Why Fall Is the Perfect Time of Year to Plan a Dream Scottish Highlands Road Trip
Lisa Grainger takes a drive through the glens and moors of northern Scotland, visiting reimagined historic estates, bedding down in snug country cottages, and losing herself on some of Europe’s most inspiring tracts of wilderness.
Stopping to lean on his staff, Peter Cramb surveyed the steep, heather-covered hill we had just climbed, his eyes sparkling, his weather-scoured cheeks aglow. “When the weather is fine, there isn’t a place more bonny than Scotland,” the 78-year-old gamekeeper said, looking out over the land on which he has worked for more than 50 years. “On a good day, you feel like the whole world is at your feet.”
Cramb and I were in Perthshire, in the foothills of the Scottish Highlands, on a swath of land next to the Gleneagles estate, and I did indeed feel on top of the world — both physically and emotionally. Below us, a pair of young huntsmen clad in sage-green tweed led three stocky white ponies carrying a picnic lunch in wicker baskets on their backs. Streams burbled in the golden heather. In the distance, a hawk rode thermals above a jagged peak. And around us stretched mile upon mile of rust-colored moorland broken only by the occasional loch, in which the dappled yellows and reds of autumn foliage were reflected.
It was the first day of a weeklong road trip through the north of Scotland, on which I was to take in some of its finest new hotels and traverse some of its greatest tracts of wilderness. Having arrived at Gleneagles that morning, I was eager to get out and explore the nearby glens, but, this being Scotland, it wasn’t long before clouds closed in and a steady drizzle began to fall. When, after an hour or so, my walking boots started to squelch with thick, peaty mud, even Cramb had to concede that it was time to call it a day. “What you need,” he said with a mischievous grin, “is a Sloegasm: a shot of sloe gin, topped off with champagne. That should warm you up.”
A Sloegasm would have undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows at Gleneagles a few years ago; then, it was more of a straitlaced, scotch-and-haggis kind of place. But since its new owner, the 38-year-old Indian-born entrepreneur Sharan Pasricha, embarked on a multimillion-dollar redesign, which wrapped up this summer, it has become a new center for fun and sophistication in the Highlands.
Reclining on a jewel-colored sofa in the Century Bar and sipping Chablis from a crystal glass, Pasricha told me that his love affair with Scotland began on a tour with his Glasgow-born wife, Eiesha, the daughter of Indian telecom billionaire Sunil Mittal. His dream for Gleneagles, he said, was for it to again become a great Scottish playground — or, as it was once known, the Riviera of the Highlands. When the hotel first opened, in 1924, “people used to race up in their cars or on the train to be part of the social calendar,” he said. “It was all glamorous gowns and cocktails. We want to return to that, and show people of all ages what Scotland has to offer.”
Certainly, the hotel feels fresh and updated, with its fern-colored walls, airy loft rooms, and marble-lined bathrooms. It’s buzzy, too: in the Century Bar, young whisky lovers sampled the contents of an impressive wall of bottles, while in the tearoom, families shared Scottish fruitcake and scones. Over in the black-lacquer and plum-velvet American Bar (its design was inspired by the underground bars of the Prohibition era) a couple had snuggled up beside a silver champagne bucket.
Although it was wet outside, the grounds were also alive with activity. In the Clubhouse, with its gallery of Ryder Cup tournament photos, rowdy golfers were drinking craft beers. At the falconry center, children were flying hawks and being taught how to handle ferrets — and screeching with laughter as the creatures insisted on wriggling up their sleeves.
When Ken Keith, a jovial 57-year-old guide with Wilderness Scotland, picked me up at Gleneagles, he wasn’t at all surprised by how busy it was. Tourism to Scotland is booming, he said — and more Americans are visiting than ever before. That’s not just because it is seen as a safe destination, a place associated with luxury products such as cashmere, whisky, and smoked salmon, and one of the most outward-looking and progressive parts of the United Kingdom. It’s also because, in recent years, international investors, including France’s Xavier-Louis Vuitton, the Swedish Tetra Pak heiress Sigrid Rausing, and a tranche of wealthy Russians and Danes, have snapped up run-down estates and castles — attracted by favorable exchange rates and the romance of owning a stately Scottish property. Unlike traditional landowners, primarily Scottish or English aristocrats who used the estates as hunting retreats, several of these new lairds are foresters and conservationists, keen to replace hunting with tourism and showcase the landscape of the Highlands in all its raw beauty. Some have taken former farms and hunting lodges and turned them into hotels — and it was to three of these properties that I was traveling north to explore.
