To travel to the Scottish Highlands is to wonder anew at the time, effort and money the British expend running to the far corners of the earth to hunt for that specific peace conveyed by wide expanses of sky and land, when the very same feeling can be equalled, if not bettered, via an hour-and-a-half BA flight to Inverness. The Highlands are nature writ large, through landscapes as monumental and unpeopled as anything the likes of Peru or Patagonia have to offer. These lands supply Scotland’s romance – a preserve of imagination as much as of physical geography: all those pine forests and granite escarpments bearded in mist that are catnip to painters and photographers and poets, not to mention the stalking-shooting-fishing set. Even the stoniest of souls might find themselves induced to a rare epiphany while staring at the night skies here.
Still, part of the Highlands experience is the demands it places on visitors, and not just the doughty spirit required to face the elements. From castles to guesthouses and rental bothies, accommodation has typically been heavy on atmosphere but light on reliable plumbing, while interiors have often suffered a contagion of tartan. Enter a new generation of hotels, lodges and restaurants under the guidance of forward-thinking owners intent on offering, finally, a union of character and comfort.
Nowhere is this felt more acutely and gratifyingly than at Killiehuntly Farmhouse & Cottage. It turns out what the Scottish Highlands needed all along was a large dose of Scandinavia: opened last summer, the farmhouse on the edge of the Cairngorm mountains is owned by Anders Holch Povlsen and is the passion project of his wife-to-be Anne Storm Pedersen. A Danish clothing billionaire, Holch Povlsen has amassed 11 Scottish Highland estates, totalling a staggering 220,000 acres, under the aegis of Wildland Limited, his conservation and hospitality company. In doing so, he’s become the UK’s second-largest private landowner behind the Duke of Buccleuch. When I ask Thomas MacDonell, Wildland’s director of conservation and forestry, by how much is Povlsen short of the top title in Scotland, he says, “The Duke of Buccleuch has about 2,000 acres more.” A mere nudge then. Predictably, the newspapers have dubbed Povlsen “The New King of Scotland”.
“Anders came here as a child and fell in love with the Highlands,” says Storm Pedersen in the dining room at Killiehuntly. (“Denmark,” she later adds, “is very flat.”) Instead of merely buying an estate, the couple have embarked on a 200-year mission to rewild the landscape, by creating adjoining tranches of wilderness and culling deer to restore devastated Caledonian pine forests, thereby initiating the return of native species of flora and fauna. The aim? “To protect and preserve these pristine environments for the future,” says Storm Pedersen. (The late Doug Tompkins – a champion of landscape-scale conservation projects in Chile – was a friend.)
None of this comes cheap or without controversy. Last year Holch Povlsen invested a reported £2m in Glenfeshie, the neighbouring estate to Killiehuntly and the starting point for the company’s conservation strategy. The foreign ownership of this classic Scottish landscape (said to have inspired Edwin Landseer’s painting The Monarch of the Glen), coupled with the extremity of the culling programme, attracted the suspicion of newspapers – and the ire of nearby sporting estates, which complained that their deer stocks, migrating into Glenfeshie, were becoming collateral. “The shift in mindset from sport to conservation was difficult at first,” says the estate’s head gamekeeper Davie McGibbon. “Many people are scared of our motivations,” adds Storm Pedersen. “But this is not for us, or our family, or for only the next 20 years. This is for Scotland.”
Hospitality, then, is a way to sustain the estates, while sharing the extraordinary land and spreading the conservation message. Wildland is a game changer for Scotland’s travel industry, building a superlative portfolio of properties. As well as Killiehuntly, there’s Kinloch Lodge in the far north; plans for a guesthouse in Tongue; holiday cottages on Glenfeshie; a project led by Singita safari lodge designers Cécile & Boyd in the works; plus Aldourie Castle on Loch Ness.
Storm Pedersen, chicly minimalist in black, is an excellent advertisement for Highlands 2.0. Killiehuntly, the “Scandi-Scot” Georgian farmhouse she has created with interior designer Ruth Kramer, is an object lesson in Danish good taste, while also revealing aesthetic affinities between the two nations. In the hallway, Storm Pedersen has folded a collection of Faroe and Argyll knit sweaters – a Scandi-Scot cultural symbiosis if ever there was one – for guests to borrow on chilly days. In the drawing rooms, Hans Wegner armchairs, Scottish creepie stools and sheepskin-strewn Hay sofas in a restrained palette of navy, grey and wood tones offer a deep sense of hygge wellbeing. “We love things done in a proper way,” she says.
