Picture the scene. You are driving north of Portree on a quiet single-track road, traversing the potholes and humming along to songs on your playlist, when all of a sudden you spot a man in his early 30s firing arrows into the wilderness surrounded by a group enthralled by his every move.
While this might sound like the plot of the latest action movie to be shot in Skye, it is in fact just a glimpse into the day job of Matt Harrison – the owner of the outdoor adventure company ACE Target Sports.
For the last eight years, Matt has made his name on Skye as a friendly, down-to-earth, and skilled instructor of archery, clay pigeon shooting, axe-throwing and ‘air-soft’ shooting.
From leaving school at 17 in his home town in Leicestershire to running his own outdoor adventure centre at the age of just 30, Matt’s journey from self-confessed under-achiever to business owner has been one punctuated by hard work, gut instincts and the support and belief of family and friends.
On a chilly Friday morning in late March, I visited Matt at ACE Target Sports HQ just outside Portree.
With a cup of coffee in hand, he sat down in his office – adapted from a portable building – and spoke candidly about his journey from Loughborough to Skye via Canada.
“I grew up in Loughborough in Leicestershire with a big brother, who is now a policeman, and my parents, who are awesome,” Matt said.
“My dad ran his own engineering business, in which my mum worked as well. They have just retired. We were never spoilt – but we never wanted for anything.”
Matt admitted that he didn’t take his time at school seriously. “School was not for me. I was one of those frustrating students, and I have seen it recently on one of my old school reports – ‘intelligent, but doesn’t give a damn, doesn’t recognise it and it’s frustrating for the teachers'”.
Uninspired by the curriculum and unresponsive to the comments of his teachers, Matt backed himself into a corner when it came to his exams and decided to take drastic action.
“I cheated in my exams. I had left it so late and they put pressure on me to get the coursework in – I just copied someone’s work and handed it in. It all came to a head, and they basically sat me down and said, ‘You don’t care about being here – what do you want to do?’
“So I just left. It was the middle of the A-levels, and I was 17.”
After doing the “usual teenage” stuff such as sleeping in and going out with his mates, Matt, by this time 18, decided it was time to get out into the big bad world and find a job.
“I showed an interest in motorsport and cars and I had learnt to drive. I wanted to be a car mechanic. So, I did an apprenticeship with Volkswagen in the middle of Leicester.”
After four years he became a fully-qualified service technician. “I was good at the theory, worked hard and enjoyed my four years there, but I wasn’t cut out for it. I got my qualification and then I booked a flight to Canada and left.”
Matt said Canada had caught his attention after he visited family there when he was 14. On his second visit, he spent six months living in Vancouver, then returned to the UK but went back to Canada after receiving a job offer and a work visa.
That job offer can be traced back to his first trip to Canada when he embarked on his first quad bike ride.
“I kept looking at this guy riding the quad bike and thinking ‘he’s earning a living and getting paid for this’.
Armed with a photo of himself on that very quad bike trip aged 14, Matt managed to track down the company and succeeded in persuading them to give him a job. He spent a year working at Whistler ski resort, just north of Vancouver
“They did snowmobiles safaris in the winter and in jeep safaris in the summer. It meant riding around on quad bikes all day, meeting the pubic and having a laugh – showing them the outdoors. That was my first real experience as an outdoor instructor.”
The end of Matt’s time in Canada brought mixed emotions as it coincided with the conclusion of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver in which the home nation set a new games record for the number gold medals won – 14.
“I was there for the biggest party in Canada’s history and two days later I was on flight home because my visa had ended, so I was a bit down.”
After moving back in with his parents, Matt worked in a pub and started to plan his next step.
“I started applying for jobs and all I could think of was about a camping trip to Torridon with my mum and dad and brother when I was young. And I thought ‘the west coast of Scotland has got the mountains, the hills, outdoor adventure companies – maybe I could get the same buzz but be closer to my parents and not have to go through the visa stuff’.”