There are few other places in Europe that contain such large expanses of wild, open land as Scotland. This remarkable landscape is the legacy of the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, during which tens of thousands of Scots were evicted from their land to make way for large, more profitable sheep farms. In that era, more than 6 million acres of the country were carved up into just a few hundred private properties.
As Keith and I drove north, we passed mile after mile of heather-carpeted moors, lochs, and misty, glacier-gouged mountains, recognizable from starring roles in TV and film titles including Outlander and the Harry Potter series. We were headed to an estate named Glenfeshie, which, since having been bought by Danish fashion billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen in 2006, has become something of a model of conservation in these parts. His efforts have been so successful, in fact, that during my visit the movie Mary Queen of Scots was being shot there — in part because many glens are still covered in the Caledonian pine trees that would have dominated the landscape in the 16th century. Some are original, and some have been replanted.
Glenfeshie’s head of conservation, Thomas MacDonell, explained that before the Industrial Revolution, and the surge in shipbuilding and large-scale farming that came along with it, much of the country was thick with trees. The bleak, heather- and bracken-covered landscapes that have come to be thought of as typical of the Scottish wilderness are, in fact, a relatively recent phenomenon; over the centuries, the tree cover has been destroyed by humans and by deer, which feed on saplings.
That’s one of the reasons Povlsen decided to step in, MacDonell explained. “After the first Earth Summit in 1992, people started to talk across Europe about protecting the environment.” Since Povlsen took over Glenfeshie, he has acquired 11 more estates in the region, totaling 218,364 acres and making him the second-largest landowner in Scotland. While his purchases have made him unpopular in some quarters — neighbors who make a living from hunting deer and nationalists who resent foreign ownership of Scottish land, in particular — Povlsen has not only overseen the planting of millions of new trees but has also injected much-needed capital and a healthy dose of chic into the Highlands.
Ten years ago, it was pretty difficult to find accommodation anywhere north of Edinburgh that was contemporary or luxurious. Old-fashioned was the prevailing aesthetic, and the farther outside the cities one traveled, the more spartan the options became. So the arrival in 2016 of Killiehuntly, Povlsen’s elegant early-19th-century farmhouse hotel adjoining the Glenfeshie estate, has been something of a game changer for Scotland.
The vision of Povlsen’s wife, Anne Storm Pedersen, and her designer friend Ruth Kramer, the four-bedroom farmhouse is the embodiment of hygge, the Scandinavian concept of coziness. Simple Orkney chairs are draped in snug sheepskin. A hall table is piled with Norwegian sweaters to ward off the Scottish chill. On rustic wooden tables sit Scandi-inspired lamps and handblown glass decanters filled with fresh spring water. Meals are served on rough Danish stoneware, and the walls are adorned with stylish contemporary art.
The idea behind it, explained Kaddi Freudenberg, the wife of Killiehuntly’s chef, was to create a more feminine type of hideaway than is usual in Scotland. “Anne wanted to make it very different from the typical, very male shooting-and-hunting wilderness, so it had to be beautiful, but also simple and calm, to balance out the raw Scottish nature,” she explained.
The nature around Killiehuntly is certainly raw. Located inside Cairngorms National Park — the biggest reserve in the U.K. — the farmhouse is surrounded by uninterrupted forests, glens, and moors, all overhung by moody gray skies. On my first morning, I woke early and tore myself from the Lithuanian bed linen and soft woolen blankets. As dawn broke over the hills, I found a dirt track leading away from the vegetable garden and for two hours walked silently, inhaling the scent of pine and black, peaty soil, listening to the trickle of brooks, and soaking in the almost lurid autumnal hues in which the trees had cloaked themselves.
Back in the farmhouse kitchen, over a breakfast of just-baked sourdough bread and orange-yolked eggs, I learned that most guests arrive at Killiehuntly intent on exploring the estate on the hotel’s bicycles, fishing the lochs and rivers for trout, wild swimming in freshwater pools, and hiking the hills. But many get so seduced by the warm farmhouse that they never leave, and instead spend their stay browsing art books and pondering life from soft, velvety sofas.
