By Rory Knight Bruce of The Field
Monday, 22 September 2008
The essentially Victorian sporting week of whisky, fireside conversation, a first salmon and a long stalk on the hill still thrives today – along with the chance to have a pot shot at being laird of all you survey.Even in the distinctly chilly wind of Scotland’s new urban politics, the thought of a week-long stay in a Highland or island sporting lodge is still enough to stir the blood of any true sportsman. Nowhere in the world is it possible to experience comparable remote majesty, pampered solitude and sense of history.
The Scots of the “Brave New World” – the devolved parliament in Edinburgh – are attempting to rewrite the nation’s sporting past and are looking inwardly to their cities for their new identity. But the truth is that the essentially Victorian sporting week, one of whisky and fireside conversation, of early mornings on the hill and the triumph of a first salmon, is thriving as never before.
The saying goes that if you want to own a small sporting estate in Scotland, you start with a big one. No one would deny that such ownership is an expensive undertaking. As a result it is possible to rent a river, hill or moor, and the main house that goes with it, almost anywhere from Stirling to Sutherland for £4,000 to £25,000 for the week.
One of the great joys, especially for the first-time laird for the week, is that the stalker and indoor staff are likely to have been with the estate for generations. From them may be gleaned fascinating snippets of local history and gossip.
At Eishken on the south-east shores of the Isle of Lewis, stalker Chris Macrae is from the third generation, so he certainly knows his way around. This is a superbly appointed private estate, where the main house is reached by a seven-mile drive, stalking is approached by boat and thousands of purple acres without a single road lie before you.
“There is a great sense of history, the lodge is stunning and most of the staff are islanders who have been there for forever and a day,” says Robert Rattray of CKD Galbraith, who arranges sporting lets all over Scotland. Roddy Martine, the well-known author of Living in Scotland and The Swinging Sporran (the latter a Highland reeler’s bible), has been a frequent private guest at Eishken and other lodges, although he rarely stalks himself. “While the sporting day is down to the skill of the stalker, for all of us it is a day outdoors with our piece and the prospect of a hot bath and three-course dinner when we return,” he says. “To be a laird for a week is also helping the resident lairds. Several owners have told me it is like building bonfires of £100 notes.”
Equally remote and splendid is the Amhuinnsuidhe Castle and estate on the Isle of Harris, once the home of the Bulmer family. Here may be found traditional sea-trout lochs and river systems. Two of the river systems require a walk of an hour and a half where the reward is lochs that may not have been fished for years. Then there is the wildlife of eagles, black- and red-throated divers and, of course, the stags. There is plenty of room for up to 12 rods to go out each day.
But what if you have neither the cash nor number of friends to try your hand at these top estates? A new introduction in several places has been mixed-rod weeks where parties of two or four can go and meet fellow sportsmen. “This has been amazingly successful,” says Rattray. “I have been on them and it is lovely how, over a week, the parties become friends and then book to come together the next year.” Regulars at the Amhuinnsuidhe mixed-rod weeks are four men from the Stornoway Angling Club. “They save up and stay in the castle, fishing and living like lairds,” says Rattray. “It is their annual indulgence.”
THE ADDITION OF LADYFOLK
One change since the sporting weeks of Victorian tycoons poring over their malts and maps of the Empire is the welcome addition of the ladyfolk. Wyvis Lodge, in Easter Ross, is one of many estates on the books of George Goldsmith, who runs his sporting lets company from Edinburgh. He once had a request for a masseuse for the ladies while the men were on the hill. “I sent them three,” he says.
“A lot of estates are looking to provide activities outside the sporting context,” Rattray continues. This might include walks, visits to gardens or bicycle rides. At the Garynahine estate on the west coast of Lewis, on the initiative of the staff, younger guests have been known to fish, shoot grouse and then go surfing, giving a modern twist to a Macnab.
Having been a guest over the years at the Ardtornish estate on the Morvern Peninsula on the west coast for stalking and at Amat Lodge in Sutherland for fishing on the Carron, I have experienced first-hand the dissolution of woes that a week as a laird invokes. The week begins with a competitive edge from your host, but invariably ends with a seasoned feeling of well-being and friendship.
