Natural highs in the Highlands — Scotland's new wellness experience - The Times

3 months ago 33

There are some words and phrases you need to learn before a trip to the frosty Scottish Highlands in autumn: “dreich” (rainy, miserable) and “drookit” (extremely wet) are the obvious ones, and then there’s “chanking” (very cold) and “blowing a hoolie” (very windy).

Last week, I got to use another one: “pure Baltic” (so cold you feel like you’re in an entirely different latitude). It was the result of jumping into Aberdeenshire’s pewter River Dee for a swim when the water was a bum-clenching 5C. In an instant it made everything shrivel and my bones squeak. Then, after a sudden exhale, I was momentarily paralysed. Good job there was a Highlander’s first aid kit — a warming flask of lemony whisky — to revive me on the riverbank.

I’d come to try out a new wellness experience in the Cairngorms, which promised foraging, meditative hiking, breathwork, cold-water therapy and (mostly) healthy food and drink over the course of three days. I wanted to see whether I could warm to wellness in the wild to help declutter my scrambled city brain – and with hot toddies as well as plenty of other perks to ease in gently, it seemed hard not to buy in.

The Fife Arms

The Fife Arms


“Switch off. Be present. Forget the tether to email,” our wilderness guide, Annie Armstrong, had instructed before the swim. “Knowing the world around us better helps us to navigate our everyday lives — that’s the point of all of this.” I hoped that it would work.

My journey of self-discovery all began the day before with a reflective afternoon’s landscape-drawing on a rocky spur above the woods and landed estates of Braemar. At this time of year in the Highlands, magic washes into the glens and everyone becomes obsessed with their colour — and no wonder. Leaves popped orange and rust-red, heralding autumn’s arrival. Black and gold birch trees sparkled, and at our feet lay blue-berried juniper bushes and the kinds of toadstools that could have inspired the fairytales. Sniffing in the cold air, Annie introduced our group of four to scabious, a cotton ball-topped wildflower the colour of Buckfast, and hallucinogenic bog myrtle, a lamb’s lettuce-like shrub. “The oil [from the plants] is ideal for scaring off midges,” she added. Not that we needed it at this frigid time of year, but the point was it encouraged us to slow down, to absorb every detail, and relax in the process.

Fittingly, considering the art session, I was staying in a Nature and Poetry room at the Fife Arms, a luxury hotel in Braemar with an Outlander-on-opioids aesthetic thanks to its proprietors, the international art dealers Iwan and Manuela Wirth.

The hotel is filled with artfully cluttered Victoriana, and every room gives less-than-subtle hints as to the Wirths’ expertise: the lobby is centred around a steely-jawed Lucian Freud portrait and Robert Burns-motif chimney piece; the lounge has a Pablo Picasso; the Clunie Dining Room is bookended by a colossal oil-on-canvas by Pieter Brueghel the Younger and a taxidermy stag. Over breakfast here, I was told by staff that Judi Dench, a regular, orders the dippy eggs. But I got my teeth into the broccoli and onion fritters with sriracha yoghurt. It was invigorating — and even better after cream porridge with a nip of Royal Lochnagar whisky. To aid digestion, of course.

The River Dee on the Mar Lodge Estate near Braemar

The River Dee on the Mar Lodge Estate near Braemar


The sun was filtering through the pines later that morning when, before our big River Dee moment, Annie led us on a looping nature walk around Ballochbuie Forest on the nearby Balmoral Estate. Rumour had it that the new Prince of Wales was somewhere shooting stags, but we were headed instead to where the late Queen frequently escaped the world around her for a picnic — the Honka Hut, a log cabin that was a gift from the people of Finland.

Then, we picked a path to the spirit-soaring Falls of Garbh Allt and its ornate iron bridge, constructed for Queen Victoria in 1878, three decades after the royals became Deeside residents. I don’t know my royal history, but she might well have gone wild swimming here too — Annie said she plans to take groups here in summer. The air smelled of pine resin and I was conscious of life in motion all around us — bellowing stags and ghostly ospreys moved just beyond our vision. Perhaps my brain was adjusting.

On the last day, beneath storm clouds shielding an invisible sun, we entered the trees for the last time, joining “human rewilder” Lisa Krause for a breathing session in a bell tent laden with sheepskins. Have you ever tried to tune yourself into the mindset of a forest? We stayed motionless and horizontal, making our breath louder than our thoughts, filling the unused spaces of our lungs with gulps of pine-scented air. It was an attempt to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system to relax our body, slow our heart rate and lower our blood pressure — or so Lisa explained. And yet it was dizzying and finger tingly, meditative then energising. My mood mellowed.

If there’s one lesson I learnt, it was to dive right in. Because something about bobbing in freezing water, breathing the “right” way and taking in the wild light show of the autumn sky made sense at the end of it all. It was as if my mind had stretched a little and it was the start of something new. Frankly, it was hard to know if this feeling was because of the magic of the water, the invigorating chill in the air, or the whisky in my blood. Maybe it was all of it, but suddenly the emails and work deadlines didn’t matter any more and I felt the sudden urge to embark on a new career. Landscape painter, maybe? Or how about wild swimming consultant?

Mike MacEacheran was a guest of the Fife Arms, which has B&B doubles from £434; three-day Highland Wild Wellness experience for five from £1,200 extra (

Schloss Roxburghe

Three more autumnal Scottish stays

1. Spa time in Kelso
Schloss Roxburghe is the latest, greatest place to stay in the Scottish Borders and, with a new spa opening this November, things are heating up. You’ll end up bragging about the steaming outdoor infinity pool and sauna, then the meditative Mortimer and Whitehouse effect of fly-fishing the River Tweed.
Details Room-only doubles from £208 (

Monachyle Mhor

2. Wining and dining in the Trossachs
Eco-minded hotel Monachyle Mhor is where the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is at its least developed. Hidden at the end of Balquhidder Glen, the hotel spreads over an old farmhouse and is a wonder of bric-a-brac design and farm-to-fork flair. Don’t miss a swim in frigid Loch Voil or, on occasion, foraging with the hotel’s gregarious owner Tom Lewis.
Details B&B doubles from £260 (

The Old Mill Inn, Pitlochry

The Old Mill Inn, Pitlochry


3. Leaf peeping and Peter Pan in Pitlochry
Near enchanted Faskally forest, the Old Mill Inn is a family-friendly pub with rooms right in the heart of Perthshire leaf-peeping territory. It occupies a former 18th-century grist mill and it’s catnip for those who love roaring fires, pies, pints and puds. For extra fairytale feels, Pitlochry Festival Theatre is bringing a JM Barrie adaptation, Peter Pan and Wendy, to the stage from 18 November to 23 December.
Details B&B doubles from £159 (

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