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Almosting a Macnab in the Western Isles of Scotland.
by David Profumo
From the 2009 Expeditions & Guides Annual.
Although I know in advance that five hours crouched in its driving seat will make my wedding tackle feel like it’s been stuck in a food processor,... ...and whereas I also know the muscle-bound Audi would offer a suave and air-conditioned ride over the switchback roads ahead, it is the trusty old Land Rover I choose whenever I head west from my home here up the glen in Highland Perthshire—more particularly so today because I’m off to visit my friend the Earl on his island, and I know for sure he is a Land Rover Man.
(A confession: Although my home overlooks a duke’s castle, and I’ve developed textbook traits like wearing bulletproof tweeds at breakfast, a secret belief in jus primae noctis, and a sneering attitude toward my tenantry—I’m not a real Scottish laird at all. I’m as fake as a farmed salmon—nothing grander than an upstart Italian baron. Just thought you might need to know.)
And so we’re off. It’s a blustery October day, the moorland turning umber and the bracken gleaming cinnamon in the thin autumnal sunshine. Over the helicopter whine of my Landy’s diesel, Leonard Cohen leaks alluvially from the cassette deck. In the back: shotgun, rifle, clutch of rods, flasks of malt, a nice box of Cohiba Exquisitos. Writers’ and Artists’ Materials, in fact.
The Western Isles trail off the Atlantic coast of Scotland like a kite, 130 miles long. Composed largely of Archaean gneiss, they are, at three billion years old, some of the planet’s most ancient landscapes, and a far cry from the mainland scene, the tourist-board tartan of Nessieland. Life is hard, and always has been. This is the last bastion of Gaelic culture, and when I first visited some 30 years ago, there were still several hundred older folk in the islands who couldn’t speak English at all. The saying here runs, “Across the sea, on a clear day, you can see Scotland.”
This has become a ritual journey for me—if not quite a pilgrimage of the heart, then a damn good layman’s trek. I came as a student, in love with a girl whose father had a croft here; we got engaged on the banks of a loch after some sea-trout fishing, and our three children have summered here ever since. In the Hebrides, I wrote much of my first novel; the islands have famously inspired George Orwell, Arthur Ransome, J. M. Barrie, and you can soon see why. These are places of ramshackle beauty, with pigeon-gray rockscapes, tumbledown peat hags, dunes of blown shellsand, and sparse moorland, the peculiar tangle of which is reproduced in island tweeds—essential for fending off all that weather and heather.
On the road this morning, as I trundle toward the western seaboard, familiar place names have become a kind of litany—Glen Gloy, the Inn at Cluanie, the mighty peaks of the Five Sisters of Kintail striding toward the ocean—and then, after the elegant swoop over the bridge to Skye, the township signs become bilingual, for here is the political center of modern Gaelic, the heavily subsidised Sabhal Mor Ostaig college at Broadford. I stop at the Tourist Office, to note down the exact spelling of the translation for “Broadford” in the language said to have been spoken in the Garden of Eden, but the mannie in charge hasn’t a clue: “It’s all done for the tourists,” he explains, breezy as a broken bagpipe. And on the eighth day, God created tourism. (Broadford is An T-Ath Leathan, if you ever need to stick it in your GPS.)
At Uig pier, photographer Glyn and I board the ferry, thence out across the moiling Minch, bruise-livid combers turning lumpy as a sudden breeze reaches 35 miles per hour. We’re all right, nestled aft in the saloon, nursing our triple Taliskers; but this was a perilous transit for earlier travelers, including Bonnie Prince Charlie who fled to the Uists in 1746 disguised as Betty Burke, reduced to living off drammach (oatmeal and seawater, washed down with brandy), his shirt “as dingy as a dish clout.” Our present Prince Charlie (who I suspect sleeps in three-piece Harris Tweed pajamas) can now boast the Lordship of the Isles among his titles. So it goes.
The harbor hoving into sight is Lochmaddy, gateway to North Uist, an island of around 135 square miles, most of it the Earl’s family estate. Nice work.