While I was sorely tempted to do the same, after breakfast it was time for me and Keith to set off again. Winding past stone villages and great expanses of golden bracken and heather, we headed north to our next estate: Alladale Wilderness Reserve, in the heart of the Highlands. Owned by the English furniture magnate Paul Lister, this 23,000-acre property stands out not for its accommodation or food — both of which are warm and comforting — but for its groundbreaking work to restore native species, a process known as rewilding that has been employed in swaths of open land across Europe.
Inspired by the wildlife reserves of southern Africa, Lister has set out to reintroduce the plants, trees, and animals that once defined the Highlands. Since he acquired the estate in 2003, more than 800,000 Scots pines have been planted at Alladale. A family of Scottish wildcats is now housed in an enclosure on the estate; more controversial schemes to control the deer population by introducing larger predators, including wolves and lynx, remain in the planning stage.
Besides a main lodge, Alladale has a handful of stone cottages scattered around its grounds. Ours was at the foot of Glen Alladale, one of five great valleys on the estate. En route, the scenery was so majestic that the amenable Keith had to keep stopping so I could take photographs of the Tolkienesque terrain: the waterfalls tumbling from rocks like silver ribbons, the long-fringed Highland cows, even the spongy earth, which was spotted with lichen in bright red and pistachio green.
That afternoon, we went fly-fishing in the wide, shallow waters of the Alladale River. From where I stood on the riverbank, it was hard to imagine more dramatic views. My sight lines stretched not only down the surrounding glens, where slithers of river snaked through emerald pastures, but rose to the top of the giant granite mountains that loom over the valleys.
We didn’t have the time — or the energy — to hike up one of these ancient outcrops, so instead accepted the offer of a ride on the estate’s all-terrain Argonaut to the peak of a ridge looking west to Bodach Mòr, from where we could see both the Atlantic and the North Sea. It was a treacherous ascent on an impossibly steep, rocky track, but the views from the top were worth every bone-wrenching jolt. We could see for hundreds of miles, yet other than the cottage where we were staying, there was not another building in sight. The distant tinkle of the Alladale River was the only sound, and because we were the only guests on the property, it was all ours. That night, having filled my lungs with pure Scottish air, I slept like a stone, lulled by the whistle of wind on the moors outside my loft window.
Just when you think you have experienced the best Scotland has to offer, another highlight comes bowling by. Wilderness Scotland has spent the past 17 years scouting the country for glorious spots for its clients to explore, and after a two-hour drive on the dramatic Kyles of Sutherland and through misty expanses of flat, peaty bogland, Keith had a surprise for me. Beside Loch Meadie we met a guide with a wide wooden canoe, who was to gently paddle me toward our next destination while Keith gallantly transported my luggage by car.
After many hours on the road, the change of pace and setting was an immediate tonic. For the next hour I gave myself over to soaking up the emptiness of the broad valley and watching the ripples created as our oars broke the loch’s mirrored surface. Other than a passing fish eagle and a gaggle of ducks swimming in the clear, peat-filtered water, there was nothing to focus on but mountains and sky.
When planning my trip to the Highlands, I had asked if I could spend as much time as possible in the wilderness, and on this particular day, my wishes were more than granted. We were due to spend that night at Kinloch Lodge, another of Anders Holch Povlsen’s acquisitions. But instead of driving me straight there, Keith pulled up outside a stone outbuilding known as a bothy, which had been newly repurposed as a rustic dining venue. Inside, we found lunch laid out beside a fire, with views out over the towering, snowy peaks of Ben Loyal.
Just like at Glenfeshie, every detail had been considered. In fact, the handsome wooden dining table was laid so artistically that it felt wrong to disturb it, from the rustic boards of charcuterie and Kilner jars of rich liver pâté to the vase of wild foliage, all arranged beside natural linen napkins and Danish ceramics.
The feast had been arranged by the cheery Lavinia Turner, who heads up hospitality for all of Povlsen’s properties in Scotland. “What I love is that Povlsen and his wife are so relaxed,” she said. “They want what we do to be warm and hospitable. They want other people to fall in love with Scotland, like they have.”
