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Our eyes lock across the lawn of a sprawling country estate. There’s electricity in the air as a shaft of golden light parts the storm clouds. I hold his hungry gaze, trying to summon a fearlessness I do not feel. In a moment, he will be upon me, taking what he wants, and I’ll be helpless to deny him. He stares at me intently, almost savagely, as though I were nothing more than a piece of meat.
Or maybe that’s just the morsel of chicken on my upraised leather glove. Yep, definitely the chicken, Sage confirms, as he swoops down and snatches it with his beak, perching on my gauntlet to allow me to admire him up close.
For an owl of his size, Sage is surprisingly light—and quite handsome, I think, gazing into his wise amber eyes. Then suddenly, with a flap of his mighty wings, Sage soars away, ditching me like a dead mouse.
He’s allergic to mice, you see. According to his handler, Emily Autumns of Elite Falconry, “they give him a dodgy belly.” Hence the chicken treats, because being strafed by an incontinent owl is nobody’s idea of a good time.
Fortunately, there are zero intestinal mishaps, and having an opportunity to “fly” an owl—and a hawk and a tawny eagle—at Scotland’s Isle of Eriska resort proves to be a highlight of the four-day, coast-to-coast program created for my companions and me by Luxury Scotland Tours.
Read More: Don’t Miss These 5 Top Destinations in Scotland
Sage the Owl. Photo by Amy Laughinghouse
Experience Scotland with Bespoke Package Tours
Ruaridh Norton and Struan Baird, who co-founded the company in 2019, pride themselves on swiftly and efficiently composing indulgent itineraries, sometimes in as little as 24 hours. They offer a dozen packages on their website. However, most clients prefer to customize their tour to experience Scotland to its fullest.
“People come to us as the travel experts,” explains the soft-spoken Norton. “We say, what are your hobbies? How many days? How many people? They trust us to shape something, so typically, there is a bit of back and forth, maybe two or three drafts, because it is bespoke.”
Baird nods. “In general, people want a blend of sightseeing, golf, and whisky,” he says. “That’s what we package together, along with luxury hotels.”
Baird had me at “whisky” and “luxury.” Our tour features plenty of both, interwoven with an overview of city sights and country delights. We ricochet between the cultural attractions of Edinburgh, where the Royal Mile stretches between Holyrood Palace and an imposing hilltop castle, and Glasgow, famed for its music scene, street murals, and museums. Traveling further north and west, I’m wooed by the wild, windswept beauty of the Highlands, capped by the cinematic, snow-dusted peaks of Glen Coe.
Dessert at Crossbasket Hotel. Photo by Amy Laughinghouse
Local Scottish Flavors
The tour offers a true taste of Scotland, in the literal sense, as well. We sample exotically flavored chocolates—lemongrass and lime or raspberry and black pepper, anyone? The award-winning Iain Burnett Highland Chocolatier is near the quaint tourist town of Pitlochry. I welcome the warm burn of Scotch on an Oban whisky distillery tour.
Every night, we stay at a different ICMI Luxury Collection hotel, all of which feature top-notch repasts. At the Isle of Eriska, I’m wowed by Eggs Balmoral for breakfast (poached eggs with haggis atop a toasted muffin; delicious)—and the decanter of complimentary whisky provided in my room. Impressively, Inverlochy Castle, Crossbasket Castle, and Greywalls all feature fine dining restaurants from renowned chef Michel Roux Jr. My most surprising meal is at Glasgow’s Ox and Finch, a casual brasserie serving Scotland-meets-the-Mediterranean small plates that are simply superb. (Try the slow-cooked lamb shoulder with polenta and salsa rossa. You’ll thank me).
Castle Stalker. Photo by Amy Laughinghouse
Experience Scotland with Entertaining Guides
Each day features a new destination and miles of asphalt unspooling before our tricked-out van, commandeered by Neil Milne, who is so much more than our driver. He’s a retired chief inspector of police, a one-time bodyguard to Princess Anne (daughter of the late Queen Elizabeth II), and a cheerful, charming raconteur who makes a meal of every burred “r,” savoring it like gravy on a steak.