Nor have I minded that my wife is infinitely better at fishing than I will ever be. For some years my endeavours went unrewarded, to the extent that I even heard the wise and patient gillie at Amat tell my wife I was suffering from rod rage. It was a proud moment when a 10½lb salmon was entered in the gamebook with my name beside it on the Monday morning last year.
I have also spent two days alone at Novar in Inverness-shire walking-up grouse with a pointer. Not only is this done in a silence where you can hear yourself think, but there is a pleasure to be had in watching the pointer work as he casts up and down, like an old-fashioned weaver’s loom.
Far from the notion of absentee owners is the 33,000-acre Ardtornish estate, which can sleep from 20 to 40 in the big house, 70 if you include the cottages. “This is a happy, working, sporting family estate,” says long-term factor Angus Robertson. The gardens, restored by Faith Raven, whose family owns the estate, are a wonder to behold.
“The great thing about stalking here is that the hills are not too steep,” says Robertson. There are also salmon, sea- and brown loch trout and a sea-lined landscape of 60sq miles. For the week-long laird there is also provision for the estate to provide a cook or bring your own. Ardtornish is now run by Raven’s son Hugh whose wife, Jane Stuart Smith, oversees the award-winning White House restaurant nearby. For any sportsman with a gardening wife, this estate will captivate all parties.
Then there are the fathers-and-sons’ weeks where dads take their teenage boys to experience the thrill of their first stag. What can be more rewarding than seeing your own or others’ children enjoying themselves in the sporting outdoors? In their week they are learning not just respect for the quarry species but – all too rare these days – for their parents as well. “There is no better way to educate teenagers in the ways of the countryside,” says John Duncan of Roxtons, another leading company involved in sporting lets. I enjoy the story of one of my hosts who, having sent his daughter off to Ireland for four months to learn to cook, then employed her in his lodge to cook for 20 each night for a week.
But it is George Goldsmith who gets to the heart of what being a laird for a week really means. “The beauty is you can switch off. Your brain spins backwards and you have time to read. How nice to be able to wear the same shirt two days running without anyone caring, and to eat your squashed piece on the hill.”
SHAKING UP MANHATTANS
Are there extra responsibilities for the laird who is in charge for the week? In my experience, no – everyone develops a helpful rhythm of duties depending on their abilities. Mine is the washing-up, although one year I was deputed to bring the cocktails and each evening would be found behind the bar shaking up Manhattans.
One week-long laird I know delights in nothing more than going to buy fresh scones for his guests for breakfast. Their happiness is his pleasure, and no detail is too much.
So what are the essentials for a week-long laird to know? The first is to check when the week runs from. The next is to make sure everyone has the right licences and knows that there will be a target proficiency test before being allowed on the hill to stalk. Even the most hoary-skinned bachelor will be subjected to midge attacks, so pack your repellents or make sure there are plenty of smokers in your party. Send your wine in advance. “We do everything we can to match the ability of the party to the right estate,” says Goldsmith. “But then, of course, there are ‘Dead Mens Shoes’.” These are the weeks that come up only when a week-long laird has departed to the stalkers’ paradise in the sky. “My advice,” says Goldsmith, “is that to find an estate and week which suits you and hang on to it year after year.”
It is also important to find a stalker who suits you. At the 15,000-acre Gordonbush high-ground estate in Sutherland, Robbie Rowantree has been headstalker for 20 years. “We have plenty of first-time staggers inscribed in the gamebook, from knights of the realm to foreign dignitaries,” he says. Of the relationship with his week-long lairds, he adds: “It is the most interesting and intimate. The barriers which might exist just melt away.” Rattray agrees: “To be a laird for a week is a rite of passage.” It also helps to sustain Scotland’s sporting rural economy, valued at £500 million a year; even the Scottish Executive can’t ignore this.
Nor is it ever too late to start. This year I shall be taking seven friends to my wife’s home on Mull where we will stalk, fish, play golf, take the boat out for lobsters and take a long pull on life at the dining-room table. Passing boats will know when I am in residence, for I shall have hoisted on the flagpole not the Saltire but the Jolly Roger.