What followed for Matt was a frustrating six months in which he applied for job after job to no avail, until…
“I had an interview and was offered a job and a chance to study an HND in hospitality management through a bar in Nottingham. I was excited – it was going to be a college course, a qualification, and that would have been where I ended up.
“I turned on my computer to accept the job and saw I had one email from a guy called Ian from a company in Scotland who were setting up a new place on Skye.”
Matt decided to follow up the email with a phone call to find out more about the job. He was told that the company required two instructors with experience to live on Skye and work the season there. However, he politely declined as he had already shaken hands with the bar owner. “My mum told me not to be so stupid and to phone him back.”
Heeding his mum’s advice, Matt travelled with his parents to the Ardverikie estate in Kinloch Laggan – the setting for the TV show ‘Monarch of the Glen’.
“We camped at Ardverikie Estate, and Ian took me around and then took me to Skye and offered me a job with Highland Activities. I moved to Armadale a month later, in 2011, and my first digs was a small touring caravan.”
Equipped with five quad bikes, a set of bows and arrows, axes and a week’s training, Matt joined the team and embarked on his new challenge as an outdoor activities instructor based at Armadale Castle and Gardens.
“It was a one-hour or a two-hour quad bike trip, axe throwing, and archery and we got paid weekly. After that, we went snorkelling, to the pub or fishing off the pier.
“We had two summer seasons that were idyllic, and I love Sleat. I got to know everyone, and I felt like part of the community. To the community, I was just the guy doing the archery and the quad bikes – at the Ardvasar Hotel they called me ‘Robin Hood’.”
After two years working for Highland Activities, Matt decided it was time to take a leap of faith and branch out.
“It wasn’t quite working for the company where they were. They offered me a job back at Ardverikie, but I wanted to stay on Skye. I spoke to mum and dad and they said ‘why don’t you go out on to your own?’
Matt founded Armadale Activities in April 2013 and signed an agreement for use of the land in exchange for 15 per cent of his turnover. Helped by a loan from his parents to get the business up and running, he turned over £9,000 in the first six months and went on to double that in his second year after acquiring a grant from the Sleat Community Trust which enabled him to invest in a clay pigeon trap.
A change in management in 2015 led to Matt reassessing his options. With his business now able to offer its service at family fun days and in a mobile capacity, finding a permanent home was the next step.
“I’d moved to Broadford at this point with Ellie, who is now my wife. I had started running paintball and was trying to figure out how I would get the rest up and running.”
Under the name Armadale Corporate Entertainment (ACE) Target Sports, Matt, now 28, drew up a list of essentials he needed at a new site – a car park, toilets, an office, and a phone line.
“In every place, I looked at, at least one of those things couldn’t be done. The Broadford Campsite was then an option, but unfortunately, that would have meant a two-year wait.”
Matt then received an email from Dave Liley, owner of Isle of Skye Paintball. “He said he was selling his business and asked if I was interested, I looked at it on Google Earth, and thought ‘this is the one!”
With a combination of his own money and a loan from Business Gateway – which he has since paid off, – Matt signed the lease in January 2016 and in April that year realised his goal of opening his own premises.
His first step involved cladding a portable building which would later become his office in snow, wind and mud. Since then – with the help of his friends, family and the benevolence of local people – Matt has transformed ACE Target Sports into a thriving outdoor adventure centre.
In an off-grid environment, utilising solar energy and a small home-made hydro-electric system, he offers a fun-filled day for all comers – whether it’s families, first-time archers, or competitive clay pigeon shooters.
“I would say it is all down to my hard work and a lot of help and understanding from people. I never, ever have considered myself as a businessman or entrepreneur – I am just an outdoor instructor who happens to work for himself.”
Whatever his business title, Skye’s own very own ‘Robin Hood’ has done things his own way and found his niche in the woods just north of Portree.
Profile by Adam Gordon and photographs by Willie Urquhart.