The Macnab Challenge: From Postwar Scotland to Modern Times

a red deer in scotland

Hunting in the world takes many forms. One of these forms is known as the Macnab Challenge. Originating from Great Britain and practiced in many other parts of the world, it involves harvesting a big game animal, a specified number of small game (usually birds), and catching a fish (usually on the fly) – all in one day. Where does this come from, what forms of the Macnab exist in the world, and why exactly it’s so challenging – that’s what this blog will tell you. 

What is the history of the Macnab Challenge? 

The concept and the title originate from “John Macnab”, a 1925 novel by John Buchan. In the book, three representatives of the British upper classes: a prominent attorney, an investment banker, and an aristocratic Member of Parliament, found themselves suffering from what we would call a mid-life crisis intensified by post-traumatic stress disorder (all three being WWI vets), and they described as “ennui”: the spark was gone from their safe, predictable, and successful existence, and their enviable lives felt hardly worth living any more.

An old, wise doctor advised the characters, in modern terms, to get out of their comfort zone: to engage in something that would involve overcoming difficulties, sacrificing comfort, and a certain degree of real risk. And that’s exactly what they do – in the form of a gentleman poaching challenge. 

They throw the gauntlet to several landowners, announcing their intent, on a certain date, to sneak into their land and kill a stag or salmon. The bounty would be, it being no theft, returned to the rightful possessor on the following morning. And they dare the owner to take all measures against their attempt. If they fail, they would donate a substantial sum to the charity chosen by the landowner. Of course, if the fact of their engagement in this matter becomes public knowledge, it would hurt their professional reputation. So, to maintain anonymity at least initially, until they are caught, the trio assumes a joint nom-de-guerre of John Macnab. 

Red stag running
Red deer is the key quarry of the traditional Macnab Challenge

Using an old friend’s estate as a base, and assisted by a few locals including an old professional deer stalker and a fishmonger boy, they embark on the adventure in the Scottish Highlands. With each of the three landowners – the good, the bad, and the American – the mission gets more and more impossible, and the characters have to face a number of unexpected complications including an archaeological discovery, a political rally, and their host falling in love with one of the adversaries’ daughters, who has her reasons to want the culprits captured.

“John Macnab” is a fun and exciting book, and obtained something of a cult status among British hunters and anglers. And of course more than a few of them felt inspired to repeat the adventure of the heroes. That’s how the Macnab Challenge was born.

What kinds of Macnab Challenge exist?

It’s safe to say that no hunter who takes part in the Macnab Challenge does it exactly the same way as three gentlemen from “John Macnab”. The challenge evolved over the years, and adopted various forms to suit different environments. The leading British outdoor magazine, The Field, singles out as many as ten types of the Macnab Challenge:

Real Macnab: 

The Real Macnab fully follows the escapade of the heroes in the original John Buchan’s novel: it’s limited to a red stag and/or a salmon on the fly, and the game must be “poached” in a legal sporting manner. These days it’s practically another form of a guided hunt, where the guides, contrary to usual pattern, try to prevent the client from succeeding rather than assist in the chase. The Field runs a free service connecting hunters and anglers willing to take the challenge with the estates willing to accept it. 

Classic Macnab:

Obviously, many hunters still hold to the old-fashioned belief that running from game wardens isn’t what makes hunting fun. But they would appreciate the extra challenge nonetheless. Such hunters came up with what is now known as the Classic Macnab. This is a hunt done in fully legal manner, and the challenge is to kill three different types of game in one day: a red stag by stalking with a rifle, a salmon on a fly, and a brace of grouse with a shotgun. A “brace”, as referring to grouse, is two birds. When they are talking about Macnab in the UK, in most cases they mean the Classic Macnab.

A spaniel with a grouse in its mouth
The way to shoot the grouse for the Macnab Challenge is walked-up shooting over dogs

Macnab in England

The Classic Macnab is all about the Highlands of Scotland. With reservations, you can possibly achieve it in Scottish Lowlands, and some locations in the north of England. However, the sportsmen and -women who lived elsewhere in Great Britain didn’t want to be left behind, and developed their own local versions of the Macnab Challenge: 

Macnab with Hounds

As you probably know, in the British outdoor lingo “hunting” still means specifically riding on a horse following a pack of hounds in pursuit of the game. To the enthusiasts of thus pursuit there exist two more types of the Macnab Challenge: 

  • Corinthian Macnab: Here you ride to hounds in the morning, then shoot a brace of partridges in the afternoon and finish the day catching a trout on the fly.
  • Maccharlie: This version of the Macnab involves riding after three different types of hounds, pursuing different animals: foxhounds, harriers, and staghounds.

