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The History of a “MacNab”


Many people believe that John MacNab actually existed. However John Macnab is actually a novel by John Buchan (also author of The Thirty Nine Steps), published in 1925.

The story is based around three successful, but bored friends, in their mid-forties who decide to turn to poaching. They are Sir Edward Leithen, lawyer, Tory Member of Parliament (MP), and ex-Attorney General; John Palliser-Yeates, banker and sportsman; and Charles, Earl of Lamancha, former adventurer and Tory Cabinet Minister. Under the collective name of ‘John Macnab’, they set up in the Highland home of Sir Archie Roylance, a disabled war hero who wishes to be a Conservative MP.

They issue a challenge to three of Roylance’s neighbours: first the Radens, who are an old-established family, about to die out; next, the Bandicotts: an American archaeologist and his son, who are renting a grand estate for the summer; and lastly the Claybodys, vulgar, bekilted nouveaux riches. These neighbours are forewarned that ‘John Macnab’ will poach a salmon or a stag from their land and return it to them undetected. The outcome is that the men’s boredom is dispelled with the assistance of helpers (including a homeless waif, ‘Fish Benjie’ and an athletic journalist, Crossby), and Archie Roylance marries Janet Raden, daughter of the grandee.

The three champions are consummate sportsmen, essential when engaging in enemy territory. Palliser-Yeates is an excellent shot, having stalked nearly every forest in Scotland. Leithen is an artist on the river, and Lamancha no mean shot himself. Leithen’s straight delicate casts and skill with the fly are vindicated as he is the only one of the allies who brings off John Macnab’s dare!

The novel is derived from the real-life derring-do of Captain James Brander Dunbar. In a letter to The Field of 17 November, 1951 he clarified just what had given Buchan the idea. A dearth of shooting invitations and the assertion that he could kill a beast in any forest in Scotland was duly challenged by Lord Abinger. A .303 carbine rifle hidden inside a golf bag was his only attempt at mustering a semblance of stealth. After two blank mornings and on the verge of chucking in he took a six-pointer in the Iverlochy Forest (not quite a match for the Earl of Lamancha’s 13-pointer). He evaded pursuit by crossing the River Spean and carried off the head and neck ready for mounting. Presenting himself at the castle in the afternoon he received a cheque made payable to J. B-D., POACHER. After the book was published Buchan wrote to Brander apologising for failing to get his permission to use the story, but his vim was a great hook for the tale.

Today the competitive spirit outranks boredom as the driving factor for those taking to the hills in pursuit of the accepted modern version of a Macnab. It pits skill and endurance against the clock and unpredictable quarry. Anyone can stand in the line and crumple a stately pheasant, but to take three species in one day requires another type of expertise altogether – and good fortune if a stag, salmon and brace of grouse are to be taken within 24 hours. Perhaps a little less thrilling than Buchan’s original, it’s still a sporting feat that can delight the most jaded sportsman. Many sporting lodges offer the chance to notch up the Highland triple in return for an appropriately serious certificate and sporting satisfaction.

Today a “MacNab” can (legally) be achieved on many of George Goldsmith’s sporting estates … We would heartily encourage everyone to have a go!

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