I first met the laird, Fergus, when I came to report on the sea-trout fishing. Herling, sewin, harvest peal, black tails, call them what you will: Thanks to factors such as sand-eel netting and intensive inshore mariculture, the ocean-run brown trout populations of Scotland had at one time become as rare as unicorn dung, but while never attaining Patagonian proportions, the anadromous runs in the Uists have somehow survived, along with a fair smattering of Salmo salar—lovely, streamlined fish designed by the Almighty for navigating the short gravelly burns that drain their native lochs. The Hebridean historian Martin Martin remarked (in 1716), “The speckled Salmons . . . are very plentiful on the West side of this island,” and so they still are.
Fifteen years ago, in the Lochmaddy hotel bar, there was lounging a tousle-haired, chain-smoking youth whom I took to be an especially insolent local gillie; but it was the charismatic Fergus: natural-history scholar, archaeologist, all- round sportsman, godson of the Queen. He and his younger brother Niall now run the estate for visiting sportsmen, with accommodation at Langass Lodge, a luxuriously converted hotel where drammach is never on the menu. I was to join in various marauds over the coming week with a party of French shooters staying here.
Thus it is that at oh-daft-thirty on Wednesday morning I find myself crouching in a stone-built blind near the foreshore, a couple of three-shot cartridges up the spouts of my Purdey 12-bore, a goose call in the other hand and Glyn’s telephoto lens practically up my right nostril. This island is famed for its avifauna: at the nearby Balranald nature reserve, birdwatchers (or “twitchers,” as they’re known) delight in such breeding rarities as snowy owls, red-necked phalarope, and the corncrake with its distinctive rasp—all scrupulously protected, of course. The days are long gone when the likes of Charles Peel (a Victorian “zoologist”) could make a morning’s bag comprising a Great Northern Diver, a curlew, and a gray seal. He loved the shooting here, but complained that the crofters interfered with his sport; presumably, they were trying to gather enough shellfish to stave off the rickets and pulmonary tuberculosis then endemic, or dig the evening meal, described by one boy as comprising “potatoes, and a spoon.”
(Not every Imperial adventurer found the place so congenial: Robert Buchanan recorded, “a desolate region where the wild goose screams overhead, and the ice-duck haunts the gloaming with its terrible human ‘calloo.’” Maybe he shouldn’t have visited the very same week he gave up his morphine habit.)
But now dawn’s blade is flensing the horizon, the reddish line eases away the bulging gray, and high somewhere in the distance I can hear greylag geese, not screaming exactly, but going ang, ang, as they give tongue. There are some snipe squeaking aloft, too, but it’s still too dim to discern them. From the right, lowish, comes a single quacker, a mallard that I send socking down against a dyke. Geese are on the move, and the Frenchies are scoring all right, but even when I turn one with the call (a goose, I mean, not a Parisian) I can’t get a pinion out of him, though I salute him twice with saltpeter. It’s the same with the next three, too: I might as well be loaded with sand. Birdless, I traipse home for porridge and tea.
Just after nine, we reconvene to spend the day chasing small birds around the bogs. The common snipe is one of my favourite quarries: compared with the heavy cavalry of waterfowl, he resembles a little skirmisher, fleet of foot and lightly armed with a lance. This is also an excellent table bird—Winston Churchill’s preferred breakfast was a brace of cold snipe with a glass of port.
The autumnal migration here tends to coincide with the first full moon in November (so we’re a touch early), and when newly arrived they can be skittish to shoot, jumping up at extreme range and shick-shacking away unscathed. Often, their breast feathers are still frosted with brine from having skimmed in over the wavetops by moonlight. I’ve had days here with a couple of dozen in the bag, between five guns, plus some various such as the resplendent golden plover (Charardrius pluvialis, the only species of wader that’s still fair game). Sometimes we walk up in a long line, snapshooting as the birds rise, or occasionally we crouch, concealed, as Eric the ’keeper drives a bog toward us, his pack of spaniels in their watery element.