Doing things properly applies to both the restored cobbled courtyards and outhouses, and delicious suppers of “deconstructed” chicken soup and pasta con funghi (“made with our own eggs”), local ingredients made extraordinary by the skill of Killiehuntly’s chef Hans-Ole Freudenberg. Meals are taken en famille in the kitchen, where a hand-hewn Orkney bench complements Danish chairs, or at the oak dining table facing a library of design books. Bedrooms – four in the farmhouse and a further six spread between a self-contained cottage, converted stables and hayloft – are stylishly elemental, with hessian rugs, wicker chairs and panelled bathrooms with claw-foot tubs. Everything is at once tasteful and practical, down to the Mismo backpacks in each room, in which to carry your wax-paper-wrapped sandwiches for lunch on the hoof. “Scotland is a bit masculine,” says Storm Pedersen. “It’s shooting and whisky. But Killiehuntly is for anyone who wants to get into this incredible countryside.” There’s wild swimming, hiking, mountain biking and buggies on offer. The latter, in which I ford rivers and bump along forest paths, is fantastic fun. Keen to add to the farm’s roster of activities, Storm Pedersen recently road-tested a pop-up sauna with friends. For the cold-water dip, she leapt into the farm’s millpond.
Walking the next day under the bruise-coloured, creviced hills of Glenfeshie, MacDonell points out osprey nesting spots, golden eagle eyries, marten scat and a green glade where young pines, broom and blueberry bushes, spared from grazing deer, are now springing up. “But it’s not just about trees and deer,” asserts MacDonell. “We’re reconnecting ecosystems. The return of ground flora creates higher populations of field voles, which are then hunted by otters and birds of prey, and those populations swell in response.” Of the culling controversy, he says, “I fundamentally believe in what we’re doing here. Scotland is lucky to have Anders and Anne. The land is Scottish; they’re simply custodians guaranteeing its future.” There’s poignancy in MacDonell’s work: he’s unlikely to live long enough to see its true outcome. “But instead of a tombstone, I’ll have part of a forest.” Standing under the broad canopy of a 300-year-old Caledonian pine, he says, “It’s like stepping into a cathedral.”
The 18km track to Corrour Lodge is 40 minutes of bone-jangling potholes. But at least the views are good: rays of sunlight pour molten gold across the surface of picturesque Loch Ghuilbinn. Owned by Tetra Pak heiress (and fellow Scandinavian) Lisbet Rausing, the Corrour Estate takes remoteness to a new degree. (The drive here is no joke; I suffered not one but two flat tyres.) The estate – which includes five Munros, views of the peaks at Glencoe, and the UK’s highest (and surely loneliest) railway station, on wind-strafed Rannoch Moor – is a compelling example of the bleak beauty that is the Highlands’ distinction. Thank goodness, then, for the series of estate cottages and a lodge house, some of them the work of interior designer Suzy Hoodless, which marry style and surprise to create a thoroughly modish wilderness retreat.
The lodge itself, at the head of Loch Ossian, sets the tone. The original building was destroyed in a fire in 1942 and was reimagined in granite, glass and steel by architect Moshe Safdie in 2004; a distinct cylindrical tower is sliced with glass inserts. Hoodless has reconfigured The Chapel cottage Highlands style via yellowing pages from The Scotsman (used to paper the walls), tin bathtubs and Scandi-Scot touches aplenty. The newest properties to market are The School House, with its Hans Wegner chairs and wood-panelled walls, and The Dolls House, furnished with midcentury lamps and Josef Frank fabrics. Meanwhile, The Signal Box at Corrour Station, opened last summer, is an appealing B&B with incredible views and meals supplied by the beacon of hospitality that is the Corrour Station House restaurant. “Travellers on the sleeper from London to Fort William can make a request stop for Corrour and jump off the train in the middle of nowhere,” says estate manager Philip Dean. A singularly romantic proposition.
