Hamish MacDonald, a burly storyteller with ruddy cheeks and kind eyes, bellows his account of Duncan Williamson's Death in a Nut across the room. "That's Deith come fir my auld mother!"
"He's come tae take on'y thing that I love awa fae me, but,' Jack said, 'he's no getting awa wi it!' Jack ran forward, he snappit the scythe auf the Aul Man Death's back an he smashed the scythe against a stane." I lean forward like a child on a school story-mat, sipping on Harris gin as the moral tale unravels.
The atmosphere is akin to a campfire, yet I'm in one of Scotland's most sophisticated hotels. Eight of us are huddled in Killiehuntly Farmhouse's living room, lapping up the pre-dinner entertainment. A trio of fiddlers will later join us for a jig and a dram, but for now I'm curled up in an original Arne Jacobsen chair. Dusk envelops the hills beyond and Cullen-skink aromas waft in from the kitchen. The luxed-up setting is typical of Wilderness Scotland x Wildland, a formidable tour operator and accommodation duo that is upping the ante for Celtic hospitality. After a whirlwind few days of bothies, ponies, whisky and hearty feasts, Scotland has captured my soul. As I'm lulled by Hamish's lyrical tones, I wonder if I'll ever get it back.
Danish billionaires Anders and Anne Holch Povlsen (of ASOS fame) set up Wildland in 2007 with a 200-year vision to protect Europe's last great wild places. To date, the couple owns 220,000 acres of Scottish land across 12 estates - enough to attract political debate about what percentage of a country individuals should be allowed to own. Politics aside, it's hard to argue with Wildland's ethos. To most of us, Scotland is the epitome of untouched wilderness, but the reality is quite different - a staggering 97 per cent of forest cover has been lost and, alongside threats such as logging and farming, the declining numbers of predators such as wolves and lynx have caused deer populations to soar, tipping the natural balance off-kilter. Wildland's Director of Conservation and Forestry, Thomas MacDonell, explains: "We've taken an extreme approach to allow for a pulse of regeneration. On Glenfeshie [a Wildland estate] we've got deer numbers down [through culling] to one per square kilometre, whereas on some estates it's as high as 35. As a result, our forest cover has expanded over 1,000 hectares since 2006. It's a bold step we had to take to work towards long-term sustainability."
Following an adventure along the North Coast 500 route that involves hail-battered coastline, the fairy-tale turrets of Dunrobin Castle and endless dune-fringed, deserted beaches, Thomas' partner and Wildland's longest-serving host, Ali, welcomes us to the snug fold of Kinloch Lodge. The humble exterior of this former hunting lodge is dwarfed by Scotland's northernmost munro (mountain), Ben Hope, as well as neighbouring Ben Loyal. The craggy peaks loom above acres of moorland, streams and lochs, providing an unofficial boundary between the sparsely populated coast and untamed interior.
Ushered in through the kitchen, we linger long enough to spy gin-cured salmon and a cooling sourdough loaf. Head Chef Richard Turner proudly reveals the evening's feast of deep-fried oysters (from Kyle of Tongue Oysters farm, just a few miles down the road), venison fillet with chanterelles and juniper (all from the estate), plus a lemon-and-elderflower posset with a sprinkling of foraged blueberries and homemade shortbread for dessert. "We're trying to get back to simple, seasonal produce," Richard tells me. "We don't go overboard on foraging, but do have some produce such as chanterelle mushrooms, juniper and blueberries that we can use when there's a surplus - the deer and badgers enjoy these, too."
The deer are treated with a similar ethos. At dinner, as a juicy slice of venison melts in my mouth, Thomas explains where the meat comes from. "It's more of a deer harvest than a deer cull. Whereas many estates will shoot stags in rutting season, when their antlers are big and provide impressive trophies, we try to mimic nature by shooting year-round." I later learn that this produces tastier meat because outside of the rut season there's less testosterone in the deer. The venison is processed by a local, family-run business that ensures nothing goes to waste. The whole set-up is a healthy challenge to my vegetarian leanings.
