It is quiet and cold in the hills not far from the Gleneagles Hotel in Auchterarder, Scotland. Suddenly, shots ring out, and a whiff of spent gunpowder drifts across the hollow in the moors.
No, this is not the final cry of a frustrated golfer on the nearby links. It is just another session at the Jackie Stewart Shooting School at Gleneagles.
A half-dozen men and women are standing in a former grouse moor waiting for a chance to attempt to hit small black clay targets being flung at them.
Stewart is best known, of course, as a world-champion Formula One race car driver. But he was also a member of the British shooting team for the 1960 Rome Olympics.
"Shooting was my first love," says Stewart, the grandson of a gamekeeper. He won his first competition at age 14, and also a number of international titles. "It was my first experience of achieving anything in sports and in life," he says. "And it still is my first love."
Two years ago, he persuaded the management at Gleneagles, a resort renowned for its golf courses, to let him open a shooting school on land owned by the hotel.
"When you think about it," says the 47-year-old Stewart, "in a traditional resort hotel, shooting is really an abstract activity. It bears no relation to sun, swimming, tennis or golf. However, you can do it in all seasons, and even in rain or snow, shooting is still consistent with the environment."
The sport of target shooting was invented in America in 1920 by several Massachusetts hunters who wanted to improve their aim before the opening of hunting season. Over the years, it has developed into a full-fledged competitive sport.
There are now a number of shooting schools throughout Scotland, and shooting has become one of the most popular all-weather sports in Europe. There are more than 530 shooting clubs throughout Britain.
At Gleneagles, clay target shooting has become the hotel's newest amenity. "People love it," says Justin Jones, manager of the Stewart school, "because, given the choice, many of our guests would prefer to destroy nonliving targets."
Students at the school are driven to the shooting area, where they are first taught the basics of safety and proper gun handling. Each student is then positioned behind a shooting station, the cartridges are loaded and, with the instructor standing by, the clay targets are released from the traps via remote control.
There are a number of traps on the course. There's a high house and a low house. Each throws targets at 60 mph at supposedly predictable angles. But at Gleneagles, a stiff wind can often blow. Some targets go left, others seem to curve right. And in the wind, the targets rise quickly.
Once hit, the clay saucer, which resembles an inverted ashtray, can sometimes make the shooter the target. As I soon learned, unless you hit one straight on, shattering it almost evenly, it can careen uncontrollably in the air, showering the area with black ceramic fragments.
Shooters who wait until the last moment to hit the targets also risk being peppered with the fragments.
Beginners start on the "grouse," which comes low and straight toward the shooter. (The incentive here is to hit the clay saucer before it hits you.) "You simply track the 'bird' with your gun," says Jones, "and when it disappears from sight behind the barrel, you pull the trigger. It's easy."
Or so he says. It took me three tries before I succeeded in hitting the saucer. It was, I must confess, a great feeling of accomplishment.
Next comes the "high pheasant," which is launched from a tower. The target still comes straight at the shooter, but much higher. After eight tries, I managed to score a direct hit.
Last and most difficult is the "rising teal," which is launched in front of the shooter and flies away at a low trajectory. All of my shots missed.
Stance, I quickly discovered, is a critical element of success. You don't just point the gun at the target. You must bend your left knee slightly to bring your weight forward on the left leg. You keep your right leg straight, but not stiff. In theory, at least, this allows you to swing readily as the target is released.
It's the swinging that counts. When the clay saucer is released, you are supposed to swing your entire body toward the target as you sight it. Even so, first-timers notice a soreness in their shoulders where the butt of the shotgun rests.
The school at Gleneagles provides all the accouterments -- outerwear, ear protection and, of course, a gun. Students usually use Berettas or high-quality Brownings. Instructors like "over and under" guns (double-barreled, with one barrel on top of the other).
And then there are the guns owned by the true devotees: a Holland and Holland, for instance, can cost $15,000, and a Purdey, considered the Rolls-Royce of guns, can run $30,000.
Stewart, who often visits the school from his home base in Geneva, admits that shooting "has quite a narrow band of interest." But he notes that it "has become one of the more popular sports for women. They seem much more inclined to participate even if they've never shot before. In fact," he claims, "the sport is a great equalizer when it comes to relationships. After all, what do you do if you're at a legendary golf resort and you don't play golf?"
Even more important, shooting is a sport in which individual strength will not give anyone an edge. Stewart reports that most of the women who go to his school while at Gleneagles do better than their husbands.
"This tends to infuriate the men," he laughs, "and we then have some very interesting competitions."
Instructor Jones agrees. "We've been looking for something that's not competitive in a physical way. And 60 percent of our new shooters are women. It seems to come naturally for them."
For Jones, the son of the owner of another shooting school, shattering clay targets has simply become a way of life. He has the patience to wait for just the right moment. He leans forward into the shots when others tend to lean back and miss them. He knows if the target is high or low almost the instant it is released. And, unlike this shooter, he has long since overcome the tendency to hesitate in midswing when shooting.
Ironically, at the Stewart school, the grouse have become the spectators. "We've got some coveys here," says Jones. "And the birds know they're safe. They've actually become accustomed to the shooting."
Peter S. Greenberg is a free-lance writer.
WAYS & MEANS
The Gleneagles Hotel, in Auchterarder, Scotland, is about an hour's drive from Edinburgh and Glasgow. Three trains run daily from London to the hotel's own station. There is also train service from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.
A double room at Gleneagles runs about $220 a night. The hotel offers a package called the Gleneagles Shooting Break (about $395 per person double occupancy), which includes two nights at the hotel, plus dinner, breakfast, instruction in clay target shooting and a supply of 200 clay targets and cartridges.
Individual instruction is also available at about $65 per person, which includes 50 clay targets and 50 cartridges, rental of outerwear and a gun. A $40 package offers 25 clays, 25 cartridges and rental of outerwear and a gun.
For reservations and information, call Leading Hotels of the World, (800) 223-6800.