Raehills - Scotland
A fabulous house, a big sporting history and some stunning countryside, Raehills shoot in South West Scotland is a sporting estate reborn.
South West Scotland and Singapore harbour might appear to have little in common. But thanks to the grandfather of Lord Johnstone there is a tenuous but fascinating connection.
“My grandfather was in Singapore during the war when it was captured by the Japanese,” he explained. “Somehow he had managed to take his pair of Stephen Grant sidelevers with him, and apparently while in the jungle in Singapore, he used them to shoot at Jap observers in the planes overhead with SSG loaded cartridges! But later when the inevitable was imminent he threw them into the water. So somewhere at the bottom of Singapore harbour is a lovely pair of guns.”
He has a matching pair which were made for his great grandfather, and swears by them. “I don't know why more people don't have sidelever guns - they are fantastically easy to use.”
They certainly get put to the test, for Raehills, the family home, is establishing an enviable reputation as a top ranking shoot. The impressive sandstone house built in the late 18th century stands at the heart of the 17,000 acre estate, the western part of which is where the contours lend themselves magnificently to presenting high soaring pheasants.
Thirty-seven-year-old David Johnstone was born and brought up in the house, and after marriage he and his wife Penny moved into a farmhouse on the estate, before taking up residence in the main house in 2005, switching homes with his father, the Earl of Annandale (the Johnstone clan chief - the clan dates back to the 14th century). “The house had an enormous dry rot problem which took a couple of years to sort out, and there was a small commercial shoot largely catering for local interest. There were however some Americans who came, and three years ago I invited them to stay in the house. They have been coming ever since - they are good fun and very nice people.”
Coincidentally he was approached by Craig Denman and Nick Hill with a view to them taking a lease on the shoot. “Last year was their first full season and they have upped it considerably. They have a lease but we all regard it as something of a partnership. It went really well. While a couple of drives didn't go quite as planned, for no rhyme nor reason, the vast majority did and we are very lucky in having two good guys who are as keen as I am to create something special here. There are some very deep valleys and we are very much looking forward to the coming season.”
He has inherited the family passion for the sport. The Raehills game books go back forever, and young David first made his mark as a seven-year-old. It was something of an inauspicious start. “I shot my fist pheasant at the age of seven - it was wandering about in a field of straw... in September!
“I had the typical sporting education - walk with a .410 and no cartridges, then one cartridge, then two and finally stand in front of my father in the shooting line.” It can't have helped in that his father is widely recognised as an exceptional shot. “He's annoyingly good - but then, looking at the game books he ought to be. No lack of practice - Sunday was the day of rest, every other day it seems was accounted for in the game books!” he laughs.
He has been very encouraged by the new shooting arrangements. “I would like to see Raehills grow as a complete destination. We are easily accessible, only 10 minutes from the M74, yet you can neither see nor hear it. And we have some exceptional quality shooting.”
Accommodation is available in either cottages, local hotels or the house. “Penny and I both really enjoy having guests to stay, though we have to be careful about late nights and early mornings.” They will certainly have to keep an eye on the clock this season as they expect their third child in November! “We're moving into the cottage for a month,” he adds. A charming couple and judging from the day of our visit, this is a shoot with not only a fascinating past, but also a big future.
From city to country
The rebirth of Raehills as a top shooting destination coincides with the arrival of Craig Denman, who moved to the area 10 years ago, taking on a farmhouse B&B, kennels and 100 acres. It was a major career change for him having spent the previous 20 years in city trading. His main focus was disaster recovery. “I was 35, working alongside young guys in their mid-twenties, and overseas assignments were getting longer and longer, I wasn't seeing my two daughters and certainly not enjoying it.” He decided on a complete change of lifestyle, and headed north with his wife Sarah.
Craig has shot since he was 15, his father running a small syndicate near Chelmsford. “When he passed on I ran it for four years and started buying and selling days for friends.”
So with the move to South West Scotland, he was keen to get involved in local shoots be it shooting, picking up or beating. He formed Cowans Sporting as an agency and got to know game farmer Nick Hill and bought and sold days on various shoots, before the two of them decided to approach Raehills. “I had bought several days from the previous shoot manager and could see the potential. I asked Lord David if he would consider us - we did the figures and together decided to give it a go.” Last season was a great success, underlined by the large amount of rebooking. They are looking to put on 40 driven days this year, with a few smaller walked-up mini driven days and at the time of writing have only a handful left. “There are four main valleys, each with three or four drives showing stunning pheasant and partridges. We also have quite a mix of bird presentation which adds a lot to the day.
And we can easily take Guns out of their “comfort zone” with some of the drives in the glens. Fairy Holm drive is a sportsman's dream, the birds are high, fast and plentiful, a real challenging sporting drive to test the best of shots! And Broadshaws, which we shoot on three different levels. Beautiful country too.” Average bags are around the 250 mark.
They are also very enthusiastic about the two new keepers who have joined the team - Billy McClune from Glenapp and Paul Williams from Chester near Hexham. “They are as excited as we are about the potential.” Craig and Nick have clearly formed a good partnership and have invested heavily in the shoot with new pens and other equipment.
For shoot details www.cowanssporting.co.uk or tel. 07775 760651