Pete Carr’s ultimate challenge

Pete Carr takes on what must be the most difficult sporting endeavour the Highlands have to offer: the Macnab

Credit: Dgwildlife / iStock / Getty Images Plus

I have spent a significant part of my shooting career north of the border roaming the Highlands with rod, rifle or gun in pursuit of Scottish game. As a sporting destination, Scotland really has no equal, certainly in Europe, for variety of sport and uniqueness, especially where hill stag stalking and red grouse shooting are concerned.

Even the Scottish form of salmon fishing is particularly traditional, with a tweed-clad ghillie, specific flies and casting techniques. It is that sporting tradition, complete with the Highland welcome extended to all – even the ‘auld sassenach enemy’ – that makes Scotland a special destination for the roving Nimrod.

Achieving a Macnab – the taking of a salmon, stag and a brace of grouse on the same day – is the height of sporting achievement in this land. I tried on many occasions to complete one, but for many years across all my attempts, at least one of the elements required remained elusive.

Murphy’s law came into effect on many occasions – often I would find Murphy sitting on my shoulder, overseeing a fish slipping from the net at the vital moment, or ensuring a rogue eddy in the wind took my scent to the stag as I was about to touch off the trigger, or making a grouse slip the point to run on and flush out of range.

That said, I have enjoyed every minute out on the hill with heather and peat underfoot, or whiling the hours away on the river, working the fly across the rocky pools I have become so familiar with over the years. I know most of the fish-holding lies along the river, and the hope accompanying every cast has never diminished with the passage of time.

One comes to know which peat hag or brae is likely to produce a covey of grouse, or which corrie will hold a stag if the sportsman regularly returns to the same estate ground each season. But even with that hard-won knowledge, triple success in one day is still a big ask.

Over the years I have been instrumental in the success of other sporting comrades’ procurement of a Macnab. The most recent was a couple of seasons ago when our former publisher Wes Stanton’s efforts secured what might be a unique Macnab, as the brace-of-grouse element was in the form of ptarmigan.

I witnessed Wes landing his salmon before breakfast; we then decided we would head up one of the Bens in pursuit of ptarmigan as it had been a poor year for grouse.

As we climbed the hill from sea level, the enormous scale of the task struck home – so much that conversation was completely absent. Thankfully at 2,000 feet we got into ptarmigan, and Wes secured his brace of birds in fine style with a neatly executed left-and-right.

The gun was immediately handed to me, and Wes raced back down the Ben Starav path to catch up with the keeper, Mark Shone, to go back out and stalk a stag.

I carried on and quickly shot a left-and-right too before slipping the gun and going on to complete three Munros in succession: Ben Starav, Glas Beinn Mor and the Highlander. Meeting Mark and Wes on the way back to the lodge with a stag in the back of their Argo finished off a perfect day for three like-minded sportsmen.

Pete plays the salmon to secure the first element of the Macnab

A personal Macnab continued to elude me for the next three seasons until last year when all the stars became aligned, and Diana, or whichever other hunting deity, looking down on me, decided it was my time to enter that exclusive club of sportsmen.

I had arrived late to the lodge and as always suffered a restless night. It had been raining steadily and the water was up. At 5am I couldn’t stay in bed any longer so I rose, dressed and grabbed the rod and landing net before jumping in the truck and driving down to the river via the keeper’s house.

The wind was awkward and that, coupled with my undue haste, resulted in two leaders reduced to bird-nest form in quick succession. Frustration was an understatement, accompanied by some colourful language that was fortunately lost to the wind. Things hadn’t started well, but my first proper cast across Collitier Run looked promising.

Technically the cast itself deserves some recognition in the art of fly-casting. Fishing is a pastime of continuous compromise, and that was what this cast was all about.

I whipped the rod back, pushed it forward and somehow managed to slice the line across the wind. Unfurling as if the hand of god had intervened, the line defied the law of physics and rolled the leader forward in as perfect a presentation as one could wish for.

