer, and driving something well over 1,000 miles in the process, I can confirm that the Highlands have a character and visual drama that nowhere else possesses (though the Tyrol and Montana come close). It is worth all the expense and effort of getting there (11 hours to get from my home to Inverness on the last trip); worth all the physical exertion the rugged country demands – walking on heather moor requires great physical exertion – on my last trip we walked eight miles for grouse in the morning and 12 for deer in the afternoon.
The elusive and difficult Macnab – it’s a curious and compelling business. The concept does not come from a Victorian game book, either, as you might expect. The Macnab, in fact, begins in the fiction of John Buchan, a British novelist of the 1920s and 30s. His 1925 book John Macnab tells the story of three bored, upmarket forty-somethings. They include a barrister and former attorney-general (clearly an autobiographical reference to Buchan himself, who was once Governor General of Canada and trained in the law); a cabinet minister and an adventurer-cum-banker. All appear to be suffering a mid-life crisis and are determined to do something to bring zest back into their privileged existence.
Rather than fall victim to Russian Roulette, as certain Slavic princes allegedly once did, they decide on an equally curious but potentially healthier, thoroughly British, cure for their ennui. They aspire to become gentlemen poachers. It might be added that the plot to John Macnab is similar to E.W.Hornung’s earlier Raffles books. These concern the activities of one A.J. Raffles, marvellous cricketer, ‘gentleman thief’ and ‘amateur cracksman’ largely based on Edwardian sportsman Hesketh Prichard (great grandfather of an earlier editor of this journal). Raffles has an equally top-drawer partner in crime, Bunny, who might be described as a dandier version of Dr Watson. Hornung was, indeed, Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, a close friend of Prichard and cleverly decided to invert the Sherlock Holmes concept. Buchan did the same thing, added a third musketeer and set it in Scotland.