Game shooting in Brucklay, Aberdeenshire: “There’s wind today, so they should fly,” says an intuitive Andrew Dingwall-Fordyce spying the disinterested morning from his kitchen window. He works through the rest of his breakfast totally unfazed.
It rained all night and the only light illuminating this part of Brucklay, Aberdeenshire at 8am is his three-year-old Alec, buzzing around asking to be let out game shooting. His mother, Victoria, is unsure.
The guns had started to arrive outside. Aberdeen being Aberdeen means that many visiting sportsmen have a link with oil, but it’s interesting that of the 30 days sold each season, only a handful are sold to syndicates, the remainder being sold by Andrew on an individual basis.
While the corporate shooting market has declined, Andrew, who cites Paddy Fetherston-Godley as an influence on the way he manages game shooting at Brucklay, Aberdeenshire, believes this type of arrangement can only grow stronger now guns cannot live off shooting invites like they used to.
“We’ve always shot 10 guns on our partridge days. It’s perfectly okay because they fly all over the place and the bag always ends up roughly the same as it would with eight guns. It’s cheaper, and nobody seems to mind that at all. The packages I sell are for 10 guns on eight days so I only really have to find 80 people, which isn’t a huge effort.”
As someone who does a lot of work for the GWCT there are few people that Andrew has not crossed paths with in Scotland.
Fine game shooting on display at Brucklay, Aberdeenshire.
Today’s line includes a retired doctor (who takes six days a season here), a secondary school teacher and a property developer involved in the renovation of Kings Cross St. Pancras.
Everyone lives within 40 miles of Brucklay and they like the way Andrew operates; there are no cliques, there is flexibility with dates and, of course, you meet new people.
While Andrew briefed the guns in the drawing room the beaters and pickers-up mulled on the long, tree-lined gravel driveway.
The team is led by headkeeper Terry Scroggie whose enthusiasm and near constant smile shield him from the glum shadows that plague this part of the British Isles.
Nowhere is a shoot day governed more by the weather than in Scotland and today’s choice of drives was only finalised a few hours before the off.
“It shouldn’t be too bad today,” says Terry optimistically. “We’re set for a southerly wind which suits us, but we’ll watch the birds on this first drive just to see how they behave. If the wind changes then we’ll have to look at the way we’re going to do the day again.”
Guns shot amongst autumn straw bales on Laverock.
While the shoot itself measures 1,500 part-owned and part-rented undulating acres, the first three drives the guns saw during this November day were only separated by moss capped stone walls, rusting barbed wire fences and a black velvet ribbon river.
Patience eventually pays off
Flooding infected one part of Honeyneuk, a drive guns reached after a 200 yard walk across a browning stubble field before spreading across a plain hosting Aberdeenshire cattle. Small farm buildings were the only signs of life to the right, while the remains of a railway bridge, abandoned following the Beeching Axe, sat crumbling on the far left.
Ahead of the guns, and past the swollen river, the ground gently rose up again, the ascending slope hosting a long, horizontal cover crop including kale and buckwheat.
For a near silent few minutes the guns waited while the beaters, who had separated into two groups, walked towards the cover crop from opposite ends of the contour.
Guns were pegged out 30 yards apart, as is standard practice here, the rightmost third of the line bending at a 90 degree angle.
The birds, a mixture of partridge, pheasant and woodcock, curled out of the right as Andrew and Terry had predicted, and those guns on the leftmost side of the line had to be on their guard as the birds were regularly caught up in the fluctuating breeze, with many only shootable with a committed second barrel.
A series of unusual events
Some birds were a little too low to be considered sporting and though the guns looked a little frustrated on the sound of the horn, they’d at least been given a taste of the kind of shooting that might follow.
Certainly no-one could have predicted the race between an airborne pheasant and roe buck which bolted past the farmyard gate, the former folding in the air just as its four-footed competitor disintegrated into the distance.
“I think they won that drive!” one gun ventured while his spaniel nosed around for a hen bird in a long, brown, foot-deep puddle. Another gun approached us wearing a puzzled expression, “I’m not sure, but I think I was half asleep there, where the hell did they all go?”
The pair remained in hushed conversation as we walked the 250 yards over to the two fields that form Quarry Brae, a long ripple of stubble whose rightmost side is dominated by a small wood and bracken-clad rock outcrop braided with wire fencing and balding, black fingered branches.
The swollen river was now at the guns backs while the L-shaped line mirrored that which took position on the first drive.
A distant flight of mallard briefly distracted a handful of guns, especially those on the right who were left out of the first signs of sport.
A series of coveys began powering over the line, each higher than the last and over most pegs, and those guns on the right wasted no time in getting their barrels up when their curling chances came along.
A lesson in safe, responsible shooting
Then suddenly all hell broke loose in the sky.
The duck that had flown behind the line earlier must have banked right because they headed straight for the birds climbing out of the wood.
The partridge and pheasant scattered, diving fast to avoid the duck, themselves breaking up into small groups.
Every second bird was obsessed with finding a gap in the airspace and dodged everything in its path. Each peg was potentially the pound seat but those guns who didn’t have a clear shot rightly resisted any temptation to brown the coveys.
Conversation about this episode (it wasn’t planned) was still hot during the short walk over to Gun Club, a nod to the clay shooting that once took place within its main wood. This next drive tested gun’s reflexes more than any other.
“It can be very difficult to judge these birds, especially when the adrenaline is pumping,” one gun commented, “but of course if you’re in doubt you don’t do it.”