The next day I discover that the landscape is a break from tradition, too. "Before now, estates like this made money from hunting, whisky and golf, and so woodlands were in the way. It was all very traditional. But now we're offering year-round activities such as birdwatching, hiking, pony trekking and mountain biking that are kinder to nature," Kinloch's Estate Manager, Hugh Montgomery, explains. The heather is golden in the morning sunshine and spindly, lichen-laden larch trees overhang a stream as it meanders towards the mountains. Hugh spots a "wee dipper" (a rare Highland bird) enjoying an icy bath - I pop a toe in but quickly retreat. There's no sign of human interference - even the electricity lines have been sunk underground. It looks perfect to me, but Hugh continues: "We've still got a long way to go, since we're working on an ecological timeframe."
After a bothy lunch we're whisked off to the Kyle of Tongue in 4x4s by Wildland's dapper gamekeepers and ghillies (fishing or hunting attendants). Ali explains: "When you buy land in Scotland, the people come with it. We're part of the land and work as a team." The tweed uniforms are part of a much-loved identity. Everyone has a twinkle in their eye, as if they're onto something, and I find myself longing to be part of it.
We roam around the beautiful interiors in a converted smokehouse known as Kyle House and the newly built Lundies House, an eight-room, design-led hotel in the heart of Tongue village, before travelling southwards towards the Cairngorms. Ten or so stags stare down from a hillside as we pause for a roadside stretch. They're so majestic that I doubt I could ever pull the trigger. We trek with ponies from Glenfeshie through eerie pine forests and purple-tinged, boggy moors as the snow starts to fall. The landscape is entirely different to that of the north, partly thanks to conservation efforts. The 8,000-year-old Caledonian Forest once thrived here, and the remnants of old pines tower above saplings and heather and ferns that reach above my head. It's not just the land that's getting a healthy dose of rewilding - my aching legs are caked in mud and my hair is soaked through from the mist.
Bagpipes serenade us into a crumbling bothy for sandwiches, tea and flapjacks around a rusty tin-can fire. We unravel paper bags to reveal simple, comforting flavours - hunks of homemade sourdough bread stuffed with cheddar and pickled beetroot or runner-bean chutney. Richard explains: "We have a huge kitchen garden in our estate close to Inverness, and traditional methods such as pickling are helping us to produce year-round flavours from the land. We're learning from the Danes in that respect."
Myles, our Wilderness Scotland guide, hosts an impromptu recital of John Muir, paying homage to the trees: "I never saw a discontented tree...they go wandering forth in all directions with every wind, going and coming like ourselves, travelling with us around the sun two million miles a day." Appropriately, the wind whips up and a 1930s Australian army truck arrives to chug us to our final destination of Killiehuntly Farmhouse. The afternoon unfolds with more wholesome pursuits including a sauna, whisky tasting and my own slap-dash attempt to whittle a Danish butter spoon from a hunk of Scots pine. At the nearby Speyside Distillery, we learn how the surrounding landscape shapes its single-malt flavours, too. A 17th-century water mill is still used to collect water from the adjacent River Tromie - what runs off the land into the river ends up in the whisky.
On a pre-dinner ramble towards heather-clad hills frosted with a light sprinkling of snow, I ask one of the gamekeepers whether he enjoys stalking. He gets out his phone to show me a prized photo - the pony we'd been trekking with that day with a 150kg stag sprawled lifelessly across its back. He explains: "This is Jock carrying his first stag; it was one of the best days. I show people in black and white, so they aren't put off by all the blood." Hunting has always seemed repugnant to me - an outdated, unnecessary old boys' club. Yet this is different. These lads have grown up on this land, and now they're working day in, day out to restore it to its former glory. The passion and sense of purpose are palpable.
The image whirls through my mind as Hamish finishes his tale that evening: "Death said, 'You thought if you beat me an' conquered me an' killed me that that wad be the end, everything be all right, Well, Jack, ma laddie, ye've got a lot to learn. Without me, there's no life.'"