Macnab Challenge all over the World

The Macnab Challenge is practiced well outside the British Isles, and of course has to be adapted to local environments and fauna. The Field singles out three forms of Macnab: 

  • Macscandi: For the outdoorsmen in Scandinavia, the challenge is to harvest a moose, a capercaillie, and a trout on the fly within 24 hours.
  • Macargentinian: Although there is trout in Argentina, the local version of the challenge involves a much more exciting local fish: golden dorado. Since shooting two birds in Argentina is hardly an achievement, the local Macnab rewquires 100 brace of doves, and the crown of the challenge is, surprisingly, not a red stag but a wild pig.
  • Macafrican: The African version of the Macnab Challenge, as listed by The Field, is a brace of sandgrouse, an impala and a tigerfish in one day. 

Any hunter who has a little fantasy can see that the above list is far from extensive. Even in Africa we know of other sets, namely a guineafowl, an impala, and a trout on a fly in a day. In New England or Maritime Canada it could be a white-tailed deer, a brown trout, and ruffled grouse, in the West a mule deer, cutthroat trout, and mountain quail, and so on, and so forth. 

A person fishing
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Why is Macnab Challenge popular?

The Macnab Challenge arouses the interest and excites hunters and anglers all over the world, because it’s what the name promises: a challenge. In simple words: even where all respective beasts, birds, and fish are abundant, getting all three in one day is very difficult. Just the timing alone is enough of a constraint: while there are locations in the world, where you could shoot the birds, kill the deer, and catch the fish without taking a step, you will usually have to spend quite a lot of time just getting from the fishing sweet spot to where the deer could be and then to the birdy area. 

What’s more, it requires the participants to utilize a very different set of skills at each stage. Even rifle and shotgun shooting are as different as night and day (if you need to learn why and how, you can start with our blogs on “Your first rifle” and “Your first shotgun”). Small game, like grouse, and big game, like deer, use different predator detection and escape strategies. And with fishing you literally find yourself in a different element. You have to be really an all-around outdoorsperson to excel at the Macnab Challenge. 

Strategy is all-important, and so is understanding the local environment. In some areas you’ll find it the hardest to bag the deer, in others the deer won’t be much of a problem, but the fish would be very stubborn and sophisticated, and so on. Then again, do you start with the easiest parts, to get them over and done with quickly, or do you begin with what you perceive as the hardest, and leave the lesser challenges for later?

inside of a gamekeeper's cabin
A treasure trove of British hunting and fishing tradition: Gamekeeper’s cabin.

But perhaps the most difficult part of the challenge is psychological. Shifting from one mode of operation to another, using different skills, behaviors, and strategies, requires a great deal of self-control. So is the psychological pressure – when you absolutely have to catch that fish within an hour or two, it’s a totally different scenario from where you can spend the whole day not catching anything and be OK with it. 

One of the best parts of the Macnab Challenge is that it refutes, by its very existence, the often heard claim that “hunting is simply killing defenseless animals”. If getting a deer or a brace of grouse was so easy, the challenge would be quite easy to accomplish, and would not be any challenge. Besides, if hunting was only about the killing, the hunters would want to simplify their hunt, so that they could kill more. They wouldn’t be inventing elaborate rules that greatly decrease their chances of a kill. 

In John Buchan’s novel, each of the heroes undergoes a spiritual transformation, rekindling a zest for life and rediscovering their purpose and vigor. The story is not just about the physical hunt but also about the rejuvenation of the spirit. If you feel inspired by the Macnab Challenge, a number of outfitters on offer the Macargentinean and Macafrican versions. But hunting offers many more chances to get out of your comfort zone. There’s mountain hunting in remote areas, hunting with a bow, dangerous game hunting, and more. Whatever your challenge is, chances are you can find it on! 

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