Updated: Mar 15
For those who hunt and fish, the world is full of trophies. Whether it's simply a quiet day on a trout stream or walking behind a gun dog, or taking a majestic game animal that will make the record books, success is defined in many ways. One of hunting's first great accomplishments was the African "Big Five" - now nearly impossible, unaffordable by all but Saudi royalty, (and highly politically incorrect) - namely a leopard, cape buffalo, elephant, rhino, and lion - if you live to tell the tale. Even harder in some ways, if less well known, is the American Grand Slam - taking all four of the American curled-horn rams. Again, nearly impossible now, and certainly not for the faint of wallet. Sell a couple of your Faberge' eggs, though, and you could be the next lucky participant.
There is another accomplishment that spans hunting and fishing, and is guaranteed to raise some eyebrows around the fire at your next hunting camp. To bag "a Macnab" has become justly famous in the hunting sports as one of the really tough prizes to knock over. The sportsman must take: 1) a salmon 2) a stag and 3) a brace of grouse, all in the same day, from dawn to dusk. Now, granted, he isn't walking 20 miles a day in pursuit of a shootable elephant, or climbing 10,000 feet in search of a Dall sheep, but this is much harder than it first appears. None of these separate trophies is particularly easy - and to do them all three, in one sporting day, verges on the impossible.
Who came up with this idea? Well it all begins with three bored country gentlemen - fictional ones in the John Buchan novel John Macnab - old friends who, having acquired plenty of money and spare time, looked around themselves and decided that life had nothing else to offer them. One man, feeling the icy hand of ennui upon him, asks his old friend the doctor for advice. After a perfectly normal exam, the doctor wisely realizes the problem lies between his ears, or in his heart, and advises him to "...go steal a horse in some country where horse thieves are generally hung." Our hero takes this idea up with his friends and, like we all wish we could do, they take to crime. Pleasant crime...amusing crime...but crime none the less. Realizing that there are neighboring estates in their corner of the Scottish Highlands - estates presently occupied by visiting odd balls that they wouldn't mind ribbing a little - he takes pen in hand:
"Sir, I have the honour to inform you that I propose to kill a stag—or a salmon as the case may be—on your ground between midnight on—and midnight—. We can leave the dates open for the present. The animal, of course, remains your property and will be duly delivered to you. It is a condition that it must be removed wholly outside your bounds. In the event of the undersigned failing to achieve his purpose he will pay as forfeit one hundred pounds, and if successful fifty pounds to any charity you may appoint.
"I have the honour to be, your obedient humble servant."
But how to sign it? What name could they possibly use?
"It must be signed with a nom de guerre." He thought for a moment. "I've got it. At once business-like and mysterious."
At the bottom of the draft he scrawled the name "John Macnab."
And so, the Macnab was born.
The Macnab is not some arcane bit of Brit-lit comedy - it's very much a going concern in British shooting sports. Part of the problem is that it requires you to be good at three separate and very different pursuits - stalking, (what most Americans would call big game hunting) which centers around patience and careful rifle marksmanship; wingshooting flying game birds, which people spend their lives trying to master; and salmon fishing, which is a religion all its own. Catch your salmon on a fly rod naturally if you want to go to heaven, by the way. Salmon are big and powerful, and many have been caught multiple times and are thus scary-smart - and fly line leaders are gossamer thin and want to break on you just at sunset of your one and only sporting day, allowing the salmon to disappear with a laugh - so strategy is paramount. Some sportsmen and -women are "fish firsters" - namely, you get your salmon out of the way first because if fate is going to give you the finger, it's likely to do it on the river. A loose knot, a badly tied fly, a glint of reflection off your reel, and your only salmon of the day - or the week - may disappear. There are strategic arguments to be made for getting your stag or your grouse first as well - all based on intricacies of weather and sun.
Another glitch is that it's nearly impossible to do all of this on one estate. And for the visiting sportsman from America or beyond, you will do all your work on someone's private estate. In Britain, game belongs to the land owner - he sells the rights to hunt and fish within the proper season. The concept of vast open public hunting areas like the US National Forest system are largely unknown. So, you'll have to book a (fantastic) vacation in one or another towering Highland manor houses somewhere on the moors or forests close to places that salmon and grouse live. Roaring fires and glasses of whisky will be involved. (Buck up...someone has to do it.) And not just one, but probably two estates. You will probably find a place that has a great salmon river and excellent stag, but will they have any grouse that year? Or maybe the grouse and stag are eating the flowers at the kitchen window but there isn't a river for miles that has more than a few brown trout. You'll have to research carefully, and discuss your intention to try for a Macnab with the estate manager who can help you. It will require planning ahead of time, and transportation, and dedication on the part of several people, so don't spring this on the staff unless you want to eat your breakfast on the back steps.
Since many can't logistically make this happen, some estates have wisely created their own variation on the theme - and nothing says they can't. How about a red stag doe, some grouse, and a nice brown trout? Or two varieties of trout with stag on the side? The Highlands are stiff with sporting opportunities, and estates are eager to help out travelling sportsmen with plenty of expertise and equipment in case you don't happen to have your grandfather's Purdey shotguns standing in the cabinet.
Written by: Ryan McNabb