The surreptitious exchange is taking place a quarter of a mile away. Through the telescopic sight on top of my black Remington rifle, I get the target in my crosshairs. Marcus, my spotter, looks through his scope and recommends a slight adjustment in aim to account for wind that’s breezing from the right.
My mission is to remain undetected while making a direct hit on the attaché case between two silhouetted human shapes.
My heart is racing and a finger of sweat coats the left lens of my glasses. That’s down to the exertion of traversing a gorse-strewn hillside with a rifle case over my back for the past half-hour.
The Novar Estate was founded by General Sir Hector Munro, a commander- in-chief of the British Army in India during the 1760s. The estate is the location of the Fyrish Monument (above), depicting the gates of Nagapattinam, an Indian port town captured by Munro
Covering the final few yards to our position involved a crawl over springy moss and crunching patches of purple heather. Adrenaline is pumping as I focus on achieving the mission’s objective. ‘Remember to breathe,’ urges Marcus as I load a magazine carrying five bullets.
Despite our low position, utilising cover provided by a peaty drainage ditch, the line of fire is clear. Using my index finger, I push the safety catch forward and feel it click into place. ‘Hot,’ I say, informing Marcus of my readiness to shoot.
I take a deep breath and, exhaling, squeeze the trigger. The rifle recoils, shunting the butt into my shoulder. Through the sight’s magnified scope, I observe liquid erupt from the distant attaché case. Exhilaration quickly overcomes my initial surprise at hitting the 400-metre target.
Inside Ardtalla on the Novar Estate. The converted stable block has nine ‘handsome’ suites and a billiards room
Marcus confirms the hit, pats me on the shoulder and says: ‘Mission accomplished.’
Prior to this experience weekend in the Highlands – called Operation Loch ’n’ Load – I’d never fired a rifle nor had training in camouflage and concealment. It’s exhilarating.
Earlier, Marcus and his colleague Kurt, from a team experienced in covert fieldcraft with backgrounds in the Special Air Service (SAS) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), had bundled our group into a convoy of Land Rovers bearing Special Operations Agency logos.
Trigger happy: The Mail on Sunday’s Stuart Forster in camouflage
We zipped along single-track lanes before rising on to heather-strewn moorland in Sutherland’s expansive Invercassley Estate, 50 miles north-west of Inverness.
Our group was made up of four men and two women of varying fitness levels, all in our middle years. After a crash course in using bolt-action rifles, we took aim at diamond-shaped targets. Breaking for a picnic lunch of coronation chicken sandwiches and salad, we shared, with childlike glee, our views on firing live ammunition.
Our mission had been delivered at dinner the night before in manila envelopes bearing cover sheets with ‘TOP SECRET’ in red capitals. We were further briefed by a man in a dinner jacket. Our objective? To stop a recently developed explosive compound – untraceable and neutral until mixed with certain other compounds – from falling into the hands of terrorists.
Our luxurious base was Ardtalla, a converted 18th Century stable block with nine handsome suites and a billiards room, on the vast Novar Estate founded by General Sir Hector Munro, a commander- in-chief of the British Army in India during the 1760s. The estate is the location of the Fyrish Monument, depicting the gates of Nagapattinam, an Indian port town captured by Munro. The arching folly on Fyrish Hill was built in 1782.
After dinner we had retired to the drawing room to sip a dram of local single malt whisky before bed.
Sean Crawford, the founder of Special Operations Agency, explained that the idea of hosting luxury adventure experiences germinated while he was instructing bodyguards in Switzerland on close-protection firearms skills.
‘We provide a platform for bringing together friends or people of all ages who have never met,’ he said.
‘Our operations allow them to step out of their comfort zone in a controlled environment and test themselves.’ He recalled how a colleague working on the James Bond movie Casino Royale was impressed by cast members’ sheer excitement at handling and firing weapons. His idea was to provide ‘a controlled adrenaline journey to have fun’ to guests based loosely on the adventures of 007.
Stuart had never fired a rifle before his adventure weekend in the Highlands. He described the experience as ‘exhilarating’
Operation Loch ’n’ Load costs £3,500pp and includes dinner, bed and breakfast and picnic lunch, plus flights from London to Scotland and transfers. Special Operations Agency offers espionage adventures in the UK and overseas (specialops.agency).
Indeed, after a hard day’s mission, cocktails inspired by drinks served in Ian Fleming’s novels and the Bond films are served on the lawn at Ardtalla.
Before our mission, Paul, a former sniper with 12 years’ service as a Royal Marines Commando, instructed us in using camouflage in open countryside. ‘Veg is the edge,’ he explained – then asked if we could see the sniper among the tussocks and clumps of heather in the field directly in front of us.
Only when he commanded his colleague to stand up – a couple of bus-lengths ahead of us – did I believe somebody really was out there.
We stuffed handfuls of moss, grass and heather between elasticated loops in hooded ghillie suits. Originally worn by deer-stalkers in the Highlands, these loose-fitting long mesh jackets break up the human form, making snipers tricky to spot.
With straw protruding from my hood, I felt more like Worzel Gummidge than a secret agent, but phone footage proved the camouflage was effective.
The buzz from the day made for a convivial evening, with a roaring fire as a backdrop despite the light midsummer night.
We swapped anecdotes and gleaned insights from a world of thrills I’d otherwise experienced only through books and films.