“Veg is the edge,”' beamed ex-Royal Marine commando and international man of mystery John – not his real name, of course – as I wound another weave of spiky grass and sodden moss into my sniper’s ghillie suit. “You’ll need it to crawl to the firing position undetected by the enemy.” I’d come to the Scottish Highlands on a top-secret James Bond-style mission, Operation Loch’n’Load. I hadn’t bargained on being knee-deep in bog dressed as Worzel Gummidge, firing high-velocity sniper rifles at targets a third of a mile away.
On screen, suave-suited Bond luxuriates through a beguilingly cushy number, swanning around the globe sipping single malt and cracking innuendo-laden dad jokes. The reality proved very different. I arrived in Inverness and was snatched by trained ex-army killers in a Range Rover. I didn’t even have Bond’s trusty Walther PPK for protection. “That’s a poor weapons system anyway,” explained Sean Crawford, the driving force behind Special Operations Agency’s (SOA) Bond-themed adventures.
“I’m a massive fan of Bond,” continued Sean, “but we combine the romance and mystique of everyone’s favourite super spy with the dramatic reality.” Anthony Horowitz, the man tasked with picking up Ian Fleming’s writing mantle, was impressed after his own SOA Bond experience: “It’s the closest most people will ever get to know what it’s like being an agent in the field. I’ll never write a Bond book the same way again. I understand the emotions and adrenaline now.”
My adventure began in earnest at suitably plush Ardtalla on the Novar Estate, where our small platoon of new recruits were briefed by a sharp-suited security operative who swept up the gravel drive to deliver our mission. The fate of the world – which usually falls within Bond’s remit – depended on us. Those pesky Asrstotzkarians had stolen a briefcase of mass destruction. Our task was to destroy it. Failure was not an option.
At the crack of dawn we swept out in a convoy of black Range Rovers, putting the frighteners on the local farmers. Things soon turned serious. And this Bond got nervous. Marcus and Kurt of the Highland Shooting Centre were waiting for us, armed to the teeth with Remington Model 700 sniper rifles. Having only misfired a shotgun on a stag weekend a decade ago, I was unconvinced when ghillie Kurt lay across from me in the heather and promised he’d have me hitting targets hundreds of feet away.
Kurt patiently drilled me on sniper fire and saved me from knocking myself out with the recoil when I tried to attach my eye to the sight like they do in the movies. I heard him say something about just relaxing; hard to do when your heart is pounding through your ear defenders louder than an accelerating Aston Martin. My first bullet didn’t remotely bother the target as I jerked the trigger with fudgy fingers like the rank amateur I was. Undeterred, Kurt coaxed me to try again. And again.
Professional sniper trainer “John” was next up, untangling everything I thought I knew about snipers: they never work alone and shooting is only a small part of the job for starters. Concealment and camouflage are key, amply demonstrated when young ghillie Hamish emerged undetected from the long grass right in front of me. It was up to us to fashion our own protection from detection. Entwining grass and heather into each other’s ghillie suits, our ragbag team of irregulars bonded.
I crawled off up a battlefield as dramatic as any Bond film; rugged Highland massifs rearing up on all sides. A deer flashed by, quickening my pulse further as I eked upwards to the sniping position, knowing even a cracked twig could jeopardise our entire mission. A sweaty, bog-blanketed mess, I tumbled into the firing trench. “Breathe, breathe Robin,” Marcus soothed. I did. And missed.
I loaded another bullet into the breech. Flicking off the safety catch I was “live” again. This time a direct hit on a can 500ft away. Then a target 1,300ft distant. Still, just a warm-up, as I hadn’t tackled “Elvis” yet. There he was, more than a third of a mile away. He wasn’t the target. It was the lethal suitcase bomb he was carrying. My first shot grazed the crooner’s legs. The second the wooden post holding his briefcase. Another sharp crack of the rifle. A direct hit. My instinct was to yell and jump up. But SOA had me well-trained by now. I secured my weapon and melted back into the heather.
Adrenaline pumping with having saved the world, we retreated back to Ardtalla, where a bagpiper and Bond-themed cocktails awaited on the lawn. I half expected Judi Dench to parachute in. The Bond theme continued with a spy-infused dinner, whose highlight was locally shot venison. Over the weekend I’d been shaken. And stirred too, from Covid slumber.
Two-night Loch’n’Load packages run all year round, with frequency depending on demand; £3,500pp including flights from London, transfers, accommodation, food and drink (specialops.agency)