Some people call this “rough shooting,” but it seems to me it involves extraordinary finesse: the essential trick of it is a neat, reverse prestige whereby you suddenly conjure a dead bird out of the air and into your hand.
We’re on Baleshare Island, once renowned for its grazing. Like many of the western margins of Uist, this is lush machair land, where marram grass has bedded into the alkaline sand; what’s good for cattle is excellent for the choosy snipe, too, as they favor the soft cowpats for foraging. The birds are thin on the ground this morning, but I manage one nice shot, a real grandstander that crosses high and handsome, then signs the air briefly with his plumage. My neighbor Michel (a chocolatier from Nantes) has bagged a brace of becassines, and is already discussing with Phillippe the best wines to accompany them. A flock of goldies swoops by, but none tumble. Someone puts a teal in the bag, and then it’s time for luncheon, perched on the dunes with some honest claret to toast our entente cordiale. I get the impression my new
friends are not just here for the shooting. In honor of the laird’s godmother, I give a rendition of our national anthem, and pass round some of the ginger liqueur from Prince Charles’s farm; then it’s time to load up with eight-shot once more and tramp off overland, potting at little salt-and-peppercorn targets that scribble across the hard sky. Behind us, the afternoon sea breathes heavily, like a sexually satisfied sultan enjoying his siesta.
Also staying at Langass is a Texan named Herb Williamson, an experienced shot stopping en route to Tanzania in search of lion. He had stalked red deer all over Scotland, and reckoned the finest beasts were here (it was his sixth visit). Niall was going to let Herb try for a trophy head, as this is his last day—an unusual opportunity, as most Highland stalking now consists of culling the inferior stags, to maintain the quality of bloodlines, not to bag a big rack for the wall of your den. I was invited along as an observer.
Now, though I live in the Forest of Atholl, where the whole art of
deer stalking with a rifle was largely pioneered (before that, when chaps like Mary Queen of Scots or the papal nuncio visited, deer would be driven into bowshot, or trapped), and although our home policies practically pullulate with the creatures, I have never in my life killed one. (There. I told you I wasn’t the real MacThing.) One reason for our October timing: this is also the last week of the stag season. I would be trying my hand at it; but first I wanted to get some idea of the rules of engagement.
Our safari begins by boat. In the misty near-silence, we drift the channels between some of the satellite islets east of Uist where, as the rut approaches, stags swim their chosen hinds for protection. With the motor cut, Niall and Herb glass the corries; a golden eagle flares off the headland; a sea otter slithers down the bladderwrack and enters the water like oil. Stags roar, invisible in the crevices of creased and glistening rock.
On Flodday Beag I spot a good beast, a “Royal.” At this time of year the stags look pitch black, because they roll in the peat and then, in the manner of our soccer supporters, urinate on their legs. (Apparently, this attracts the ladies.) You can smell them distinctly, once you venture downwind. Landing precariously on a crag, we belly-crawl for 20 minutes before getting into position. A raven gives its rusty cry, considered a good omen by some old stalkers. (The bird leads you to the deer, ravenous at the prospect of a gralloch—disembowelled guts.) Niall signals to Herb, who unsheathes his cannon (a Steyr-Mannlicher .300 Winchester magnum, with 180-grain bullet) and the stag falls. “The stalk’s the thing,” explains Niall, an erstwhile African white hunter. “The shot should be a technicality.” We putter back to harbor, redolent with brine, gore, and distinctive eau de stag.
Next day the brothers plan a Macnab—that is, I would try to take a salmon, a stag, and a brace of grouse in one day, along the lines of John Buchan’s eponymous hero in the novel John Macnab (1925). At first light, therefore, we commence flogging the furrowed lochs: for several desperate hours, not a fin was stirring. This was going to be—ooh, textbook stuff, a classic. Then Fergus passes me over to Niall.
We have to abandon the usual testing site for the rifle, which is just beneath a Neolithic chambered cairn—because the local school is staging a sponsored hill run, and slotting one of the crofters’ kids with a .270 Ruger does precious little for landlordly relations (There, I’m starting to sound like a real laird after all), but once we’d had a couple of practice shots, and Niall had taught me how to avoid “the stalker’s kiss”—recoil injury from the scope to your eye orbit—we were ready to go. I confess I was as nervy as an aristo on a tumbril bound for Madame Guillotine.