Because the seven-bedroom Kinloch Lodge can be booked by only one group, Keith and I had the whole estate to ourselves, so we could do what we wanted, when we wanted — which, after lunch, was to spend the three remaining hours of daylight hiking from the bothy to the main house, soaking in the great expanses of moorland and the chilled, plant-scented air as we walked.
It was a good thing we did exert ourselves that afternoon, because the food at Kinloch is sublime. Formerly a shooting lodge, the house has been turned into a super-comfortable Highland home with bedrooms decked out in sheepskin and neutral fabrics, each containing a fireplace and a desk with forest views. After a soak in a capacious, perfumed bath, the scent of roasted herbs lured me down to dinner.
Kinloch’s visiting chef, Richard Turner, ensures Scottish produce is given pride of place at all of the Povlsen properties. That night, in one of the hotel’s many elegant rooms, with their dramatic, dark gray walls and original Danish art, we feasted on lobsters, chicken with house-made gnocchi and chanterelle mushrooms, and an intense dark chocolate mousse with whisky and cherries. Retiring to my beautifully turned-down bed as the rain drummed outside, it was hard to suppress a sense of sadness that this was the last night of my trip.
Driving south along the western coast the next morning, we passed some of the most magnificent scenery yet: dramatic mountains that dropped straight into the sea, long white beaches, and hundreds of miles of moorland. As we drove, Keith and I discussed the issue of foreigners’ buying Scottish estates. “What you have to remember is they can never truly own the land. They are just caretakers of Scotland,” he said. “It will always be ours — yours and mine and everyone’s who loves it.”
Later that day, when we stopped for a cup of afternoon tea, Keith read a passage from Scottish poet Norman MacCaig’s “A Man in Assynt.” “Who possesses this landscape? The man who bought it or I who am possessed by it? False questions, for this landscape is masterless and intractable....” Those words reverberating in my head, I boarded the sleeper train at Inverness. As it clunked south through the night, I dreamed of moors and mountains and never-ending skies, owned by no one and possessed by many.
Plan Your Own Dream Drive Through Scotland
Set aside 10 days to tour the Highlands’ scenic lochs and moors on this 400-mile road trip, which stops in at the region’s pioneering hotels and estates.
This driving route from Gleneagles to Inverness will take you 10 days and 11 nights. All times listed below are without stops.
The most leisurely way to get to Gleneagles is by train; the hotel has its own station, a few minutes’ drive away. The trip takes six hours from London and about 1¼ hours from Edinburgh. Alternatively, the property is an hour drive from Edinburgh airport.
On the return journey, I took the Caledonian Sleeper (sleeper.scot; from $65) from Inverness to London Euston. The service will be upgraded in the spring of 2019, with simple but comfortable berths, plus private toilets and sinks.
This 1924 institution was relaunched earlier this year after an extensive renovation. Take tea in the Glendevon lounge, have cocktails in the sultry American Bar, or test out the world-class golf course. gleneagles.com; doubles from $508.
Killiehuntly Farmhouse & Cottage
Distance from Gleneagles: 88 miles; 1¾ hours by car.
A 19th-century farmhouse in Cairngorms National Park that is now owned by Danish fashion mogul Anders Holch Povlsen. With just four bedrooms, it’s a snug and very private base for walking, fishing, and exploring the surrounding wilderness. killiehuntly.scot; doubles from $423; cottage rentals from $1,634 per week.
Alladale Wilderness Reserve
Distance from Killiehuntly: 92 miles; 2 to 3 hours.
Set in 36 square miles of reforested landscape, with good fishing and deer on the hills, the pioneering estate of furniture magnate Paul Lister has a baronial stone house, as well as several stone cottages for rent. alladale.com; doubles from $390, three-night minimum; cottage rentals from $1,660 per week.
Distance from Alladale: 65 miles; 2 hours.
Stay at this beautifully designed seven-bedroom lodge with a private chef and staff for fishing, hunting, walking, kayaking, and climbing trips up the nearby Ben Loyal mountain. kinloch.scot; exclusive lodge rental from $7,815, three-night minimum.
Distance to Inverness via a scenic coastal route: 155 miles; 4 hours.
My trip was organized by Wilderness Scotland, a specialist outfitter that arranges fully guided, customized itineraries in the Highlands and islands of Scotland. wildernessscotland.com; from $9,415 per person for 11 nights, all-inclusive.