Preparing to shoot
Diana Pearl
December 26, 2017 06:45 PM

What Is It: A traditional day of shooting in Scotland.

Who Tried It: Diana Pearl, PEOPLE Royals Writer/Reporter

Level of Difficulty: 7/10

When you’re a royal, the holiday festivities continue on Dec. 26 — also known as Boxing Day in the United Kingdom — with an annual shoot. Members of the royal family, including Prince William, Prince Charles and Prince Harry, all head out on the grounds of the Queen’s Norfolk estate, Sandringham on Boxing Day to shoot pheasants and partridges. (Though this year, Harry’s said to be ducking out of the shoot, in order to keep his animal-loving fiancée Meghan Markle happy.) It’s a royal tradition in a long line of them during the holidays, including the Queen’s Christmas lunch at Buckingham Palace and the walk to church on Christmas Day.

And despite my commitment to chronicling the lives of the royals, I will likely never nab an invite to the family’s Boxing Day shoot (or any of their other holiday traditions!) But about a month ago, I got as close as I’ll probably ever get: a round of shooting on a trip to Scotland — and got a taste of what the royals get up to on Dec. 26. Keep in mind, though: before this afternoon, I’d never even picked up a gun before, let alone shot one.

Arriving at Winton Castle, just outside of Edinburgh

On the day of my shooting adventure, my group, which consisted of a number of journalists — some with a bit of shooting experience under their belt, most of whom were just as inexperienced as I was — and our guides from Visit Britain, headed to Winton Castle, just about 15 miles from Edinburgh. And though it’s such a close distance to the Scottish capital, Winton felt a world away. A gorgeous, centuries-old castle with links to Henry VIII that was once owned by an Earl who was killed at the Tower of London, it may not have been Sandringham, but the space was definitely historic.

I won’t lie: I was really nervous, and my nerves never really settled throughout the day. After a quick walk around the castle, we headed further out onto the grounds, which, again, were seriously beautiful. (Especially after the first day of sunshine in Scotland in almost a week!)

The grounds of Winton Castle
Diana Pearl

Unlike the royals, we wouldn’t be shooting pheasants or any actual animals at all. Instead, for our group of mostly beginners, we shot clay pigeons. I’m not sure why they’re called that, as they’re not shaped like pigeons, but rather in a simple disc shape. When they’re hit by a bullet, they break apart. The clay pigeons were sent soaring in the air at the press of a button by one of our shooting instructors.

Before we got started, they led a tutorial for us where they easily hit every target in the air. In their enchanting Scottish accents, the guides reminded us to hold the gun tightly — when you loosen up, that’s when you’ll really get hit by the kickback. They also handed out earplugs to protect our ears from the sound of the gun going off. (Even with them, it was loud!)

Given my nerves, I gladly let other people step up to the shooting plate first. Luckily, the experts at Winton were with us when it was our turn to shoot (and make sure we didn’t fall backwards or something equally embarrassing!) After I gathered some much-needed courage, I took a hold of the gun. It was heavy (like, really heavy) and about as tall as my hip.

On my first shot, I missed the target. And even though I knew that there was going to be some pushback from the gun, I was surprised at just how strong it was. Our guide insisted that it shouldn’t hurt, and if it does, you need to position the back of the gun closer in towards your chest. It should be nestled between your chest and your shoulder, beneath your collar bone. I’d say that this photo of me mid-shot, eyes closed and looking slightly petrified, sums up my experience pretty well.

Mid-shot

I did it again, and missed the target once more. I’ll be honest: though we each got four shots at each station, I sat down after two at the first one. Once we got to the second and the third, I shot twice and then did the same. It was exciting to see some of the other people in the group shoot and actually hit the target, a feat I never managed to achieve on my own.

After we had finished, our guides treated us to a show of them hitting clay pigeons in rapid succession as we threw them up in the air. It was quite a sight to see, especially with the memory of the gun’s intense kickback fresh in my mind. We then headed, as a royal may do, back to the castle for a hearty lunch of chicken, beef, potatoes and vegetables prepared by Winton’s chef — exactly the sort of thing you could imagine the royals eating after their own full day of shooting.

Inside the very cozy Winton Castle

The Verdict: Shooting may be a classically royal hobby, but it’s not one I see myself picking up anytime soon. It’s intense (be sure to have your feet firmly planted on the ground!), so be sure to time it perfectly so your bullet goes flying at the precise moment needed to hit the target. And that was for clay discs where we got some advance warning that they’d be heading up. Imagine how it would go for actual, uncontrollable wildlife.

Spending the afternoon in a castle, however — that I could get used to.

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