LOOKING BACK ON my life, John Buchan’s fable of John Macnab has always been omnipresent. In fact, until I penned this article, I had not appreciated just how much it had touched my life.
The story follows three friends – a lawyer, a banker and an MP – who are bored with their successful lives in London so turn to poaching in Scotland. The challenge in the novel continues to inspire people today, and ‘the Macnab’ has become a bucket list item among sporting fans.
I first read a tatty Penguin edition as a young boy and have since read it twice more as an adult. Each time I have devoured the dog-eared pages, finishing it in just a few hours. The words never fail to capture my imagination and the characters stay with me long after I have finished.
The last ten years in particular – since my first attempt in Argyll – have been peppered with its narrative. When I married my wife Selena in 2011, she surprised me with a very special wedding gift – a leather-bound first edition. The hardback had taken her two years to source. It now sits front and centre on my office bookcase.
After three failed attempts, in 2014 we moved from Sussex to the Scottish Borders partly so that I could be closer to the River Tweed to fish for salmon more regularly and to master a double-handed fly rod. The vast majority of successful Macnabs start with the fish and I knew I needed to boost my chances. Being nearer the Scottish battleground would help, too.
There are yet more examples of Buchan’s influence. More recently, we renovated our home and installed a hidden bookcase door in the snug. To gain entry, a copy of John Macnab must be partly pulled from the shelf, completing a successful challenge in itself. When we relocated the HQ of Fieldsports Journal to Edinburgh, we renamed the building Macnab House. So you see, I am a bit taken by what is, in my view, the ultimate of personal sporting challenges.
In all, there are 11 chapters to my Macnab story, each ending in defeat, bar of course the last. All as important as one another, each chapter galvanised my resolve for the next chance to conclude my tale. It’s been about patience, something I am little known for, bloody mindedness, I’m more of that by character, and a perhaps unhealthy dose of determination.
My story culminated in a grand finale where the stars finally aligned in Caithness, about as far north as one can seek sport in mainland Britain. I am still on a massive high, it feels surreal to say that I have finally succeeded. It was my mission for a little over a decade – and now it’s done.
When trying to explain the Macnab to non-shooting friends or those living outside of the UK, I normally use cricket as an analogy as it is equally eccentric and strange to the unaccustomed. Why would one be so motivated to carry out this bizarre challenge of catching a salmon on the fly, shooting a brace of grouse and taking a stag between dawn and dusk? I think cricket – also inherently British – has many strange idiosyncrasies such as the Ashes series lasting 25 days over five matches, and the absurd Duckworth-Lewis method for calculating a target score if rain interrupts play. There is quite a nice parallel between the two. To me, the Macnab was my own Ashes series.
I owe a debt of gratitude to the rivers that vanquished my chances over the years. They gave me perspective and ultimate respect for Atlantic salmon, the most wild and tricky of creatures in the British Isles. The Tilt, the Findhorn, the Orchy, and the mighty Tay. I was finally gifted my chance by the Thurso, the most northerly salmon river in mainland UK. However, the final attempt was by no means straightforward.
Within 20 minutes, I had hooked a salmon. Then, after four seconds, it was off. I have never used bluer language
It is customary to start with the fish, being the most fickle of components in the Macnab. The one time I chose to reorder the elements, I had a royal stag grassed and gralloched by 10am, a brace of ptarmigan in hand by midday that elevate the challenge and count as a grouse species. But alas, no lye in the Orchy would give up its treasure, so darkness fell and with it my hopes. Salt was applied liberally to my open wound the following morning when my most unsympathetic of friends hooked a fresh 12lb hen fish from the same pool I finished at the night before.
I will now tell you about how I finally succeeded, in September this year. The water conditions of the Thurso were pretty dismal for salmon fishing. There hadn’t been any significant rainfall since July, so the water was very low, and far from ideal. Although the river was stuffed full of fish, they were stale, bored and disinterested in flies, having been stuck for weeks waiting to run at the first drop of rain and seen everything thrown at them day by day.
A seemingly hopeless situation. The first day I was on the river by 6am; I knew if it was going to happen it would be early in the short window of activity when the fish take up prime pool positions for the day.
I had until midday to land one as advised by the keeper, otherwise the attempt was over for the day with not enough time for the grouse and stag. I fished hard for six hours without a break. The pools were boiling with activity, but nothing gave me a look. Accepting the inevitable we drew stumps. In the evening, as direct sun left water, we fished again – just for fun – and incredibly I caught a bloody salmon. Any day you hook a salmon is a good one, but this felt bittersweet. I needed to catch the fish at 7am not 7pm.
The next morning, with renewed hope that these fish were actually catchable, we changed beat, to lower pools towards the sea.
They were stacked with fish – even more than the day before. It was narrow like an Icelandic river, the sun was rising and there were salmon splashing everywhere, taunting me. With renewed optimism and a pat on the back from Jim Cameron the ghillie, I set about trying again.
