Skip to main content
Original Issue

A safari to the dour moors of Scotland

If a shooting trip to County Caithness can be taken as a criterion, Winchester-Western has a good thing going in its hunting-tour plan, and sportsmen who have been burned by unreliable outfitters can take heart

A year ago thisspring a knowledgeable big-game hunter from Massachusetts set out for Africa togo on a three-week river-boat safari. Everything had been planned months inadvance. The letters from the white hunter had glowingly described theabundance of game, the tranquility of the river at night and the comforts ofhouseboat living. But when the hunter arrived, he discovered that 1) the riverwas bone-dry and had been for three months; 2) even if the river had beenbrimming, thick clumps of weeds made it unnavigable for most of its length; and3) the "luxurious home afloat" was in reality a badly battered bargewith a fiberboard shack for a cabin. This unfortunate experience is not asuncommon as it might seem. Talk with any 10 Americans who have hunted or fishedoutside the U.S. and you will hear tale after sad tale of sleazy outfitters,drunken guides, tasteless food, poor accommodations, and on and on. More oftenthan not, these sportsmen have been swindled by outfitters who sell throughintriguing advertisements in outdoor magazines and by direct mail. Oftenequally unreliable are those travel agents who sell hunting trips as sidelinesto their regular tourist business, agents who have had no firsthand experiencein the countries, let alone with the outfitters they are representing. Thus theproblem for sportsmen has been not so much where to go, but whom to believe.Now, happily, an organization that can be believed proposes to help solve theproblem. Winchester-Western, makers of sporting arms and ammunition, is goinginto the travel business. Under the name Winchester Safaris, the company isoffering package hunting tours to nine foreign countries as well as to Alaskaand several areas in the continental U.S. The tours, which will be sold throughkey Winchester dealers, run the gamut from duck, goose and dove shooting inBaja California to wild boar, puma and stag hunting on the Argentine pampas,brown bear in Alaska, red-legged partridge in Portugal, a tiger shikar in Indiaand African safaris in Kenya and Tanzania.

"It all begana year ago when we took a hard look at the future of recreational shooting inthe U.S.," says Winchester's Jack Peat. "Our first major endeavor hadbeen the Winchester public trap and skeet program [SI, Jan. 17, 1966]. The nextstep, started last year, was a shooting and hunting seminar program, in whichwe develop new shooters—men, women and children—from the ground up, by offeringa weekend of instruction in gun safety and handling, as well as shooting atclays and game birds on a preserve. Winchester Safaris is a natural extensionof this—to promote new and exciting places, with the Winchester seal ofapproval, for Americans to shoot."

During the pastyear Winchester representatives and Peter Capstick, the president of SportsmenInternational, Inc., a Manhattan-based travel agency that specializesexclusively in hunting and fishing, personally surveyed all of the areas on thelist. None of the tours will be cut-rate, nor will they be so expensive thatonly a select few can afford to sign up. Says Peat: "We are offering avariety of total service tours, with shooting and all the otherarrangements—licenses, gun permits, guides, beaters and interpreters wherenecessary, and fishing whenever it is available—as promised. We will also be inconstant touch with all of our outfitters. Thus if there is a poor partridgenesting season in Portugal and the shooting prospects look bad we'll canceltours to Portugal."

Winchester is wellaware that it is putting its reputation on the line, but if a recent surveytrip to the company's setup in Scotland is any indication, Winchester's gamblewill permit Americans to shoot around the world with complete confidence.

The county isCaithness, a remote part of northeast Scotland. The view from the manor house,Lochdhu (black lake), is a vast stretch of rolling hills covered with heatherand peat and cut by scores of gurgling becks and burns. The laird of the manoris the Hon. Robin Sinclair, a tall, imposing man in kilt and otter sporran,hobnail brogues, trench coat and deer-stalker hat. Sinclair controls some60,000 acres of grouse and stag moors, as well as the salmon fishing rights onthe peat-stained Thurso River (1,636 salmon for 58 rods last year) and 25 inkylochs full of Loch Leven trout. Except for his schooling in England and fiveyears as an RAF fighter pilot during World War II, Sinclair has spent his lifeon the Caithness moors, and he still finds them formidable.