While every low bird seemed to ghost over Andrew’s head he seemed happy enough, after all, these birds would eventually end up in the woods above Quarry Brae.
While the bag was not dramatically enlarged on Gun Club, it showed something of the tactics used by Andrew to ensure that guns don’t get too much sport too early.
“If we have a big day, we’ll probably only shoot once a week, depending on who’s coming. If we have repeat customers we’ll shoot drives they’ve enjoyed in the past, but I don’t like to repeat a day they’ve done in the past, that’s boring. I don’t want to give guns our best drives right away, but I want them to feel like they’ve achieved something. I was taught that you only need to produce three excellent drives; the first; the last before lunch; and the last of the day.”
In terms of developing the shoot, Andrew believes that the land is as good as it can be. Certainly there are no ambitions to create the kind of sport only shootable by the best shots.
“It would be nice to put a few more game crops in different locations, but we’ve got the right mix at the moment. Ours is a rolling countryside, there are no deep valleys so we can’t show the very highest birds, but we’ve got a good sporting mix which tests most people.
“We offer traditional partridges, that is, birds of speed and agility. The skill of partridge shooting is shooting at a 45 degree angle out in front. I think we live in an age where people think that partridges have to get higher and higher.”
These comments were substantiated on Laverock, an afternoon drive taken on a near flat field of stubble where pegs, again lined up in L-shape, were neighboured by large bales of straw.
Andrew asked that guns be in position and loaded as quietly and as soon as possible, an informed request, as some birds flew by as guns closed their car doors.
The idea here was that Terry and the beating team, affectionately described as ‘coothy’ folk, would slowly push the birds from the wood and towards a game crop.
From here a second group of beaters, already in the cover, would walk towards their counterparts on Terry’s order, thus flushing the birds over their heads and towards the line.
Though the first coveys were low, after a more staggered approach the birds began to fly higher in response to the wind and their flight seemed to encourage a lot more out into the open, small coveys following identical flight lines.
This was a short but fruitful drive where the presence of a back gun would have certainly added another dozen to the bag.
“We’ve had Byzantines for two years now,” Terry would tell me later in the damp darkness the of wood dominating Chapman, the final drive. “We can’t get the highest birds here but we do well with the ground we have.”
The beating route within the wood was simple but sinister.They started at the
end of cold, tight columns buffered by needling trunks stuffed together at the top, giving it the appearance of a long tunnel.
The ground was covered with game who know every centimetre of the needlestack ground and were seemingly oblivious to the deer rocketing between the black trunks. Seeing the way the beaters are managed underlines the steady approach so characteristic of Terry and Lewis.
Everyone clapped and tapped their sticks in a soft rhythm against the wet bark but stopped every 15 bars to let the birds get ahead.
It was a very practical, workmanlike approach that paid off, and one which did their employer, and the guns who saw the birds it produced, a great service.
Brucklay may not enjoy the terrain that some shoots do, or be able to show the same ‘extreme birds’, but Andrew doesn’t care, his guests like things just the way they are.
Organising game shooting in Brucklay, Aberdeenshire
“I’ll write to someone and ask them if they want say, one or four pegs,” explains Andrew. “On other occasions, someone who I’ve never met before will contact me and say “I understand you’ve got four pegs to sell, can I take them?” It’s all about networking and it gets us known.”
Since Aberdeen is not renowned for big bags only 100-250 bird days are sold. Andrew is strict with bag sizes too: “I sell on an expectation basis, so if someone buys a 200 bird day that’s fine, we’ll give them the ‘chance’ to shoot 200 and won’t charge them if they go over.
“However, I won’t refund them if they are shy of the bag. I’m not in favour of asking guns if they’d like to pay for more birds at lunchtime, it’s such a bad way of operating in my opinion.
A fine keepering double act
Although Terry Scroggie (pictured) started late in gamekeeping, it is fortunate for Brucklay that, like Andrew, Terry learned a great deal about shooting from Paddy Fetherston-Godley. Terry was keeper on the home beat at Invercauld before moving onto Menie House and then onto Brucklay at the turn of the millennium.The keepering team could easily be mistaken for a father and son operation, Terry, now in his tenth year at Brucklay being assisted by 18-year-old Thurso graduate Lewis Kane. To listen to them talking to one another it’s like they’ve been friends for years, the young keeper knowing when to listen, but still encouraged to give his opinion and be persistent in his task. Both Terry and Lewis refer to Andrew as “the kind of nice boss who lets you get on with it” but both will still refer to him as “sir” throughout the shoot day. Under Terry and Lewis the beaters don’t try to recreate the atmosphere at Pittodrie when Rangers come to play. Their approach is firm, but understated, decisive but not ruthless.
Guns take lunch in the close quarters of the Dingwall-Fordyce dining room. Prepared by Victoria Dingwall-Fordyce the meals are certainly hearty, stew and vegetables washed down with wine and port. Everyone eating on this day had to make sure they had wiped their hands before handling their host’s gamebook, containing the estate’s shooting records as far back as the 1800s. It was worth inspection if only for the uncomfortably realistic illustrations depicting famous battles from the First World War. Before heading back outside only Andrew was willing to snort the family snuff taken from a sliver horned box. Judging from his facial expression the tobacco had once been more potent, but it showed the host doesn’t take himself too seriously.
For more information about shooting at Brucklay contact Andrew Dingwall-Fordyce on 01771 613263 or 07831 707501.