As purveyors of grouse, the Boisdale team is periodically invited shooting. We sought out Jonathan Young’s advice on what to avoid. After all he has been Editor of The Field for the last 25 years.
It was easy to commit a faux pas in the 10th century Byzantine court. The etiquette rozzers, in the rotund form of eunuchs, patrolled the palaces ensuring everyone stuck to The Book of Ceremonies compiled by Emperor Constantine V11. Those wearing the wrong-coloured tunic or incorrect sandals could expect to lose imperial favour or, worse, be despatched on diplomatic missions to the hairy-arsed barbarians in the west.
Shooting etiquette can be as stringent and the consequences worse, as there’s no greater calamity than losing a day’s grouse shooting. Happily, sticking to a few rules will save us from this nastiest of fates.
Promptness is the foundation of good manners and nowadays most shooting invitations arrive by email, necessitating a quick electronic reply, so that if you can’t make it your host can ask someone else. Once committed, only outbreaks of foot-and-mouth or nuclear war are acceptable excuses. Many shoots are preceded by dinner and if you’re invited it’s unwise to refuse and just rock up on shoot day. I remember an eminent friend attempting this and being told by the hostess “if our company’s not good enough for you then I’m afraid our birds aren’t either”.
At this stage it’s vital to establish the form. If it sounds as though the bag of birds will be heavy, ask if it’s a double-gun day, requiring a pair of shotguns and a loader, or a single gun day? (Most driven-grouse days will be the former.) Can you bring your gundog and if so, is there somewhere for it to sleep? Generally, unless your hound is comfortable sleeping in your car it’s best left at home.
Most hosts will indicate dress code for the evening, which varies from the standard cords-and-cardigan to black tie and “Hampshire black tie”, a combination that, despite its name, is usually worn at smart private grouse lodges. It consists of smoking jacket, an ivory silk or cotton shirt (worn tieless), drawing-room slippers and dress trousers, though the latter can be substituted if you’re very chic. A friend remembers the most elegant man he’d ever seen wearing impeccably cut designer jeans but he was a French aristocrat who owned the finest wine chateaux in Christendom.
The actual shooing kit is taken as granted: a pair of tweed breeks, long shooting socks tethered with garters, a tweed cap, shirt and tie, waterproof coat, fleece or jumper, boots, and a pair of waterproof over-trousers in case it chucks down.
Within this there are nuances. Tweeds should be sober unless you can shoot brilliantly. Shooting socks embroidered with “amusing” slogans such as “bangbang bugger” are best avoided. And if you’re shooting grouse or other truly wild game, ensure your shirts are green: birds can see in the ultra-violet range and if you wear white you might as well be waving a flag and shouting “don’t come near me!”
When it comes to sporting equipment, the residual snobbery attached to type of shotgun has practically disappeared. No one cares if you use an over-and-under or a side-by-side and at the grandest grouse lodges you will find the former outnumber the latter. Hearing-protectors are ubiquitous and vital if you don’t want the misery of late-life deafness. Shooting glasses are mandatory on grouse moors and most people carry them for all forms of game shooting, with different lenses for changing light conditions.
As for cartridges, choose them carefully. The majority of shoots will not permit those with plastic wads, as they leave unsightly litter. It’s a major sin to run out and so most of my friends put 100 in a cartridge bag and also pack a slab of 250 as a back-up. If you’re using anything other than 12- or 20-bore, take even more as you’re unlikely to be able to borrow.
No one waits on a shoot day, so punctuality is king. If you’re travelling to the shoot in convoy, try and get the satnav code for the final destination in case you’re held up by the traffic.
Once there, introduce yourself to the fellow guns, to the keeper and greet the beaters and those working the gundogs, the pickers-up. It’s natural good manners and there’s nothing worse than a shoot where those providing the sport think those shooting are a gang of snobbish hoorays.
At the end of the day, it’s important to thank all those concerned before performing the ritual of the “crinkly handshake”, when you covertly hand over your tip to the gamekeeper. If unsure as to the sum, ask your host. Personally, I always tip heavily when we’re shooting wild game, because of the year-long work involved in producing enough to harvest, and when the keeper has obviously worked hard to overcome awkward weather conditions.
When home, I then try and thank the host, in writing, as soon as possible. A friend kept every letter in a filing cabinet and those who didn’t write were never asked again, a fate we’re all anxious to avoid.