Within 20 minutes, it happened, I hooked a salmon. Then, after just four seconds, it was off. I don’t think I have ever used bluer language on a riverbank. I was shaking more than when I shot a Cape buffalo such was the adrenaline coursing through my frustrated arteries.
I had nearly done it, but again it had gotten the better of me. I was crushed, and behaving like my three-year-old daughter bottom lip out and irrational. Jim had words, told me to pull myself together, and go to the top pool using his traditional fly, more conventional than the Icelandic tactics I’d been deploying.
At 8am on the dot, swinging a classic dressed Willie Gun double over the neck of the pool, the line tightened, pulled, and my antique 1910 Hardy Perfect reel sung into action – if you know that sound, you’ll know why I fish with it.
John Rigby & Co.Rising Bite 12 gauge shotgun, johnrigbyandco.com
Highland Stalker .275 magazine rifle, johnrigbyandco.com
Hornady ammunition 275 Rigby 140gr Interlock SP, hornady.com
Leica Sport Optics Geovid HD-B 3000 rangefinder binoculars, leica-camera.com
Leica Sport Optics Magnus 1.4-10 x 42 riflescope, leica-camera.com
Swazi Outdoor Gear Wapiti Coat, swazi.co.nz
Swazi Waterproof Overpants, swazi.co.nz
I gingerly played, palmed and landed a fresh cock grilse of four glorious pounds that must have snuck into the pool under cover of darkness. The Macnab was on!
For those questioning my decision to take the fish, the Thurso enjoys a sustainable surplus of salmon offering, at the angler’s discretion, a two-fish limit. This bar of silver fitted my ethical compass and was indeed a perfect table fish.
I was composed and in the zone. Jim hadn’t been hugged by an angler in the 16 years he has guided the Thurso, but I think he understood. I felt ahead of the clock with most of a full day ahead. I jumped into the Land Rover and set off to the headwaters of the Thurso on Ulbster estates. The specific area was Dalnawillan and Rumsale estate, about 35 miles from John O’Groats. It is an area known as the Flow Country – a large, rolling expanse of peatland and wetlands, flatter than much of Scotland making stalking more of an art with less dead ground to cover an approach. It is the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe and one of the UK’s most remote areas.
First, Mark Pirie – a veteran stalker and keeper – decided we’d attempt the grouse. There are fewer in number this far north, so this was by no means the easy bit. Driving through a ford, decamping then setting off, I was shooting over an experienced English setter called Flame.
Half an hour of yomping through tussocks and heather passed, then he was on point. The covey flushed and my reflexes lifted an 1895 Rigby Rising Bite 12-bore to my shoulder. I cleanly shot the first, nerves getting the better of my gun mount, then missed the second. Mercifully, not long after, Flame winded another covey and, feeling more composed for the shot, I pulled the front trigger firing the right barrel which was all I needed to bag my brace. At 10am things were looking promising. Now for the stag.
The ground to the stags was flat so we had a long way to go in the Argo following the Rumsdale burn, a small tributary of the Thurso. Once we identified a group of shootable animals, we stalked on foot for an hour then crawled slowly using what cover the small burn gave us.
We glassed hard antler in some rushes ahead of us and the head looked old. Perfect. The stag was bedded up and in no hurry to move.
At 140 yards we could see his head clearly, moving occasionally from side to side, but enjoying the afternoon sun, he would not stand.
I had to wait a gruelling 90 minutes, lying prone. I imagined the shot over and over until it was finally on and all that was left between me and a Macnab. He stood towards us, offering a terrible shot, then turned, quartering away. I split the light between his front legs with the vertical post of the crosshair, came half way up the 14 stone body mass and squeezed.
The .275 Rigby dropped this majestic old beast a few yards from the burn. It was pleasing to think my Macnab concluded at the headwaters of the river I caught my salmon in eight hours and nine minutes earlier. It felt like the river was a consistent thread running throughout all three elements of this momentous day.
I feel every day I have spent in the field with rod, shotgun or rifle since I first tried has been one day closer to being able to complete the Macnab. I am a much better fisherman, shot and marksman since my first attempt. It has been a celebration of the wildest and most enjoyable sport on offer in the UK and has been a wonderful journey.
I have relished a decade of trying. That evening when I arrived back at the Ulbster Arms, the staff and other guests gave me a round of applause as I walked through the door of the restaurant smelling faintly of gralloch and still clothed from the hill.
I would like to thank every ghillie, stalker and keeper who have been part of this story without whose good humour and skill it would not have been possible, and my wife, for her patience and encouragement with my obsession to get it done.
Every sportsman understands the magnitude of the accomplishment. There is no trophy or tie at the end of this challenge – just personal satisfaction, bragging rights and a fine dinner party anecdote.
With thanks to Lord Thurso for the privilege to complete this challenge at Ulbster Estates. Try your own Macnab challenge at: internationalhuntingscotland.com