Traditional country pursuits reimagined for a modern world
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It’s the season for hunting tales: the nights are long, woodburners rumble, and single malts suffer ‘mysterious evaporation syndrome’. With shadows flickering on antlers and other mounted mementoes, thoughts turn to the days on the hill, moor, peg and river that produced them. From there, it’s a natural progression to other sporting successes, and, bizarre though it may sound, a few favourite failures.
Not all sporting failures are equal: the worst merit a one-way ticket to social Siberia; others call for a scarlet face and a supersized portion of humble pie, and many are quietly forgotten. There are a select few, however, that deserve a dram of the finest 18-year-old whisky and a respectful audience. The finest of all cock-ups, for my money, has to be a failed Macnab.
To date, I’ve only failed on my own account once. I’ve also been hip-flask bearer to a fellow failer during a heroic attempt that sits all the more poignantly in my memory due to the fact that it was unsuccessful. Another friend has come a cropper no fewer than nine times, suggesting that there is something addictive about it. To miss out on the much-touted treble can be at best deflating and at worst soul destroying, but the resulting sporting despair is of the most honourable sort.
Pinning down the source of this honour isn’t easy. Part of it stems from the challenge’s origins in John Buchan’s 1925 novel John Macnab. Buchan’s protagonists set out to poach stags and salmon in order to shake themselves out of their comfort zones and regain their joie de vivre. Provided that this lust for life is regained, the final content of the game bag (or larder) is irrelevant. The attempt and not the outcome is the point. What’s more, a modern Macnab is also a damned difficult thing to pull off, requiring at least triple measures of skill and luck. Persuading a salmon to take a fly can flummox even the finest fisherman when the pressure’s on; walked-up grouse are wily opponents at the best of times; and making certain of a stag with the clock ticking is no piece of cake.
There are other failures that garner respect, albeit in a lesser degree and without the consoling sense of camaraderie. In these cases, it’s not so much what you fail, but the way that you fail that bestows honour upon the event. Coming within a whisker of success in any arduous sporting endeavour makes a decent fireside tale. Battling against treacherous terrain and foul weather, only to see your stag spooked by an eagle, a hind or hidden sheep, or worse – a walker – is deeply disappointing but not shameful. Even a miss can still make the grade: an involuntary flinch, a snatch at the trigger, or even choking on a midge would all leave honour intact. Being too hungover to steady a scope would not, however, be looked on so kindly.
Topography can be an honourable excuse for things going tits up. A friend once missed out on a promising patch during a day’s rough shooting due to an unfortunate failure of footplacement. He sank waist-deep into a prime example of East Anglian marsh and had to be hauled out before sporting activities could recommence. His calm distress signal of “I say, is anybody nearby?” uttered as the bog closed around the top of his breeks, gave the whole thing a profound dignity.
Being nowhere near victory can have its own kind of honour, too. Anyone can fail to catch a salmon, but I have one particular comrade who has been attempting to do so on various stretches of Scottish water for 21 years without success. Many golden hours spent mid-stream and on the bank, with the assistance of a couple of bottles of riverchilled Sancerre, have given his efforts a touching nobility that almost makes up for his exclusively trout-filled bag. While the uncharitable might be inclined to blame the wine, his sheer long-term consistency secures a place on my honour roll.
While individually they can never achieve the same level of grandeur as a missed Macnab, they’re still a long way above the black list of failures, which includes anything to do with safety. In addition, they’re certainly a lot more wholesome than inglorious blunders resulting from overindulgence, whether it’s mangling a drive or missing it completely. The terrible beauty of failing a Macnab is that it’s possible to be undone in all the above honourable ways on the same day.
This winter, as one year rolls into another, I might well resolve to notch up a few sporting successes, but I’ll also be having a dram or two in honour of all those who fail with flying colours.
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