A winter’s journey to Scotland from the Midlands is a grey and blustery affair. Tired truckers trundle past farmer’s fields, over rivers and past billowing power stations as radio presenters tell them the who, what and why of the day. In a Doncaster field there lives a lorry with the words ‘Prepare to Meet Your God’ written across the side. Victims of Dr Beeching’s Axe lie cold and alone in overgrown cuttings and the carsick children and breakdowns quickly recede into the corner of the eye. Traffic cones are as much of a menace as the day-trippers, schoolchildren and hen parties cluttering the refreshment kiosks in the neon-lit service stations.
Wellwood McCall loads the cart after Garbutt’s Gorge.
Mundane it may be, but it will be familiar to all who travel the UK in search of good game shooting.
One of the other guns came by plane, but for those of us travelling by road the anticipation increased as the miles ticked by. However, as the cloak of darkness descended it became clear that I was lost and the man at the petrol station whose directions of “second left, third right, first left” didn’t help either.
Weird shapes began to flap around the car. I took a wrong turn. They could have been pheasants or owls, I couldn’t make it out, but the way they swished and jagged across the headlit road in front of this cold stretch of Scotland started to make me paranoid.
I took another wrong turn and stopped the car. I had been driving for almost seven hours on and off. Then suddenly, almost by accident, I saw the guesthouse lights in the distance. I was so unnerved by the time I arrived that I almost gnawed the front door off to get inside.
Saul Bowes Patterson with Dilly, Barney, Poppy & Dawn.
I’d been invited to shoot at Mutehill in Kirkcudbright (pronounced Kirk-coo-bree) by the shoot’s owner and headkeeper, Saul Bowes Patterson. He is a copper-haired fridge of a man who almost pulled me out of my car with his greeting when we first met at the Forrest Estate Clay Shooting Ground the day before the pheasant shoot. It was a proper handshake too, not the oily knot of fingers you’re offered by someone to whom making your acquaintance is a chore.
Saul’s smile is always on standby, even with the rain lashing down and others probably wishing they were sitting in front of a fire with a dram. He laughed for almost the entire time we shot clays together, goading them and cackling like an outlaw when he broke one.
By the time we left the shooting ground I was so wet I squelched when changing gear and the disruption meant I lost the maroon 4×4 Saul and his posse were riding back to base in. We laughed about the event later that night over a few pints of Criffel and plates of fish and chips in The Anchor at Kippford, a pub where locals watched Frozen Planet on a giant screen in awe.
A few of the guns game shooting the following day were there too; a vet with a genuine smile for anyone; a St. Helenian who runs a shooting ground at St. John’s of Dalry; a warm, talkative Suffolk chap who’d followed Saul all over the country for sport; and a sporting agent who swapped a career in the City of London for life in the Scottish hills. A sprinkling of wives kept things in good order, which was probably for the best.
Guns take it slowly up ‘Heart Attack Hill’ on their way towards High Banks.
The following morning was clear and still, the sun usually turning up its brightness when guns took to pegs. Shooting Gazette columnist Patrick Laurie lives nearby and was waiting for me in Saul’s garden. He’d been due to beat but the absence of a back window in his mud-splattered estate car (he’d been lamping and reversed into something) meant he could only say hello before having to say cheerio.
Before selecting pegs I was introduced to Charles Hope-Dunbar, who was filling in for Saul as the host on this particular day. Saul leases the land from the Hope-Dunbar family and Charles would certainly enjoy himself by the day’s end. The son of a baronet had his barrels in the air longest and somehow got within four of the exact total of bag plus cartridges to win the sweepstake: some people are just born lucky.
Each of the five drives on this 2,200 acre shoot saw plenty of hittable birds. And more than one gun suggested with a curl in their lip that many of them were in fact honing in on the fantastic lilac sweater worn by the sporting agent (pictured right).He insisted the jumper was pink, but it wasn’t, it was lilac.
It’s not difficult to see why Moss Banks is one of the most popular drives at Mutehill.
The birds themselves were strong flyers, their wings mostly set by the time they charged purposely across the myriad wild and shocking faces of the landscape below: tight, groggy drives like The Valley and The Crack and broken tabletop hills like High Banks and Moss Banks all surrounded by 450 acres of intimidating woodland. The lack of neighbouring shoots and the 21 drives to choose from leaves Saul and his right-hand man, Ben Cowie, spoilt for options and they make the most of it.
The guns were bouncing, especially by elevenses, not least because the route taken by the gunbus had us hanging on to ourselves and each other like palm trees in a hurricane. We broke for pungent cheese scones, button-sized pork pies and a glug of sloe gin or two after The Crack and took the chance to get to know each other a little better. The sporting agent chain-smoked Café Crème cigars and explained how the London Docklands looked before the stockbrokers moved in, and later how Nick Leeson used to be able to clear a path to a bar just by looking at it. Another gun bemoaned the fact that even at 31 years of age he still gets asked for ID when trying to buy alcohol, and was later found scratching his head trying to work out how it takes 12-14 hours to get from Aberdeenshire to the Outer Hebrides by ferry.
Golden retriever breeder Mary Neil is a regular picker-up.
When Saul appeared laden with birds, the circle of guns surrounding the wicker basket full of refreshments became a crescent to let him have his picture taken before he left us again; but not before telling Charles to take as long as he liked – such was the respect everyone has for him we were back in the gunbus within two minutes.
We would have been as wet as a riverbed if the weather had stayed as bad as the previous day, but it was dry and bright for the duration of the shoot. The sun was like an annoying autograph hunter for those on pegs exposed to its low blinding rays, especially on the afternoon drives, and more than one gun ended up game shooting with an eye closed when the birds appeared. Everyone shot fairly well despite this, none of them overly concerned with cartridge-to-kill ratios, but hope alone wouldn’t have brought this quality of birds down.
Host Charles Hope-Dunbar carves the roast for a hungry team.
The day’s game shooting bag was split evenly between pheasants and redlegs, some good, some great. Saul seemed very pleased with the way his birds flew throughout, and so he should have been as plenty of the team had been faced with the best birds they had seen all season.
Mutehill is totally in tune with the needs of visiting guns. One only need study the flushing points, the tactics of the beaters and the peg positions to understand that this team know their shoot very well. Throw in the genial atmosphere and generous catering and it’s a recipe for game shooting success.
Fog filled the river valleys as I made my way towards Scotch Corner, and although the flying gun would be safely home in Devon by the time I got to Leeds, I was glad I had pair after pair of car headlights for company.