I pulled a slack bight of line off the reel and held it in my hand to allow for the take I was praying for. Following the line round, the fast-moving water made the fly swim, and I let it dangle momentarily at the end of the drift, before tweaking the line to induce a take.

And induce a take it did. The line became taught; I resisted the urge to strike, released the bight of line as the fish turned away, and lifted the rod. The fish fought well, leaving the water a number of times in true aquabatic style in a valiant attempt to slip the hook.

Thankfully I managed to bully him into the net and land a coloured cock fish of about 5lb looking resplendent in all his breeding finery. First cast and the piscatorial gods gifted me the first element of my Macnab. Photos taken, the fish was quickly brought round in the current, and released to finish his calling and propagate the species.

Breakfast was a happy affair, with a smiling keeper and guest, but strangely, going for a Macnab hadn’t entered our thoughts until the better half asked if I was going to attempt the very thing. I had, after all, completed the hardest element early in the day, meaning time was on my side.

I realised the opportunity and discussed options with the keeper Mark Shone, who thought the best plan was to take the pointers on to Kings House Moor with Danish under-keeper Rasmus. An hour later I was all tweeded up, had swapped rod for gun and was on the hunt for red grouse with my German colleague Falk Kern under the direction of our Viking guide.

It was a difficult day for the dogs – intermittent showers with a strong but variable wind and grouse that were anything but sticky. The dogs struggled to hold the point and the grouse preferred to run on under the heather.

Despite this, I shot an old cock grouse with a fortuitous snap shot early in the foray, but it was hours before the second bird joined him in the game bag. Indeed I was beginning to think that the required brace of birds would elude me. Covey after covey were testament to the keepers’ diligence and expertise in their trade, but the birds continued to rise out of range and fly on.

Almost in desperation, Rasmus decided to concentrate on one covey, and after flushing them a couple of times the birds decided to split and an old hen held to the point. I moved forward in as anxious a state as one could imagine, and Rasmus clicked his fingers, indicating to the pointer it was time to flush the bird.

The dog went in, the bird rose, dipped a wing and soared away with the wind. I mounted the gun, gave every effort to push through the bird for the required lead and fired, killing the bird with the first barrel. I was ecstatic – the second element had been achieved.

Thankfully the stag was more straightforward. Heading back up the glen, we were met by Mark Shone, who had already been spying the hills for a suitable stag to shoot. I don’t mind telling you that the excitement was rising. We only had a few hours of the day left to secure a stag, and that meant we would only have one chance at it.

Mark, as always, was all smiles – though now his smile was a touch more devilish. “I’ve found you an old beast. He’s a 10-pointer, one of my feeders, and I doubt he will make this next winter. If we get him it will be a good beast for your Macnab, for sure.”

We pursued the old monarch who had made the lower slopes of Ben Starav his home. Working the wind, we carved out a circuitous approach below him and began a crawl in across a stunted patch of heather and into some dead ground. Spying cautiously over the ridge, we wriggled on to a knoll for a shot. The stag fed on, oblivious to our presence.

I wasn’t nervous at the shot. I’d enjoyed a textbook stalk in and had a good shooting rest, plus I’m a much better shot with the rifle than the shotgun. Everything had gone to plan and I was confident of a successful outcome.

A 90-yard neck shot put him in the larder and I had achieved my Macnab. Mark pumped my hand like he was bailing out the Titanic, and a tremendous sense of achievement coursed through me. I helped Mark drag the stag down the slope to where it could be recovered with the Argo, and we drained the contents of his hip flask while waiting for the ghillie.

Precious moments spent in an awe-inspiring landscape, in good company, after a successful stalk – shooting the right beast at the end of his term – cannot be described in words.

Highland stag stalking is truly the sport of kings, and one that is available to all who would seek it. To the three stalwart keepers who made my Macnab happen – Mark, Rasmus and Davy – I salute you. 

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