Scotland’s Driven Shooting: Dispatches From The Moors

Of all the uses of a shotgun, none ranks higher than being used for guided bird shooting. This is the sport of Kings made possible by the advent of the rubber-barreled shotgun in the late nineteenth century, allowing a shooter to fire thousands of rounds in a single day. Guided shooting was seen as a particularly nice way to spend an autumn day in the countryside when things were a bit stuffy in London.

The Lords and Ladies hopped on trains bound for the castles with equipment to last them for a few days with pheasants and grouse by day, followed by formal dinners at night where there was plenty of wine. Always, plenty of wine. In fact, aside from the birds, the wine and port may have been the most important ingredients to the shot and a key measure of the quality of the experience.

The idea was simple: a row of royalty armed with a matching pair of side-by-side shotguns from one of London’s custom makers—Holland & Holland, Purdey, Boss, Churchill, etc.—spread out at the bottom of a slope. Meanwhile, a line of beaters came down the hill to the guns to flush waves of birds over the guns. Think of it as the Call of Duty: Bird Shooting version, with sometimes surprising numbers of rounds fired.

Such scenes were memorialized in the Oscar-winning film Gosford Park as well as in episodes of the hit series Downton Abbey. In the Edwardian period, there was no activity that more surely signaled your place at the top of society’s food chain than invitations to the best shots in the British Isles. It was proof that it was actually good to be a king…or a prince, duke, duchess, earl, [insert other aristocracy].

To be clear, shooting should not be confused with hunting, because these birds are raised for the sole purpose of the activity and then sold in the market, eventually becoming pies served with rice and cranberries. Shooters pay handsomely to participate, and the combination of sport and poultry sales provides employment in areas where jobs are scarce and wool prices are currently low. Guided shooting thus remains an important economic activity in rural areas of Scotland and elsewhere across Europe.

While the glorious shoots of the Edwardian Era have given way to decidedly more modest affairs, target shooting remains an indelible part of countryside culture. The people who consistently put on the best shots have become niche celebrities, developing a following among today’s royalty—titans in tech, pharmaceuticals, media, energy, and the like.

No one fits that description better than Wilson Young, who has been the kingpin of many of the best British shoots for over 40 years. I first met him about 20 years ago when I joined a range of shooters in the Northumberland moors for a mix of pheasant and partridge shooting, one of the many events offered as part of Eskdale Shooting Services.

Given that history, I was eager to return to see how Young fared and if his shots had stood the test of time. What made it possible was Jan Roosenburg, best known in wingshooting circles for his tenure at the helm of Holland & Holland from 1991 to 2001, a man I met some 30 years ago while working in the publishing business in Los Angeles . He has been traveling to Scotland every year to shoot with Wilson for the past 15 years, a testament to the sustained quality of Young’s shoots.

Our group consists of nine couples from Brays Island, a community in the Lowcountry of South Carolina where the only debate about gun control is whether someone can hit a fast-moving target. It’s a nearly 6,000-acre sportsman’s playground with quail, deer and turkey woods, a gun club with all kinds of shooting, freshwater and saltwater fishing, horseback riding, and if your guns are in for a fix, there’s a world-class golf course to while time away. It’s just the kind of rich environment for recruiting motivated shooters—or any travel-minded hunters and anglers, for that matter.

Roosenburg, a part-time Brays resident, is well versed in all things birds and guns and, like Young, is connected to a roster of corporate giants who enjoy the rarefied atmosphere of shooting. It was a privilege to run one of the world’s leading arms manufacturers. Basic Holland & Holland shotguns typically sell for over $100,000, and their customer trend is closer to art collectors than utilitarian buyers—they just like their art to be incredible! Also, you need a pair of guns to participate in a proper guided experience – you shoot one, give it to a person who loads, and they, in turn, give you a loaded gun to maximize shooting opportunities. Missing chances to pull the trigger in a burst of fire is so gauche.

Our home for a week of filming is Thirlestane Castle built in 1590, the family home of Edward and Sarah Maitland-Carew. The massive stone fort has been in their family for over 400 years. Immaculate renovations have restored the castle into something of a living museum and gallery that provides a stunning backdrop for the Yanks’ visiting party. Add gourmet meals and luxurious rooms—to say nothing of Edward and Sarah’s charming hospitality—and you too can be King…at least for a few days when you visit Thirlestane.

Now it’s time to look at the birds, the center of our solar system of the week around which we revolve. When you first set foot on the Scottish moors and see the impossibly vast hills covered in heather and stone, your first thought is to wonder how far the birds will fly. Experienced shooters know that birds flushed from hilltops at long range have time to build up speed and elevation. Young knows it, too, and our first runs seem orchestrated to eliminate any doubt that the shoot will be sporty—especially with 30-mile-per-hour winds whipping through the valley we’re in.

I had to confirm with my loader that the first distant birds that flew overhead were, in fact, partridges. I thought, perhaps, that they were larks migrating south for the winter. Then you start second-guessing the lead of birds passing overhead at 70-80 yards with a tailwind. It’s a bit like trying to calculate infinity, because the chance of hitting birds at such a range—even for experienced birders—is daunting. I saw a bird fall on the first move. Even trash is occasionally linked.

I have shot guided birds many times in the British Isles, Spain, Scandinavia, Hungary, America and even Africa, but I have never seen birds so defiant. It’s not even close. Sometimes a ringer will appear on the team to ruin the curve, someone who miraculously makes such shots seem routine. Your tendency, then, is to want to murder them in their sleep. Fortunately, no such person has appeared – nor is there likely to be one.

In the shooting world, presenting high birds is mostly a matter of bragging rights for organizers who often tire of hearing from shooters that the other has the highest [re best] birds. Let me go ahead and say, however, that there is a fine line between sporty and impossible. No one needs to prove to me that they can deliver birds at ridiculous heights. I have been humbled enough in my shooting career.

Like all smart shot operators, Young made his point and then made several runs where the birds remained challenging but not unreasonably so. Our range of shooters gradually improved as the days went by (perhaps due to more manageable shooting distances) and no matter how much a shooter may say they enjoy challenging the birds, hitting them with some regularity is what makes them makes them do it again.

If you shoot birds with great drive and often enough, you begin to think that one day you might be able to do it. And that’s the feeling Young inspires in his shooters, and that’s been driving him to the bank for nearly half a century.

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