The outer limits
Far from the maddening crowds
It’s said that we Scots betray a wanderlust that extends well beyond these islands, but are less enthusiastic about exploring our immediate surrounds. Planning a recent weekend away, I decide to spurn exotic climes in favour of somewhere closer to home.
Knoydart, the place my pin lands on in the map of Scotland, could hardly be described as a hop, skip and jump from the central belt. The rugged peninsula, which juts out from Lochaber on the northwest coast, lies sandwiched between two long, narrow lochs, Nevis and Hourn, whose names translate as ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’. Inaccessible by road, the estate has been owned and run by the Knoydart Foundation since the 100-strong community staged a land buyout in 1997. For budget flight-weary travellers this is surely the last bastion of the exotic.
I am destined for Doune on the western shore of the peninsula, within sight of Skye, Rum and Eigg and reached by boat from Mallaig. As Gripper II approaches the rocky beach, overshadowed by a steep green hillside, this lonely outpost looks perfect for my twin purposes: kicking back and relaxing.
But the summer season at Doune is also a rich source of options for those seeking an adventurous break.
Experienced hillwalkers find themselves within easy reach of Munros such as craggy Ladhar Bheinn as well as numerous winding tracks and pony paths. Knoydart is also the ideal base for sailing enthusiasts and divers, who can make use of the fast charter boat Mary Doune to explore nearby colourful reefs and eclectic sea life. As our host Martin Davies reels off these exhausting-sounding possibilities, I’m relieved to hear that many visitors opt to spend their break ensconced in the ‘remotest pub in mainland Britain’, in Knoydart’s main village of Inverie.
Accommodation takes the form of stone lodges, comfortably furnished and decked out in pine. As there is no television reception, a selection of books and board games is supplied. After unpacking, I go for a short stroll and take in the view across the glassy Sound of Sleat to Skye with the Cuillins rising dramatically in the background. Who needs television?
As the sun descends I make my way to the Doune Dining Room, which won the EatScotland Silver Award for 2007. The food is home-made by resident Liz Tibbetts from locally sourced ingredients, and includes crab from the bay, a hearty venison stew and pavlova topped with berries from the garden.
Dinner over, our hosts drift around the tables gauging the guests’ moods and settling itineraries for the following day. One of my dinner companions, a frequent visitor, is planning to walk from Barisdale Bay at the head of Loch Hourn to Inverie, so I agree to accompany him there and back, a three-hour round trip on Gripper II.
Setting off early the following morning, the sky is bright blue and cloudless, but as we enter the loch a silver wall of rain is visible in the near distance. Our progress north is punctuated by several sheeting showers, each burst leaving a vivid rainbow in its wake. Human life is restricted to a few isolated cottages perched on barren hilltops, but the black sea is occasionally broken by porpoises and seals while gannets, puffins, even a kestrel are visible in the sky. Dolphins, whales and basking sharks also frequent the waters around Knoydart.
As the boat takes me back to Mallaig, having dipped my toe in the waters around this impressive, diverse destination, I’m already planning my return and perhaps a more adventurous schedule. (Allan Radcliffe)
It’s raining when we pull up the long, forested driveway that hides Cringletie House from the main road, the sort of rain that makes you feel lumpen and frizzy even before you have to scrabble about in the back of the car for the three holdalls and a plastic bag that you’ve packed your weekend’s worth of clothing in. Suddenly, the luggage is taken and an umbrella held over our heads by a courteous, uniformed gentleman who seems utterly unruffled by our indecorous entrance.
We’re guided smoothly up a staircase with flowers wound round the bannisters, through cosy, intersecting public areas and corridors to our room. There’s a gilt fireplace, a view of the croquet lawn and decanters of whisky and sherry laid out on an Art Deco dressing table. It all fits together snugly, without any of the anodyne, featureless trappings of ‘luxury’ favoured by modern resorts. Cringletie is just ten minutes from Peebles, and a 40-minute drive from Edinburgh, but it’s also a good eight decades away from 2007; a wonderfully time-warped old country house that manages to make its guests feel as though they’re ‘weekending’ with some unseen, well-off branch of the landed gentry rather than paying customers at a hotel. For the next couple of days, I’m going to be Kristin Scott Thomas in Gosford Park, and nobody is going to stop me.
