Big game hunter, Nile perch champ and sporting agent – there’s no doubt this Kintyre ghillie knows how to have fun.
In this job I’m lucky enough to meet some remarkable characters. Few, however, are more memorable than Alastair Brew.
Ostensibly this larger than life madman is a Kintyre-based ghillie, gamekeeper, estate owner and sporting gent who brings hundreds of Swedish customers into Scotland each year, but that really only scratches the surface of a man whose achievements are dizzying in their scale and variety.
On one hand he’s a big game hunter and the three-time Murchiston Falls Fishing Tournament champion, who also takes his clients on photographic stalks of mountain gorillas in Uganda.
Back at base, he and his clients will dispatch more than 100 red and sika stags each year from four estates across 80,000 acres in Sutherland (their record is 38 stags in a week) and Islay.
He shoots pheasant and partridge in Glenisla and on his 6,000-acre estate near Tayinloan (which includes some grouse and black cock), and if his clients want something less conventional, he loads them into his lobster boat and takes them to Cara island off the southern tip of Gigha to stalk goat, go wildfowling for ducks, geese, woodcock and snipe, and fishing for mackerel.
In the unlikely event that that lot doesn’t whet his clients’ collective whistles, then he takes them roebuck stalking on 10,000 acres of Bute or brown trout fishing in the fecund hill lochs around Loch Maree. It is a bewilderingly large repertoire, but there are also a whole load of activities that he more or less reserves for himself, whether it’s fishing for char in the Arctic circle, chasing salmon on the Conon or heading out after Kolo antelopes on the African plains.
Brew is a man whose idea of heaven is being out among nature, and to talk to him for a few hours is to be given an extended masterclass in the flora and fauna of not just his native Scotland but also that of Sweden – where he lived for 20 years – and Africa.
With his glamorous Faroese-born, Argyll raised partner Emmy and 30-year-old son Gustav operating as his fellow stalkers, guides and ghillies, Brew has spent a lifetime chasing various quarry and teaching others how to do the same. It is that process of helping others to enjoy the great outdoors in the same way that he once learned, says this engaging and sociable soul, which gives him the greatest satisfaction.
‘I was born in Pakistan because my dad worked for Shell, but there was no background of shooting or fishing in my family at all, it all came from this inner curiosity about how the world works,’ he says.
‘From a very young age, I was guddling for minnows, gudgeon and stickleback, and that obsession with pitting myself against nature has been there ever since. Now, one of the greatest thrills is bringing over the Scandinavians to Scotland and showing them what we have here, which is unique, particularly when it comes to stalking red deer in the Highlands. A red stag is the most magnificent animal in the world, far more impressive than a kudu or buffalo. A red stag in his pomp has an aura, a sort of arrogance and air of majesty that you simply don’t get with other quarry.
‘In Sweden they hunt deer in the forests, which is a different experience that involves sitting around and waiting, whereas in the Highlands you go out looking for the beast and can see and hear it on the hill, lord of his domain and roaring out his presence. A lot of my Swedes have stalked at home before, but they are always absolutely blown away by the experience of coming out here. It’s funny, it helps to remind me of how lucky we are.’
After 20 years of living in Sweden, Brew has been back in Scotland for a decade now and is fast making a name for himself as one of the country’s foremost country sports guides. But he’s even better known in Africa, where his exploits in Uganda – where an invitational fishing tournament is held at Murchison Falls National Park each year – are legendary. Brew and son Gustav have entered the competition six times and won it three times each, with the biggest fish on the fly a 68kg fish caught off Bakers Rock.
Their biggest overall was a 105kg leviathan landed by Gustav out of the treacherous Devil’s Cauldron after a two-hour battle ‘that felt like wrestling with a small man’.
As ever, the Brews mix business and pleasure, taking clients to fish for Nile perch in Niger, Nigeria, Congo, Uganda and Kenya, where six Swedes caught 68 perch up to 68kgs and Gustav got chased by a two-metre Nile crocodile. But Brew’s fascination with Africa came about partly by chance.
‘I’d finished at Fettes and was at art school in Dundee when I got an offer to go for a year to Royal College of Art in Melbourne for a year, so my brother and I thought we’d drive down through Africa, sell our Land Rover in South Africa and make enough money to fly to Australia,’ he laughs.
‘It didn’t work out like that though: it took us three months to get to Wau in southern Sudan, where we met two lovely Swedish air hostesses who wanted to go on safari, so we pretended we were safari guides and stayed for a while. Then we met a Frenchman who organised big game hunting out of Wau, and sort of got hooked.
Now my two brothers, Kenneth and Malcolm, live in Uganda and Kenya, so we come out here from December to March each year, spending some of it with clients but a lot just exploring.’
Back in Scotland, Brew is fully booked for most of the year, mostly with groups of between eight and 12 Swedes. But he takes a month each year to drive around Sweden delivering 100 or so pairs of antlers to his clients before helicoptering up to Meijak for some of the best char and trout fishing in the world.
Standing in his byre, I’m staggered by the size of the 108 pairs of antlers hanging from the beams, several of them royals, with the odd imperial for good measure. Contrary to the usual culling ethic, Brew reckons that shooting the oldest stags – which often means biggest – is the most sustainable and effective way to control the population, with the handy side effect that it yields some glorious sets of antlers.
‘Look at this room, it’s like this every year,’ he says. ‘It works like a dream.’
Rather like Brew’s life, I muse.
(This feature was originally published in 2015)