Loch, Scotch and two smoking barrels
Shooting, with its strict etiquette and arcane vocabulary, can be baffling to the uninitiated.
Best-Selling historian Amanda Foreman takes the plunge and braves a high-calibre weekend in Scotland.
In the halcyon days before income tax and death duties, a weekend of shooting at a country house was like a pleasure trip to the beach: cheap, fun, and an opportunity for everyone to relax.
Organising the shooting parties for the season was one of the easiest duties allotted to an Eighteenth-Century political hostess, such as myheroine, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. The only art was in choosing the guests the gift of three weeks’ shooting at Chatsworth, the Devonshires’ Derbyshire estate, was an obvious way of rewarding the loyal party members while punishing the waverers. There is nothing so potent as the combination of luxury, snobbery, good weather, and a bit of friendly competition to keep a person sweet.
However, shooting, like politics, is not what it used to be. Today, it is not so much a man’s party loyalty that determines how many birds he gets to shoot, but his wallet. I was amazed to learn the sums of money involved: nine guns for a season’s shooting roughly eighteen days costs at least £90,000. The average is 300 birds; at £20 upwards per bird plus VAT, that’s an expensive flying chicken. A Twentieth-Century Georgiana would not get awaywith less than £5,000 for the weekend.
I have to be honest at this point and admit to being utterly ignorant about the countryside. I instinctively feel it is a good thing, like sticky toffee pudding, but it remains on my ‘little and rarely” list. Luckily, my friends Lord and Lady Dalmeny invited me to their estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh, which is a mere 25 minutes from the airport, so it could not be more convenient. Until recently, a local Edinburgh syndicate rented the shoot every year, but the arrangement lapsed, making Dalmeny available to anyone, even a whingeing won’t-hold-a gun no-hoper like me.
Only the very grand indeed can carry off full shooting-kit. On the whole, I am told, it is best to wear old forest-coloured tweeds. I could not face doing a country version of The Clothes Show: on this occasion, the modern Georgiana would be wearing her London wool coat and hat. However, some of the guests arrived looking like advertisements for Scotch whisky not a Tattersall check out of place.
The shoot started early on Saturday morning. I discovered that, when Harry and Caroline Dalmeny say the cars leave at 8.30am, they mean 8.30am. A vicious storm during the night had cut the area’s electricity, but that had not prevented two gamekeepers, four pickers-up, and about twelve beaters from arriving bang on time for the first of eight drives. The mist had cleared from the tops of the trees, and the smell of the sea nearby mixed with the scent of damp earth. It made me think about lunch. Meanwhile, seven men and two women worked feverishly to provide Sainsbury’s with its fresh game quota.
We stopped at eleven o’clock for “bullshots”. As hostess, it was time for Georgiana to provide her guests with something warm and comforting. I had lugged one of Harry`s special chilli sherries up from London. The chilli had been marinating all year; one shot of sherry into the steaming bouillon soup was enough to make your throat burn. It was like drinking a lamb vindaloo. For an hour afterwards, you cannot feel the cold in any part of your body. I had expected to be cold and bored, instead I felt brisk and mildly diverted.
We went back to the house for lunch, which, though plentiful, was brief. Sometimes the guns prefer to miss it altogether in order to squeeze in another drive. I would not have missed it for anything. We returned to the house to devour all the delicious food you can remember from childhood: thick brown stew, mashed potatoes, crusty rolls, lots of cake and chocolate.
The feathered equivalent of Vietnam continued until it was too dark to continue. Only once have the birds fought back. Two years ago, Harry Dalmeny shot a pheasant that dropped, kamikaze-like, straight on his head, knocking him out. Out of respect for its pluck, he had the bird stuffed and decorated with an Air Force bandanna round its head. We, however, ended the day without incident, having achieved an average one-in-four-cartridges success rate. At this point, Georgiana would have raced back to the house to check on the arrangements for the evening’s black-tie dinner. In a leisurely fashion, I climbed into the last Land Rover, secure in the knowledge that Caroline Dalmeny was overseeing the entire thing.
People make an effort for these evenings. The jewellery is real and the dresses this year’s. This is where a slinky Joseph Azagury number would come in handy. It was just wonderful to know that tomorrow I would be able to sit by the fire and read the papers. Although I enjoyed it, I have every confidence that I will not be going on future shoots. As they say, you can take the girl out of the town, but you can’t take the town out of the girl.
Dalmeny House (0131 331 1888) is available for lunches, dinners, and weddings. Shooting weekends can also be organised through Roxton Bailey Robinson (01488 683222); Holland & Holland (O171 499 4411); or Frontiers (0171 493 0798).
OCTOBER 1999 HARPERS QUEEN
What to know
Grouse are the most expensive birds at about £100 a brace plus vat; pheasant cost £20-£30 a bird plus vat. You only take away a brace, no matter how many you shoot.
Ideally a Purdey or a Holland & Holland, preferably a pair, worth anything between £70,000 and £150,000. Do not assume your host can lend you a gun.
Very few people can carry off shooting kit with any style, so it is best toopt purely for comfort. Veterans of the sport advise silk long johns (less unflattering than the thermal variety) under tweed, cord, or moleskin plus-fours. A hat is a must, to avoid bad-hair days. On the feet, fur or neoprene-lined wellies with thick wool shooting stockings. Real style-fiends wear mink-lined wrist-warmers. New shooting clothes are impermissible. Roll around in some gravel to give them a patina of age before setting off.
Most estates have their own tweed, worn by the family and the keepers (it is not always a good idea to wear it elsewhere a tweed that blends in on a purple heather-covered grouse moor may not be so inconspicuous in a Hampshire field). Those without family colours should wear forest-coloured tweeds under a Schofell or Musto coat.
It is no longer infra dig to protect oneself against permanent deafness. But beware: most now have amplifiers that allow the nosy wearer to eavesdrop on conversations down the line. This dangerous innovation is unlikely to add to post-shoot harmony.
Not unless it is waterproof. It always rains.
If you are asked to load for your man, make sure your pockets are empty. Too many women have been embarrassed by packets of Polo mints and Tampax falling from the barrels into which they have been loaded.
Formal; dresses are long, so you can keep the long johns on underneath. As grand houses do not prioritise central heating, this is a mercy.
1. If in doubt, do not shoot a white pheasant; they are often used as “markers” to demonstrate the movement of the birds around the estate. You may be required to pay a fine to the Game Conservancy Trust.
2. Never leave your gun in the vehicle, as the police have been known to make moorside swoops.
3. Do not fight over who shot what; there is always someone who exaggerates his accuracy and claims all birds shot by the guns on either side of him. It is not permissible to snatch them back.
At the end of each day, the keeper should be tipped anything from £15 upwards (more if he has cleaned your gun).
Copyright© 1999 Harpers Queen