But not even thewild land is quite as formidable as Lochdhu, a rambling heavy-stoned Victoriancastle that was built in 1895 as a rustic shooting lodge by Sinclair'sgreat-grandfather, Sir Tollemache. Sinclair has remodeled the building and madeit more comfortable for shooting and fishing guests.

"Oddlyenough," says Sinclair, "Sir Tollemache was not a sporting man, but hewas a businessman. At the turn of the century Lochdhu was let for £1,000, a lotof lolly at the time. But the sport was really quite respectable."

The sport is stillquite respectable—and reasonable enough by today's standards. A Winchestersafari to Lochdhu— a week of "mixed sport" that includes grouseshooting, stag stalking, salmon and trout fishing from late August through thefirst week of October—costs about $750, not including air fare. Sinclair alsooffers, at lower prices, "rough shooting" for duck, snipe, partridgeand pheasant, as well as stalking hinds (female red deer) from early Novemberthrough January 15.

The red-grouseshooting on Sinclair's moors has always been done over well-trained English andGordon setters. "If our bags aren't impressive by driven-shoot standards [agood average for two guns on a leisurely day's shooting is 10 brace]," saysSinclair, "they are big enough for most Americans used to far smallerlimits. We can shoot our beats longer than we could by driving birds, and wecan offer the sport at a more reasonable price."

The Englishsporting magazine The Field has compared the flight of a covey of red grouse to"bumpers bowled six at a time at cricket." What this means to Americanshooters is that the grouse uses every peat hag and heather clump to dip anddodge behind, and the most experienced guns may miss more birds than theybag.

The fact thatSinclair can offer sporty shooting at wild grouse year after year is due towhat he calls personal—or, if you will, empirical—game management. "Onesimply can't entirely rely on God and nature to keep the grouse coming,"says Sinclair. "So the gamekeepers assess the breeding stock on each beat,and then I set the bookings accordingly. In other words, we can set our ownlimits without imposing any bag limits on our shooting guests."

His salmon fisheryon the spring-fed Thurso River has allowed Sinclair even greater leeway forempirical management. Sinclair has made it productive by simply putting inlittle stems at the tails of pools. He has also used earth-moving machinery tocreate new pools that produce fish all season long.

The Thurso Riveralso boasts its own hatchery—one of the few private Atlantic salmon hatcheriesin the world. Sinclair hatches one million eggs a year—some for stocking theThurso and the rest to be used in other rivers in Scotland and abroad.

The fishingrecords on the Thurso date from 1860 and are known to be the most detailed ofany in Great Britain. Many historical figures have fished the Thurso, and RiverSuperintendent David Sinclair (no relation to Robin) is quick to point out thatthe Queen Mother herself is partial to the Thurso. "The Queen Mum is averra keen and verra decent fisher," says David.

Next to bringing agood salmon to the gaff on the Queen Mum's favorite river and scoring aleft-right double on grouse, the most honorable thing for a sportsman to do inCaithness is bag a good stag in the deer forest. The proper term is deerforest, but on the Caithness moors the cover through which one stalks the redstag would hardly hide a ground hog. (A professional stalker like RichardMunro, the head gamekeeper at Lochdhu, will suggest that his"gentleman" not shoot until he is close enough—preferably within 100yards—to the stag, and then only when a sure killing shot is possible.)"The stalk," explains Sinclair, "can be a bit arduous. It ofteninvolves crawling for an hour or more commando style in single file, throughsoggy heather and sometimes through a burn, your goal a wee tussock on whichyou can rest your rifle for a prone shot. Then you might have to lie there forquite a time waiting for a clean shot—with your tummy in a puddle and your backexposed to a shower of sleet."

After such miseryone looks forward to drying out with a glass or two of smoky malt whiskey,taken neat in front of a pungent peat fire. Dinner follows—fresh smoked Thursosalmon, thick turnip broth, roast grouse and bread-and-butter pudding—and aftera glass of sweet port, one is ready to stretch out with a hot-water bottle anda heavy down comforter. And "na tae worry about the ghost in the southwesttower." It is only that nonsportsman Sir Tollemache totting up hislolly.