Yanks on the grouse moors
American sportsmen and women have long been welcome and popular guests on English and Scottish grouse moors, says David S. D. Jones.
American sportsmen have long been welcome and popular guests on our grouse moors, both with their fellow Guns and gamekeepers, loaders and other shoot support staff. Over the years, sporting tourists from across the pond have made an enormous financial contribution to the British grouse shooting industry, buying expensive days or weeks on top moors or leasing shoots on a seasonal basis. Indeed, the income obtained from American Guns has not only enabled numerous landowners to maintain their moors in tip top condition, particularly in times of austerity, but has also created much needed employment in rural areas.
The American sporting tourism tradition, however, dates back to the late Victorian period when the introduction of regular high-speed liner services enabled the elite of American society to cross the Atlantic in comfort and spend part of the shooting season in Great Britain. Sportsmen came over on a regular basis from the 1880s onwards in order to shoot grouse, either as paying Guns renting the first fortnight in August or the whole of August and September from impoverished moor owners, or as invited guests on properties belonging to friends and relatives. Many of these men, who belonged to the appropriately named ‘Steamer Set', sourced and purchased their shooting privately and discreetly from the provider, often using a sister, an aunt or a female cousin who had married into the British aristocracy or landed gentry as an intermediary.
Scotland was a particularly attractive destination for early American sporting tourists, especially those with Scottish roots. Several wealthy shooting enthusiasts even purchased or leased Highland estates for grouse shooting and deer stalking, building luxurious lodges for accommodation purposes and employing large teams of gamekeepers, gardeners and domestic servants to run them. Bradley Martin, for example, a New York financier and industrialist, leased the Balmacaan estate in Inverness-shire from the Earl of Seafield from the early 1880s until his death in 1913, paying an annual rental of £3,000 for an 11,000-acre grouse moor, a 28,000-acre deer forest and a large mansion house. Meanwhile, Andrew Carnegie, a Pittsburgh steel magnate and a well-known philanthropist, purchased the 20,000-acre Skibo estate in Sutherland in 1898 for the sum of £85,000, in order to secure the 10,000-acre grouse moor.
He is also reputed to have lavished a further £2million on improving the property and constructing an opulent castle-type shooting lodge with 25 bedrooms.
Sportsmen from America took leases on English moors, too, whenever the opportunity arose. In 1901, William Collins Witney, the New York politician, financier and keen Shot, acquired the lease on Holwick Moor in Upper Teesdale and Holwick Shooting Box, owned by the Earl of Strathmore, at an annual rental of £1,300. Surviving records for the moor for 1909 state that his son, Harry Payne Witney, not only spent £10,000 on the shoot that season and engaged over 100 beaters, but also hired a private railway carriage attached to the Scotch Express to convey him and his party from Kings Cross to Darlington and a special train for the onward journey from Darlington to the nearest station to Holwick!
During the Edwardian era, the ever increasing demand for high class grouse moors from American clients with an unlimited supply of money, although good news for impoverished landowners, caused rental prices to spiral to the detriment of some British sportsmen. Nevertheless, dedicated owners invested in their moors and installed bathrooms, electric lighting, central heating and modern furnishings in Spartan Victorian shooting boxes for the benefit of Americans who, as one journalist commented in 1910, were “First class sporting tenants” who “give liberally for their privileges and exact liberal advantages besides the bare right to shoot.”
Sadly, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 curtailed American grouse shooting activities in Great Britain owing to government-imposed travel restrictions which prevented sportsmen from crossing the Atlantic for pleasure purposes. Privately owned moors were kept ticking over for the duration by elderly gamekeepers who usually received their instructions by telegraph, while leased moors were either sub-let to local Guns, mothballed or given up altogether.
Sporting tourism resumed once again following the cessation of hostilities in 1918. Landowners who had been hit by the high taxation imposed by the Lloyd-George Government in the aftermath of the war welcomed American tenants back with open arms, particularly those who were prepared to take moors on long leases and pay all of the gamekeeping and maintenance costs. Indeed, cash from American sportsmen kept the grouse shooting industry buoyant during the inter-war years at a time when many low ground pheasant and partridge shoots had been scaled down or converted from driven to walked-up.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s, a large number of American millionaires made an annual pilgrimage to the English and Scottish grouse moors by liner, usually travelling in a private suite accompanied by a retinue of servants who attended to their needs. Generally kind and considerable employers, and popular with local people, these sportsmen treated lady Guns on an equal footing, unlike many of their British counterparts, and invariably involved wives, daughters and female friends in their shooting parties. Sporting tenants of note during this period include, amongst others, the New York financier and railroad proprietor, George Jay Gould – whose wife Guinevere was a keen Shot – who leased Castle Grant in Strathspey from the Earl of Seafield in 1922; and the newspaper magnate, Herbert Pulitzer, who rented the Amulree moors in Perthshire during the late 1930s.
Grouse shooting was scaled down dramatically throughout Great Britain following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Moors were often left unmanaged, were lightly keepered or were used for military training purposes. Once again, stringent travel restrictions prohibited Americans from crossing the Atlantic to participate in sporting activities. That said, American army and air force officers based in moorland areas of Britain during the war years were usually welcome guests on small walked-up grouse shoots organised for food procurement purposes.
Undaunted by the prospect of securing relatively small bags of grouse on run-down moors, American sportsmen began to return to Great Britain in the late 1940s and early 50s, usually choosing to cross the pond in the traditional manner aboard the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth or other fast and luxurious liners rather than by the newly introduced scheduled air services. Many now only came for a few weeks at the start of the season due to time and cash constraints, other than the ultra-rich who could still afford to take a moor on a long term basis.
By the 1960s, improved air travel and discounted air fares enabled less wealthy American shooting enthusiasts to visit British moors in pursuit of grouse, perhaps for just a couple of days towards the end of the season. Fast airliners also made it possible for grouse shot in the early hours of the Glorious Twelfth to be sent by fast car or express train from the North to London and then flown across to New York to grace the table in fashionable restaurants the same evening. The introduction of scheduled air services by Concorde from London to New York in the late 1970s benefited the grouse shooting industry, too, allowing super-wealthy American sportsmen with a hectic social life to come over for as little as a day at a time, having purchased the most expensive days available in August on well-known and prolific moors.
Since the early 1980s, the American sporting tourism market has gone from strength to strength, with an ever increasing number of American Guns visiting Great Britain annually, not only to shoot grouse but also to take advantage of the superlative driven pheasant and partridge shooting opportunities offered on numerous prestigious commercial and private shoots. Landowners and sporting agents, keen to take advantage of the lucrative income obtainable from these appreciative sportsmen, have risen to the occasion, arranging luxurious hospitality facilities in country houses and lodges, shooting holidays combined with sightseeing days in London and elsewhere, multi-sport breaks which might include grouse shooting, deer stalking and salmon fishing, and visits to leading gun and rifle-makers. The demand for high quality grouse shooting from American sportsmen continues to be buoyant at the present time and is likely to remain so for many years to come.