A range of activities is available to guests: fishing, golf, a drive to the spectacular Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall, or use of the spa facilities at nearby Stobo Castle (see panel). However, we repair to the pocket-sized library, which we have completely to ourselves, curl up on the well-stuffed sofas by the fire, get out the Scrabble and ring for the maid to bring us some class-A afternoon tea. Doing absolutely nothing has never been quite so enjoyable.
For all its retro glamour, Cringletie is still a luxury hotel: the rooms are fitted out with fluffy bathrobes, beds that favour art installations over headboards and the sort of shower that simultaneously washes and pummels you back into shape for your next big fight. However, it’s the idiosyncratic touches that give the place its charm: the row of bright, patterned wellies lining the grand entrance porch, the china nymph gleefully flashing her knickers in the hall, the bikes hanging vertically off the front wall of the house and the huge, sardonic-looking porcelain cat guarding the sitting room.
The rain clears up long enough for us to take a turn around the grounds and walled garden, like Jane Austen characters in borrowed Technicolour wellies. Over on the lawn, a similarly attired couple are playing croquet, to the silent applause of two ponies and a Highland cow.
Guests dress for dinner before congregating in the lounge for cocktails and canapés. I was hoping for the odd tuxedo or evening gown, but the other guests are, on the whole, rather less formal than this; fortunately, no murdered aristocrats turn up in the library before dinner, either. We’re booked in for the Menu Degustation; seven tiny courses of exquisitely prepared French cooking, accompanied by the in-house sommelier’s choice of wine for each. The menu may be French, and influenced by Heston Blumenthal’s molecular gastronomy, but the ingredients are distinctly local – Scottish scallops and lamb, and all of the vegetables, including the globe artichokes in our veloute, grown in the kitchen garden visible from the gable window beside us.
Eating is a very serious, leisurely and luxurious business here, best conducted in a glittering, Regency dining room under a painted trompe l’oeil ceiling with cherubim peering down on you. The next morning we’re still glowing with the lordly pleasures of good food and service; the only problem is that, after living like a lady of the manor, real life will always seem flat by comparison. (KIrstin Innes)
Cringletie House is off Edinburgh Road near Peebles. Prices start at £165 for bed & breakfast. See www.cringletie.com or call 01721 725750 for full details.
Shelley O’Neill suggests some other ways to recharge your batteries
The Findhorn Foundation is an all-natural holistic retreat on the coast of the Moray Firth in northern Scotland. You can take courses in meditation, sacred dance and inner listening, alongside like-minded people who want to live creatively and consciously. www.findhorn.org
If that’s a bit too much interaction for you, Holy Island, just off the coast of Arran in the Western Isles, has been a spiritual retreat since before the sixth century, when the Celts used the energy of the island’s ancient healing spring to focus their meditation. There’s a closed Buddhist monastry on one side of the island, but the Centre for World Peace and Health offers opportunities for inter-faith retreats in a secular environment. www.holyisland.org
Not prepared to abandon all material trappings quite yet? At the other end of the spectrum, Stobo Castle, a luxury spa just a few miles south of Edinburgh, offers over 40 relaxing, detoxifying and pampering treatments. As you’d expect from a place most famous for hosting Madonna’s wedding, your stay won’t come cheap, but as ultimate indulgences go, this is the best. www.stobocastle.co.uk
Still got energy to spare? Burn it all off with a Wilderness Scotland activity holiday. Specialising in adventure weekends across the Highlands and Islands, they’ve got something to satisfy even the most insatiable adrenaline junkie. Walking, abseiling and even photography holidays are all available at www.wildernessscotland.com