South of here, at the end of last summer, I have my first literal taste of the new Highlands. On an isolated shore of Loch Fyne, in a whitewashed croft, Inver restaurant opened to acclaim in 2015. It is the work of Rob Latimer and Pam Brunton, with Latimer running the front of house and Brunton as head chef. As alumni of Denmark’s Noma and Sweden’s Fäviken, they have given the restaurant a strong Nordic influence, expressed in an imaginative menu of local, foraged, seasonal ingredients. We dine on the tersely described “mackerel, carrot and nasturtium”, a brilliantly rendered dish of smoky fish, delicate edible petals and smears of delicious, rich carrot purée. The Scandi influence is equally apparent in the pale-wood dining room, with its spectacular views across the water to crumbling Castle Lachlan. To make the experience yet more compelling, the couple are building four standalone larch bothies to host guests this year. With The Oystercatcher offering exemplary seafood and Scottish beer at nearby Otter Ferry, Loch Fyne is fast becoming a food destination of note.
But elsewhere in the Highlands, Scotland’s reputation for the finer things is already assured. With more than 50 distilleries scattered along the bends of the River Spey – Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Macallan and Glenlivet among them – Speyside is to whisky as Burgundy is to wine. The pleasures here are slow; tradition is the thing. It’s highly unusual, then, to discover that a nightclub impresario – Piers Adam, owner of London hotspots Mahiki and Bodo’s Schloss – has bought a hotel here. Built in 1893, The Craigellachie sits in a steep valley of forested hills, at the convergence point of the rivers Spey and Fiddich and, it must be acknowledged, adjacent to an A road – but intrusion is minimal).
For Adam, the project is a sentimental one. Visiting Scotland for the first time with his father, a trip made shortly before the latter’s death, the pair stayed at The Craigellachie. The hotel was charming but tired; Adam spotted an opportunity to create a destination with “a younger, cooler approach to whisky”. There was also the matter of the hotel pub in the hotel’s basement. “I opened The Punchbowl in Mayfair with Guy Ritchie, and I love the democracy of pubs – everyone’s in there, laird to ghillie,” he says. Adam bought the 26-room hotel and began a £3m renovation.
It has been transformed into a smart but unstuffy country house. (A Roberts Radio chatters in the breakfast room.) “It’s not Gleneagles or Skibo Castle; it’s a down-to-earth hotel in a village with a real connection to our local community, from the staff to the menu.” Comfortable bedrooms are furnished with four-poster or sleigh beds and cashmere blankets from nearby Johnstons of Elgin. Subtle evidence of Adam’s metropolitan interests abounds: Hugo Guinness prints on the walls, fashion tomes on the coffee tables. And not least in the cosy, Soane-furnished Quaich bar, with its leopard-print silk chairs and more than 750 varieties of whisky, where the oak bar features an engraved silver trim by fashion jeweller Stephen Webster – and a female bartender, Lyndsey Gray, who fends off the inevitable question, “But do women actually drink whisky?” with a practised eye roll. Unsurprisingly, the hotel’s busy pub, the Copper Dog, has become a hotspot, with regular live music, a menu of upscale pub classics (langoustines and the like) and its own brand of eponymous whisky. (Noel Gallagher and Kate Moss turned up for drinks one night.) And Craigellachie is becoming an international brand: an outpost of the Quaich bar is soon to open at the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo.
Ambling beside the Spey one morning, the water reflecting a crystalline sky, I receive a sensory lesson in the area’s abundance: salmon break the river’s surface with a violent splash. The smell of butter floats from the Walkers Shortbread factory. The £100m building project for Macallan’s new distillery, carved into the hillside above the river, looks in full swing. Fishing and whisky are major draws here, but so too are hill walking, antique hunting and shopping for Scottish cheese at The Spey Larder, a gourmand’s paradise in Aberlour.
“The air has the sparkling and invigorating quality of champagne,” extols a quaint 1930s brochure for the hotel, detailing a dream of the Highlands: “To awake and look out on mountain and glen; to go forth to climb heathered mountains or wade in silvery waters; to return to a home-like hotel and delicious food.” The same pleasures hold true today. The hotels and the food, however, are quite a bit better.