The Eilean Iarmain estate, on the Isle of Skye, offers everything that the itinerant woodcock shooter could hope for. In addition to the 23,000 acres of land to shoot over, the absolutely stunning scenery and the completely professional yet warm manner of headkeeper Michael MacKenzie, visiting Guns will experience a hotel stay that sets a standard to which other sporting hostelries can only aspire.
The accommodation, the quality of the service, the menu consisting of locally sourced products, the view from one?s bedroom window across the Sound of Sleat ? all are memorably stunning. It is also a tradition at Eilean Iarmain that some of the woodcock shot during a party?s visit will be on the menu. We were not disappointed, as the hotel chef excels at cooking woodcock. Impressively, Eilean Iarmain offers the visiting Gun a complete experience; one is left to feel utterly looked after. I cannot sing its praises too highly. However, what of the shooting side?
Whatever the weather
In the lead-up to my visit in November last season, I kept a watchful eye on the weather.
I had been warned by Michael MacKenzie that it could be extremely wet on the Isle of Skye at that time of year. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see the wintry forecast for the period between 24 November and 27 November. By Friday 25 November I was somewhat concerned, as the A82 between Inverness and Invermoriston was closed due to the snow. Thankfully, by Sunday all was well again, though more snow was forecast.
Having decided to take the easy option of flying to Scotland I must admit I became increasingly apprehensive wondering what response we might receive from airline and security personnel at the airport, as we wished to take our guns with us. In the event, these fears proved groundless.
We flew with Easyjet from Bristol to Inverness and the staff were reassuringly accommodating. If you contact them well before your departure date they will take you through the whole process of how to take guns with you and what documentation you need. The police officers at Bristol airport were thorough, professional and friendly, and ensured that the whole exercise was as stress-free as possible. At the Inverness end it was a similar story.
The drive from Inverness along the shores of Loch Ness, through Glen Shiel and to Kyle of Lochalsh for the Skye Bridge was breathtaking.
At the edge of the world
As a newcomer to this part of Scotland, I was rendered speechless. The trip was worth the effort for the scenery alone ? it was magical and there was so much to see. Who could ever forget the ominous sight of Urquhart Castle, perched on the shore of Loch Ness, standing as sentinel over the passage to the Highlands? Later that evening we arrived at the hotel to be greeted warmly by the hotel manager, staff and headkeeper Michael MacKenzie.
The initial contact with the people of Skye was doubly affectionate for two Welsh-speakers, as it was joyous to hear staff speaking to each other in Gaelic. We indulged in the shared affinity of minority language speakers. The laird, Sir Iain Noble, is a driving force in keeping the Gaelic language alive on Skye. Headkeeper Michael, at 6ft 2in and 18 stone, is a soft-spoken Highlander who really has no need to be loud.
If the infamous Highland charge is in fact a part of his portfolio, his presence alone renders such action superfluous. He is a delightful man who shares others? passion and concerns for woodcock. Over a dram or two, I was happy to acknowledge with him that the pleasure of shooting is to be found within the whole day?s experience: what you see and what you feel, not how many birds you shoot. Over the next three days it transpired to be so.
To say there are lots of woodcock wintering on Skye is a gross understatement. The format employed at Eilean Iarmain is usually that of driven woodcock for parties of eight Guns. However, smaller groups of as many as five people are catered for on walked-up days. These smaller walked-up days are restricted to smaller blocks of woodland and burnsides.
This is the package that my friend Eifion Williams and I undertook. Usually, we flanked the burnsides or narrow blocks of cover; sometimes we stood forward as Michael and Gary Kingsman, the underkeeper, pushed narrow strips of cover towards us. It was the best example of an organised yet informal roughshooting day I have experienced. Thankfully, there were woodcock in abundance and we enjoyed superb sport. Over the three-day period we flushed in excess of 128 woodcock.
While seasoned woodcock shooters will realise that nowhere near half of these birds were shot at, we nevertheless had a host of opportunities. Unfortunately, the ?black dog? that I had feared would stalk our journey decided to put in an appearance. For some inexplicable reason, my usual fair-to-good performance on woodcock plummeted. It went from bad to worse to better over the three days. The only positive aspect was that I either missed them completely or shot them dead in the air. My companion Eifion shot superbly well, however. Over the three days he had some exceptional shots at woodcock that left even Michael MacKenzie impressed. Between us we managed to miss some easy birds, but I readily admit that for Eifion this was less so.
A winter?s scene
These days have become treasured memories. While some aspects of the visit have been quickly forgotten, others do not require photographs to jog the memory. From day one, I have a clear vision of us catching our breath on some high ground directly opposite the Cuillins, which, on that Monday morning, were glistening with snow. The view across the bay was spectacular, with the snow-encrusted mountain mirrored in the calm waters of the bay. A day of spaniels bustling through blocks of regenerating birch, working the stream-side cover, in small patches of birch, rowan and fern and woodcock that were so fast they left me with jaw agape. Memories also of woodcock shot by Eifion that simply left one amazed that anyone could take such a quick snap shot, and often at impressive distances.
From day two, there is the memory of the melanistic hen pheasant that turned into a grouse. Standing a good 100 yards apart on the corner of a block of regenerating birch, at quite an altitude, we were naturally expecting woodcock. Far to my right, towards where Eifion was standing, I caught a glimpse of a brown blur heading towards him. It was clearly a grouse, which surprised him so much he missed with his first barrel ? but how he took it with his second. In my mind?s eye it will forever crumple in the air and fall into the ravine behind us. A spectacular shot. Thankfully it was retrieved and reputations were restored and doubts as to its identity dispelled.
Day three was a day of snow flurries, more woodcock from mystical hidden places and, fantastically so, a golden eagle that drifted effortlessly over the brow of the hill, exactly opposite the bothy where we took lunch. Believe you me, lunch at the bothy is an experience itself. Several rugby 15s would have been hard pushed to clear those lunches. I was told that visiting French and Italian Guns frequently take two-hour lunches at the bothy. Well they would.
Eilean Iarmain is the true sporting Gun?s sporting venue. Do not expect it to be easy, whether in terms of shooting or walking. You definitely need to be reasonably fit. There is also an ethos at Eilean Iarmain that potential visitors should appreciate before they contemplate a visit. The whole enterprise is governed by the philosophy that these are truly wild birds to be respected, if not treasured. If putting in a day?s work to taste some of the best woodcock shooting you are likely to encounter is your forte, then this is the place for you. Be warned: this is not the stuff of huge bags, and quite rightly so. You will not be disappointed, as the sporting opportunities are simply superb.
There is so much more to a day or three?s shooting if one is enthusiastic enough to search. Our lives and shooting lives are inextricably linked to ?lifelong learning?. Some of us are fortunate enough to visit such places as Eilean Iarmain; those of us that do should seize the opportunity to share such time with the people who live, breathe and work hard to maintain such a resource. For me, it was an unforgettable pleasure not only to share these three days with like-minded companions, but also to listen to and learn from the knowledge of people such as Michael MacKenzie and Gary Kingsman. Long may we all hunt the Cearc Choille, or the Gaelic woodhen.