The sporting vision of two brothers is being realised on a vast estate in the Scottish Highlands.
Any visit to a grouse moor means a good day out in my book, but I was looking forward to visiting Dorback. It’s in the heart of Speyside, which is a good start. The easy description is a classic mixed sporting estate with 15,000 of its 18,000 acres devoted to grouse – and according to Andrew Dingwall-fordyce, the man who invited me, it showed particularly good and fast birds, and that’s why he takes a few days there each year. Even better, the moor had enjoyed a good breeding season.
Thanks to glacial events over a series of Ice Ages dating back as far as 22,000 years ago, Dorback boasts utterly breath-taking and unique scenery. The estate now encompasses the fringes of the more recent ancient Abernethy Caledonian Forest and the ‘Braes of Abernethy’, which are located in the northern reaches of the Cairngorms National Park, the largest and highest National Park in the UK. Andrew’s party were mainly returning guests and friends who were there for back-to-back days, although on day one they were being joined by the relatively local Adam Smith and a couple of his friends from the UK. The only decision I had to make was which day I should attend. The first promised to be windy and the second day was possibly misty, so day one seemed a good bet. My comfort was Andrew’s confident comment, “the forecast may be terrible but don’t worry!”
In our briefing at the lodge, headkeeper Brian Hamilton, who’s been working at Dorback for some 35 years, confirmed we were set to face high winds which restricted our options, but he was hopeful they could cope. He was even able to surprise some guns with his optimism for seeing black game later in the day, as some beats now had a shootable surplus, thanks to the success of their management programme and a couple of good breeding seasons.
The roving reporter
So, up from the quiet of Dorback Lodge to our first drive, a new one called Letteraitten. Some of the butts were tucked away in hollows to our left but the pallet butt Jeremy Clayton and I were in was a good spot, so we kept a low profile as the wind blew birds from our left across the line. It was only part way through the drive when the wind changed and, when they passed us
at heather-height, we could see them as tall birds from the butts hidden out of sight in the gully.
“I’m getting better!” Jeremy announced as his labrador, Dini, searched out his five birds, helped by keeper Bryce Coutts.
After moving around the hill, I joined Donald Brown for the second drive along the hill face. He was revelling in the day out, “I’m just happy to watch this” as he put it, but he was soon pressed into action as the wind picked up speed. You’ll have heard the old expression “it was so exciting my hat nearly blew off”, but when Donald’s hat was torn off by the wind he didn’t notice or care as he was concentrating so intently on the increasingly difficult shooting.
With the third drive came the chance to join one of the Belgian guns who clearly looks forward to joining Andrew Dingwall-fordyce every year. “I’ve taken two or three days with my brother for 10 years,” said Paul Cordie. “We love hunting here although it can be very challenging. We are spending a very windy but memorable day together with you, Andrew, six sympathetic hunters, the gamekeeper and also his beaters!”
With the wind, as headkeeper Brian Hamilton put it, “trying to blow us off the hill”, he nevertheless engineered large coveys over the line thanks, he insisted, to sterling work by his flankers Ashley Gallagher, Hamish Cameron, Ian Smith and Chris Salmon. “We’re lucky to have them,” Brian told me. “It’s a job that needs timing and subtlety - mind you, on some drives they’re up and down the butts like trains.”
When we’d finally picked-up, it seemed a pragmatic time to head off to Fae Bothy for lunch and see how the weather developed. Refurbished 16 years ago, Fae was the ideal venue with a hidden secret - a cellar that Brian has used both as a talking point and to keep drinks cool in really hot weather. With Andrew’s and Adam’s friends each having brought their own food it was an opportunity to generate a little friendly competition – with the different nationalities comparing each other’s catering.
Back out to the butts
Out again and with the wind still pushing the birds, we looked for shelter further along the hill and
Picking-up after the second drive, overlooking Dorback’s home beat.
Ashley Gallagher (back left) and Hamish Cameron (back right) with Chris Salmon (front left) and Ian Smith (front right) – the flankers who do such a crucial job at Dorback.
Grouse at all heights and angles for Jeremy Clayton at Letteraitten in an exposed butt where we stayed well out of sight.
It was a tough walk down to the Bridge of Brown butts for Erik Verellen but worth the effort.