The terrain on the main island is gentle, with little cover: you have to maximise use of every molehill and declivity, wriggling from point to vantage point. Niall has a particular stag earmarked for me, a youth with one deformed antler that he’d been wanting to cull for several weeks. Three times we traverse lengthy bogs without getting in to shoot. “I’m beginning to have a grudge against this one,” murmurs Niall grimly. Then, as we creep along the fringes of a lochan, our beast comes over the skyline, perhaps scenting some danger to his harem, and, sprawled in the ling heather, I finally slip off the safety catch. They say Olympic sharpshooters can stop their heartbeats just before squeezing the trigger: mine thrashes like a caged capercaillie. The muzzle flies up, and 200 yards away, shot through the neck, our quarry rocks back, dead on his haunches. It’s over.
There is little time to celebrate with the Macnab meter running and already three in the afternoon. Stormy skies tower like an ash heap, and a chill wind arises. Launched onto Loch Skealter, our boat contains Manny the retriever, a grouse gun, the laird at the oars, and Glyn, with his camera’s motor drive jammed in my left oxter. Across the rising billows trips my trusty bob fly, a Clan Chief pattern customized with spun Muddler head, and I pray to St. Zeno, patron of fishhooks, in the hour of my Macnab. The gunmetal surface of Skealter looks as glum as a Presbyterian preacher.
Then my fly line zips, the universe opens up along one of its seams and hurls forth a dark silver salmon that shakes its head once, superbly, in the air before throwing the iron. Geese are flighting in for dusk as we turn and row for shore without a word.
Later, after all the hurly-burly with rod and gun, I stand outside the laird’s house, Cuban candle in one hand and a copy of Turgenev in the other. (No, I lie: it was a hefty dram.) The night sky trembles with stars. Macnab or no, I would hope to continue coming here to listen to the wind and watch the rocks grow, until time is no longer with me.
Having failed at the speckled salmons, on my last morning we decide to pursue Salmo trutta trutta. North Uist is almost unique in its number of estuarial sea pools where you can find sea trout before they run up into fresh water; and even toward the end of the season there are fresh fish to be found. We head for my favorite, the tidal stream by Vallay Island below the carcass of the vast mansion built for the Edwardian magnate Erskine Beveridge. He was one of the first archaeologists to explore these islands, which abound in Neolithic barps (burial sites) and duns (fortified settlements). Fergus himself has made an impressive collection of querns and Viking hack silver he has discovered in the dunes; only last year, following a ferocious gale, he found an Iron Age stone coffin containing the hunched skeleton of a young girl.
Disaster befell Beveridge. His son, forbidden a liaison with some local girl, drowned himself in this very pool where I am preparing to cast. The archaeologist’s dwelling has itself become a relic.
Today Fergus has brought along his son George, who is eight. Now, I have been fishing since I was a fetus, but this boy is streets ahead for his age. In the first half hour he hooks four good fish on his silver spinning lure, and—shamefully, for a middle-aged man—I am edging along the pool to get at his hot spot. The tide is still quite full and the fish out of range for our fly rods, so I am loaded with an 18-gram Toby spoon, slung off a fixed-spool reel. It skips as it lands, and is nailed by a bright trout that contests every inch of the way, my gears squeaking like a whole wisp of snipe. At just over five pounds, this is a rare specimen, and we keep him for Fergus’s smokehouse. Four more follow—brisk sport for mid-October. I’m done.
Back at Langass, tweed breeks warming before the peat fire, cradling a tumbler crystal-cut as the laird’s accent, I recall chronicler Martin’s remark: “The Air is here moist and moderately cold, the Natives qualify it sometimes by drinking a Glass of Usquebaugh.” Calloo. n
David Profumo is a novelist and biographer, and writes the fishing column for Britain’s Country Life magazine. None of which qualifies him as a real laird.