Eco Escapes: Running Wild in the Scottish Highlands

This article appears in Volume 29: The Taste

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.'”

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