Milne recounts amusing encounters with the royal family, like the time his sister accidentally head-butted Princess Diana or the day his wife saw Princes William and Harry running around a swimming pool changing room, “shaking their naked bottoms.” (To be fair, they were children at the time).
Milne knows every worthwhile detour and scenic overlook along our route, including a hilltop view of Castle Stalker, immortalized in Monty Python and The Holy Grail, and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Scottish trivia, like the fact that Dull, Scotland is twinned with Boring, Oregon. “One of the only interesting things about Dull,” he says, “is that a bagpiper is said to have moved from there to the US and died defending the Alamo.” By our second day, I’ve dubbed him “the Scottish Siri.”
Read More: The Unspoiled Kingdom of the Cats
4×4 Stuart Bradley. Photo by Amy Laughinghouse
While Milne is utterly at home behind the wheel, I can’t say the same of myself. But inclement weather has necessitated a last-minute change to our itinerary. So here I am climbing into a Land Rover Defender with Stuart Bradley, a wise-cracking, kilt-wearing driving instructor for 4×4 Adventures Scotland. For two hours, we’ll be bumping and (gear) grinding along an unpaved track on a 45,000-acre estate overlooking Loch Lomond.
The manual transmission is operated by the left hand, the steering wheel is on the right. Well, the wrong side, from a North American perspective—and I’ve hardly driven in 17 years. What could possibly go amiss?
But Bradley is undeterred. “If in doubt, put your foot on the brake. If anything goes wrong, we just squish into the moss,” he says, gesturing towards the springy green carpet creeping over the forest floor. “We’ll mostly stay in second gear, because first is too slow, and third is too…terrifying,” he adds dryly.
The advantage of moving with all the speed and agility of an asthmatic tortoise is that we have time to admire the scenery. Evergreen, birch, elm, oak, sycamore, and beech crowd the hillsides, looking as pristine and untouched as they must have for centuries. “If you step out into the forest and leave the road by 20 feet, you’ll probably be the first person to stand in that exact spot for hundreds and hundreds of years,” Bradley reckons.
We keep our eyes peeled for deer—or, indeed, hairy-toed Hobbits, which wouldn’t look out of place in this fairytale forest. But Scotland doesn’t need fantasy fiction to weave a spell. The country, and the good-humored people who call it home, hold a magic of their own.
Isle of Eriska lilypads. Courtesy Isle of Eriska Hotel
Best Places to Stay to Experience Scotland
- Isle of Eriska occupies a private 300-acre island near Oban, on Scotland’s west coast. The handsome crenelated mansion encompasses 16 bedrooms, and a variety of cottages and suites are dotted about the extensive grounds.
- 19th-century Inverlochy Castle, a grande dame with 17 bedrooms and a Gate Lodge. Located in Fort William, it is nestled between a private loch, sheep-filled fields, and Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain.
- Crossbasket Castle, which presides over the River Calder near Glasgow. It has nine bedrooms in the main house and two separate lodges. There is a major expansion—including more accommodations and an Art Deco-style dinner-and-dancing venue–is expected to debut in 2024.
- The most homelike hotel of all is the 23-bedroom Greywalls. This Edwardian mansion near Edinburgh is filled with the owner’s family antiques, as well as golf memorabilia. This is a nod to Muirfield coastal golf course, which lies just outside Greywalls’ back door, on Scotland’s Firth of Forth.
If You Go:
Author’s Bio: Amy Laughinghouse is passionate about people and places that are quirky or off-beat and has enjoyed a varied career around the world. She has interviewed an inventor who built a submarine to search for the Loch Ness Monster, worked as a TV news producer in the Caribbean, published a book on American log cabins, and swum with sharks in Tahiti, but her most terrifying challenge ever was taking ballroom dance lessons in London. You can find out more about her adventures at AMYLAUGHINGHOUSE.COM and via X-Twitter and Instagram.
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