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Issue 91 - Rural Pursuits

Scotland Magazine Issue 91
February 2017

 

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Rural Pursuits

Christopher Coates visits a Perthshire haven for country sports enthusiasts

We might be inclined to snicker somewhat when first calling to mind those many Victorian ladies and gentlemen who, inspired by the romantic stories of Highland life in an age gone by, decided to play at being country lairds. After all, in the process of buying up a Scottish estate and building a country pile many of them also managed to quite successfully empty their coffers too. Certainly it was the case with the man who arguably caused all the commotion in the first place, the novelist Sir Walter Scott, whose lavish home at Abbotsford got him into a bit of financial hot water — to put it lightly.

Nevertheless, whenever I pull up outside an elegant country house or cosy shooting lodge I can’t help but feel very thankful that they went to all the trouble. For the legacy of their pursuit of a mythical Scotland that never was is a nation that’s now replete with vast and beautiful estates, intricately designed semi-natural landscapes, and a whole host of grand country homes — a great many of which have now found a new lease of life as hotels. As I watch a group of gentlemen, dogs at their heels, heading out for a day of shooting or a posse of anglers, laden with rods and uncountable bags of gear, heading down
to the River Tay on the first day of the salmon season, I find myself wondering if perhaps those Victorian dreamers did find their Arcadia after all, up here in the Scottish Highlands.

It’s not too hard to see the appeal. Time seems to go at a different pace in the Highlands and a morning spent fishing, an afternoon shooting and an evening in restful contemplation before a log fire — with a Scotch whisky in hand — is a lifestyle proposition that is no less enticing now than it was more than a century ago. Indeed, what’s certainly clear is that there are plenty of people today who share in the Victorian passion for country pursuits. Whether it’s for fishing, deer stalking, bird or clay pigeon shooting, more than ever before visitors are choosing to come to Scotland to find out why the nation is world renowned for its sporting opportunities. Keen to find out more, I decided to seek out an expert on the subject.

Lesley McGown, co-owner of East Haugh House Hotel and Restaurant, near Pitlochry, Perthshire, has been helping country sports enthusiasts get the most out of their time in the Scottish Highlands for more than 28 years. Her passion for rural pursuits, combined with a lifetime of hospitality expertise, has led to her becoming one of the region’s most respected advocates of fishing, shooting and stalking tourism. So much so that, not long after setting up the hotel back in 1989, she assisted VisitScotland in establishing the ‘Anglers Welcome’ scheme — a set of best practice guidelines for hospitality businesses wishing to improve their ability to cater for fishing tourism. But how have things developed since then?

“Over the past two decades the nature of fishing tourism has changed somewhat. Where once we were very involved with booking fishing trips for guests, much of that is now done online by the guests themselves,” begins Lesley. “But what will always remain the same is the need to cater for the specific requirements of keen anglers. Options for early or packed breakfasts, reliable transport links with the local beats, a suitable place to clean and safely store equipment, and an area for changing out of and drying wet clothes are all essential.”

But how about fishing novices, like myself, who wouldn’t know the first thing about picking up a rod? “For beginners, we can engage the services of a professional AAPGAI accredited instructor, who takes guests down to the river for a full day of fishing — no matter their level of experience. This is becoming increasingly popular as many guests see fishing as an essential part of the Scottish Highlands experience,” she explains. I can certainly understand why so many are tempted by the opportunity; East Haugh is on the doorstep of the River Tummel, part of the famous River Tay system that is hallowed territory for those with a passion for salmon fishing.

“What isn’t internet-based, and probably never will be, is the organisation of shooting and the stalking,” Lesley adds with a confident nod. “When booking a shoot, guests want as much information as possible. They want personal service from someone who understands their sport and their needs.” Whether guests have a specialist requirement such as an international gun permit, ammunition, or an expert taxidermist — Lesley knows just how to make it happen seamlessly.

As Lesley fills me in on the more intricate details involved in organising a shoot, I am left in awe of her encyclopedic knowledge of and passion for the subject. Before I know it I’ve had a master class on the fishing, shooting and stalking seasons, which birds and deer are available when, and the different types of shoot available. “Importantly, we’re also in a position to offer day shoots of just one or two stags, which are perfect for individual travellers, pairs or small groups of friends,” she concludes. This option is apparently very popular as it avoids the expensive rental of an estate lodge, intended for large shooting parties, and the often concrete requirement to shoot a greater numbers of birds and deer over the course of multiple days. This flexibility makes East Haugh an ideal destination for those looking to try their hand at shooting for the first time but also for experienced hunters seeking a short and relaxing weekend break.

Lesley continues: “Country sports aside, our focus from day one has been on the food and the atmosphere of the place.” To say this focus has paid off would be an understatement. You see, Lesley’s husband Neil is the Head Chef and together the pair have a real culinary pedigree, having run an award-winning restaurant together in Sussex prior to establishing East Haugh. Each night, the hotel’s restaurant (which is very popular with locals and makes a perfect stop-off point for lunch or dinner while travelling north up the A9) offers a showcase of the Perthshire larder, including a rotating selection of fine local game. I have been lucky enough to drop by on a night when wild Hare is being served, which boasts such outstanding, bold flavours and tenderness that I find myself gushing with enthusiasm to the bemused, but unsurprised, waiter.

As my time at East Haugh goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent that, irrespective of being a destination hotel for travellers with country sports in mind, its principal draw is, in fact, the incredible quality of the food on offer and the cosy, romantic atmosphere. Decked out tastefully with vintage photographs and fishing-themed memorabilia, the bar and lounge areas offer the perfect place for that aforementioned whisky and fireside contemplation — even if the activities of the day have been nothing more taxing than a woodland stroll.

Before retiring to sit beside the crackling log fire that I know has just been lit in my room for the night, I spot a trio of gentlemen (who are clearly preparing for a shoot the following day) enjoying a nightcap by the fire. Next to them, a young couple plan the next day’s hike, while another small group reluctantly pull themselves out of their chairs to make the short journey back to their homes in Pitlochry. As I watch them all, I can’t help but be reminded of the Victorian dream of a life of leisure in the Highlands, which, it seems, turns out to be reality after all.

Visitor Information
East Haugh House Hotel and Restaurant
Pitlochry, Perthshire, PH16 5TE
+44 (0) 1796 473 121
www.easthaugh.co.uk