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Issue 22 - Wild in the country

Scotland Magazine Issue 22
August 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Wild in the country

Gary McLean looks at the best hunting and country sports hotels

Man at one with elements, man in the hills, right in the very heather, breathlessly quiet; or waist deep in the swift river, aware of every eddy and each pebble underfoot. Man the hunter.

The hairs on many a neck will rise at the thought of it all, the primordial stuff still in the genes.

Country sports aficionados have a passionate and sometimes moody relationship with the curves of Scotland’s hills and rivers, the rough wooing of early starts and unpredictable weather, fishless days and red grouse cycles... and sometimes just with the cost of it all.

But when it goes right – it is, they say, simply fantastic, winning memories of anticipation, unforgettable sunrises, peace and patience, successful catches after challenging effort, camaraderie and tale-filled cheering nights fuelled by the best whisky in the world – often in the most apt of places.

It’s important you head off in the right direction because, with a smidgin of planning, your chances are indeed sporting.

So, let’s get hunting.

Tomdoun Lodge.
Shabby chic is the style of this true sporting lodge hotel, a place where a guest might be winding flies at his own vice in the bar while others dine on superb seafood and sip deep wines as folks get to know each other.

Where glass cases display impressive specimens of salmo salar and the intriguing ferox trutta which dine on arctic char living in shoals in the depths of the local loch, while a newspaper clip pinned to the pitch pine panelling tells of a record fish caught, the biggest ever of its type – and the most encouraging thing? It’s an unfaded, recent story.

‘Let thy net be always cast’ said Ovid, breezily, although at Tomdoun – owned by terrific host Mike and his very fair wife Sheila – a well-cast line would meet with more success.

Enthusiastic modern-day ghillie Peter Thomas looks after guests’ fishing in nearby lochs Quioch, Garry and Inchlaggan and on the Upper Garry River and he has a fine 100hp boat to help out.

“The waters are big here, and you need to know where to fish. It’s wild,” he says. “The fish need finding – and that’s my job. I love to make it a day out, often for a couple. Women can learn faster than men and we all know the stories of how the ladies catch the biggest fish.” And that’s not sexist: it’s the pheromones.

Bedrooms are comfortable if not exactly luxurious as the main attractions of Tomdoun – walking, fishing and stalking apart – are downstairs: the chandeliered seafood restaurant where Rob Kent produced for us lately a mouthwateringly good risotto with bite and then a halibut dish fit for a chieftain; the brilliantly atmospheric bar with glowing fire; and the colourful lounge with its art, overstuffed sofas, books and curious. The lodge is quite the real, 1895 Victorian character.

Dryburgh Abbey Hotel.
The Tweed is altogether more mellifluous and the romantic setting of Dryburgh Abbey Hotel seriously serene.

“Aren’t we so lucky to stay here?” asks popular manager Kevin Keenan, rhetorically. To one side of the hotel, fringed by tall pines and old oaks, are the beautiful, ghostly 12th century Premonstratensian abbey ruins where literary hero Sir Walter Scott lies buried near war hero Earl Haig.

“The Tweed is one of Scotland’s largest river systems, flowing from the Lanark hills all the way to the sea at Berwick, Northumberland,” Kevin tells us.

“It’s one of the most popular large Scottish salmon rivers, and has many advantages over others. It catches more salmon on the fly than any other river in Britain. It’s known for a prolific autumn run, and also for the largest average size of its fish.” The handsome, award-winningly dog-friendly red sandstone hotel, boasting a falconry centre, swimming pool and a fine restaurant, owns the trout rights for the beat in front of the hotel.

Salmon fishing can also be arranged through a local agent with access to a dozen other beats on the Tweed. The season runs from 1st February to 30th November, and to the front of the hotel you’ll see fishers’ cars from a’ the airts.

Kinloch House.
A member of prestigious group Relais & Chateaux, Kinloch is owned by the Allen family with sportsman chef Graeme at the helm.

“With first hand experience of the people who are eager to share their sport with you, we’re very pleased to arrange shooting and fishing breaks to suit you,and work with all... from complete beginner to the expert.” He says, with the healthy glow of one who has spent good times en plein air.

The Perthshire hotel, with its private swimming pool and sauna for after the day’s exertions, or for a partner’s placation, has a sportsman’s room for guests’ guns. It has a walk-in gun safe, a heated area for clothing or boots, and dog units.

Kinloch is elegant and courteous, with beautiful bedrooms in the old house leading off from a gallery above the panelled hall with its deliciously fragrant open fire, objet d’art and objects surprising such as a stuffed bear, no less. Lounges are perfectly elegant and composed.

In bonnie Galloway we strongly recommend Craigadam where there is to be found a rare opportunity to stay on a working farm in a country house of enlightened character and no little wit.

Not far from the artists’ town of Kirkcudbright it has sporting access to 25,000 acres of shooting and stalking over farm, moor and woodlands.

Richard and Celia Pickup have together developed a remarkably successful sporting holiday business. Dining here is a genuine experience; they also have organic local meats for sale.

East Haugh Country House Hotel.
Reigning Scottish Country Sports Hotel of the Year 2005 is East Haugh near Pitlochry which won, I think, because of the keen way the hotel has worked over 11 years with outstanding estates surrounding, all to the benefit of sporting guests.

Lesley and Neil McGown and their two sparkling daughters have shaped a joyful little place with quaint rooms decorated with a true country ‘eye’.

Book the East Haugh bedroom and enjoy resting in a four-poster bed while a log fire crackles away! Splendid fishing-themed bar, too.

Other suggestions.
Ballathie House is a Perthshire destination resting on the very banks of the powerful River Tay and boasting of a fine new sportsman’s lodge which offers less expensive accommodation.

Minmore House in Glenlivet crown estate has been recognised for its food (afternoon teas to die for) and hospitality and Victor and Lynne Janssen’s country house has rich appeal for country sports enthusiasts.

In the Borders the lively Buccleuch Arms is a lower cost country inn option and dapper owner Billy Hamilton, seldom without his trusty black lab by his side, can set up all kinds of sport locally.

Cavens Country House is an exemplar of its type in southern Scotland, this time on the scenic coast of Dumfriesshire near Sweetheart Abbey: enjoy “good-eating country house food” and top shooting, perhaps an organised day of driven pheasant for six guns, an informal walked-up rough day with the keeper – or practice with clay pigeons.

Innovative Dunalastair Hotel, much ‘on-theup’ with Peter Sim as manager, arranges all manner of country adventures around Loch Rannoch.

Finally in this all-too-brief list is the Seafield Hotel in Cullen, Banffshire which is well set for country sports in these pristine parts: driven or walked-up days, deer stalking, geese flighting or clays – even some sea fishing.

But wherever you go, be happy that country sports are, with few exceptions nowadays, true protectors of the environment so, ‘tight lines’ (or whatever your bag is) and sleep tight, too!

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