How American sporting tourists saved Scottish estates
David SD Jones discovers that a steady stream of wealthy sporting tenants from the US helped Scottish estates to survive in the 1920s
The first US sporting tourists began to visit Scotland during the late-Victorian period when the introduction of regular fast liner services enabled the elite of stateside society to cross the Atlantic in comfort within the space of seven to 10 days and spend part of the shooting season in Great Britain.
Usually Scottish immigrants who had prospered in the US, or those with Scottish connections, such men were keen to flaunt their wealth on their ancestral turf, renting a Highland estate for several months or spending a few weeks in a sportsman’s hotel, shooting grouse, stalking deer or fishing for salmon and sea trout.
Ultra-rich sportsmen from across the pond began to take an increased interest in Scottish shootings during the Edwardian era, often with the ulterior motive of renting a prestigious property in order to get into society and ‘market’ heiress daughters to impoverished aristocrats in need of a wife who could save the family fortunes in return for a title.
Canny landowners, keen to profit financially from the largesse of such individuals, upgraded their moors and forests, and installed bathrooms, electric lighting, central heating and modern furnishings in spartan Victorian shooting lodges and draughty ancestral castles for the benefit of US clients who, as one journalist commented in 1910, were “first-class sporting tenants” who “give liberally for their privileges and exact liberal advantages besides the bare right to shoot”.
Sporting tourism, however, really came into its own in the early 1920s. Scottish landed proprietors, who had been hit by the high taxation imposed by the David Lloyd George government, now actively welcomed wealthy American tenants, irrespective of their background in trade, gunnery skills or social graces.
Unsurprisingly, they particularly encouraged those who were not only prepared to take moors, deer forests, castles and commodious shooting lodges on short leases rather than on an annual rental basis and pay all of the gamekeeping and maintenance costs into the bargain, but who would also invite them to shoot and fish as a guest from time to time.
Constantly improving travel facilities enabled US sportsmen and their entourages to cross the Atlantic from New York to Southampton in a luxurious private suite aboard a Blue Riband liner operated by Cunard, White Star, United States Lines and other operators within five to six days.
They then caught the train to Waterloo, crossed London by chauffeur-driven limousine to King’s Cross and took the night sleeper to their shooting quarters, making the final journey from the nearest station by car or horse-drawn conveyance.
One of the most prominent American sporting tourists during the roaring 1920s, Mabelle Aksel de Wichfeld — dubbed “Washington’s wealthiest widow” following the death of her first husband, Clarence Moore, aboard the RMS Titanic in 1912 — rented top Scottish shooting, stalking and fishing estates annually from 1920 until 1928, including Fetteresso Castle in Aberdeenshire, Cortachy Castle in Angus and Blair Castle in Perthshire.
In addition, she hired the Crichel shoot in Dorset for two months in 1924 and the Warter Priory shoot in East Yorkshire from October 1925 until the end of January 1926 to provide her guests with a more varied bag. She and her guest Guns accounted for a total of 6,350 pheasants, 1,244 partridges, 2,883 hares and other game on the latter property.
The daughter and heiress of a Chicago meat-packing magnate, Madame de Wichfeld, as Mabelle styled herself, was a leading figure in US society and a munificent hostess whose sporting invitations were eagerly sought after. She often arrived in England via Paris accompanied by around six servants and up to 80 large pieces of luggage. She spent a few nights at The Ritz in London before travelling north of the border to her shootings in a private railway carriage attached to an express train, in time for the Glorious Twelfth.
Complaining to friends in 1921 that she found Cortachy Castle “much too small”, Mabelle broke new ground in 1922, leasing Blair Castle in Perthshire from the 8th Duke of Atholl for the shooting season each year, the first time that the castle had been let. For sporting purposes, she rented the 21,600-acre Blair Castle Forest and the 13,000-acre Auchleeks Shootings, which boasted one of the finest grouse moors in Scotland, a mixed low-ground beat and fishing rights on nearby waters.
Throughout the course of her first season at Blair, Mabelle and her guests spent more than 110 days in the field between 12 August 1922 and 30 January 1923, bagging a total of 68 red deer stags, 29 red deer hinds, 46 roe deer, 3,043 red grouse, 54 black game, nine ptarmigan, 44 capercaillie, 1,443 pheasants, 443 partridges, 80 woodcock, 23 snipe, 19 duck, 16 plover, 28 woodpigeon, 876 hares and 251 rabbits. Mabelle grassed the largest stag of that season, a nine-pointer weighing 18 stone.
Mabelle’s guest list in Scotland included many big names, including Lord Louis Mountbatten, Prince Chichibu of Japan (younger brother of Emperor Hirohito) and Neville Chamberlain (later Prime Minister). A keen Shot and stalker herself, she invited the Duchess of Westminster, the Duchess de Noailles, the Countess of Brecknock and other well-known lady Guns to her shooting parties, too.
Numerous other American millionaires sailed across the Atlantic to shoot, fish and stalk in Scotland in the 1920s. New York financier and railroad proprietor George Jay Gould, whose wife, Guinevere, was a keen Shot, leased Castle Grant in Strathspey from the Earl of Seafield.
Newspaper magnate Herbert W Pulitzer rented Dunkeld House from the Atholl estates and attracted local press attention when he and his party killed a record bag of 200½ brace of red grouse on Lochan High Moor on 15 August 1929.
Gurnee Munn, chairman of the American Totalisator Company, a tenant of Downie Park in Angus and Dalnamein in Perthshire, was fined £3-10/- for travelling in excess of 20mph while en route to the moors at Downie Park. He shot an above-average bag of 80 brace of red grouse on 18 August 1923 at Dalnamein.
Some 1920s Americans put entertainment before sport, preferring to take a large lodge or castle with poor shootings rather than a property with excellent shootings but minimal accommodation for a house party.
More and more American sportsmen visited Scotland annually as the 1920s rolled on, encouraged by all-in tourist schemes introduced by Cunard and White Star in 1927. The companies arranged transport facilities and hired a fully staffed and equipped lodge, complete with shootings and fishing, for wealthy clients, for a set fee. Cunard also provided on-board clay pigeon competitions so passengers could hone their gun skills while at sea. They could also arrange for consignments of shot grouse to be sent back to the US in cold storage aboard liners as gifts for friends, relatives or business associates of sporting tenants.
Prices for grouse shoots alone in the late 1920s ranged from £1,500 to £2,500 for one month to £5,000 (about £230,000 today) for three months. Such was the demand for good-quality sporting estates in regions such as the south Highlands and the eastern counties at this time that rents became inflated, pricing out some British customers.
Sadly, many American sporting tourists suffered financially due to the Wall Street crash in the autumn of 1929 and were obliged to curtail their expenditure, with the result that a significant number could no longer afford to travel to Scotland annually or rent Scottish grouse moors and deer forests on a seasonal basis.
That said, their money not only helped to keep estates running throughout the 1920s and created much-needed employment in rural areas, but also ensured the survival of a number of fine houses and castles.