A fusion of culture in the Scottish Highlands

When we were first invited to stay at Eagle Brae, we thought all of our Christmases had come at once. Not only was it in beautiful Scotland, it was in the Highlands just north of Inverness; an area that we had yet to explore despite desperately trying to get there for years. Plus, as far as travel goes, it ticks almost every box we have - sustainable, wildlife in abundance, adventure, comfort, good food and a wee dram or two.

Just getting there was an adventure in itself. We drove from Fife up the A9 and through The Cairngorms, stopping in Aviemore for lunch and feeling a bit like we’d landed in the Rocky Mountains but making sure to stop at The Cairngorms Brewery on the way.

Skirting around Inverness, we headed further north to Beauly and from there on windy, country roads flanked by glens, the River Beauly and the River Glass.

Eagle Brae itself is a steep climb uphill from the road and, as it’s open all year round, in the winter visitors are advised to leave their vehicles at the bottom of the path and are chauffeured to their cabins on the 8,000-acre Struy Estate, which has been in the Spencer-Nairn family since the 1930s.

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The Spencer-Nairn family

- Eagle Brae

In fact, it was the vision of Mike and Pawana Spencer-Nairn that made Eagle Brae a reality. Scottish estates notoriously haemorrhage money and to keep it profitable, they came up with a plan to combine Mike’s heritage with Pawana’s native Himalayas to create a truly unique self-catering experience in the Highlands.

The result is a simply stunning village of 10 Western Red Cedar dog-friendly log cabins made in British Columbia and shipped to Scotland with a team of Canadians who built them from the ground up, log by log. We were fortunate enough to see the build in action when we were there as Eagle Brae are due to open three new cabins, with saunas, this winter.

With the cabins in place came Pawana’s “favourite bit” - the furnishings. Each cabin at Eagle Brae has its own features, from deer prints carved into the wooden staircases, hand-carved wooden panels depicting Highland wildlife, Pictish beasts and Pagan gods to tartan woven especially for them on handlooms in the Himalayas.

The impact is quite frankly stunning and we were blown away when we walked into Parus, our cabin for three nights. Parus is the Latin name for the tit family (each cabin has a Latin name reflecting the local wildlife) and sleeps two people with a comfy double bed, open-plan kitchen diner and two (yes two) sitting rooms. One downstairs for cosy evenings in front of the log burner and one upstairs which also has a TV and DVD player with a selection of films to watch. The cabin also has its own office space where you can log into the Eagle Brae intranet system to order homemade meals, groceries, experiences and even a bottle of Mike’s favourite whisky, Scapa Skiren.

On our first night we drove down the road to the nearby Cnochotel in Struy, which has a simple but friendly restaurant serving seasonal and local food. Obviously, being in Scotland, we had to try the venison pie which was delicious… until our return to Eagle Brae when the first thing to greet us over the threshold was a stag which we were convinced knew our dirty secret. We drove slowly through the estate, keeping our eyes peeled for more deer as we had been told they might come down in the evening, only to find the majority of the herd on our very doorstep.

Deer are not the only Highland inhabitants resident on the estate, which is a paradise for birders and wildlife watchers. We were advised to keep an eye (and ear) out for signs of otter, Hen Harrier, Black Grouse, Woodcock, badgers, Tawny owl, Sedge Warbler, Reed Bunting, Stonechat and even Golden Eagles that often swoop over the estate - giving it its name. Sadly, despite our best efforts we didn’t see otter or eagles but we did visit the estate’s herd of Highland cattle and Hebridean sheep.

The estate is also home to the largest Goat Willow in the UK and the largest Wild Cherry tree in Scotland. Both are accessible on an interpreted walk along the banks of the River Glass.

With the light fading, we picked our way further up the estate, climbing to the top where the Eagle Brae’s micro hydro-turbine is located, to take in the views of Strathglass and the Caledonian pine forests of Glen Affric which were stunning even on a drizzly evening.

The micro hydro-turbine is just one of the initiatives Eagle Brae has in place to make it an carbon neutral holiday site. The micro-turbine provides electricity and hot water to the cabins while underfloor heating is created by biomass wood-pellet burners. Water is sourced from a natural bore hole on site and the team even have a scheme where you can plant a tree to off-set the implications your travel to and from the site might have had on the environment.

Each cabin has recycling and compost bins so that as little as possible goes to landfill and the use of wood-burners for extra heat makes each one fully sustainable.

After a restful night’s sleep, we were ready to explore the Highlands and on Mike’s recommendation, headed out to Plodda Falls before driving to Loch Ness to visit Urquhart Castle and finishing the day in the stunning Glen Strathfarrar, which borders the Eagle Brae Estate. It’s worth noting that if you’ve been an English Heritage member for a year or more, you can get free entry into many of Scotland’s historic sites. Full details of our Highlands adventures can be found in our feature on things to do near Inverness.

That evening we decided to try out the self-catering facilities in the cabin, having popped to Beauly to pick up some food and drinks for the evening. Beauly is about a 20-minute drive from Eagle Brae, so we’d recommend stocking up on essentials before you arrive or if you’re passing through. With the fire lit, we kept an eye out for deer again but sadly weren’t so lucky on the second night.

As it was a “working” holiday, we headed out to the Black Isle the following day to meet David Gladwin at Black Isle Brewery for a tour and to learn more about their organic ales. We were fortunate enough to visit on a day when they were canning for the first time and were given a couple of tins of 5-a-Day Passion Fruit IPA to try on our return to the cabin. Black Isle Brewery work closely with Eagle Brae who give visitors a bottle of their beer as part of their welcome pack on arrival, so it was great to see another aspect of the experience come to life.

From there we headed into Inverness to the Black Isle Bar and then out to Culloden to learn some more about the history of the area and the Jacobite risings. Leaving there feeling somewhat somber (and sober), we finished the day at the Glen Ord distillery, taking a tour of their museum and finishing with some tasters of their collection of Singleton whiskys.

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Mike’s fish pie

- The Rural Travel Guide

The night before, we had ordered our dinner from the Eagle Brae kitchen via their intranet system and arrived back at the cabin to find a fish pie made by Mike waiting for us. We threw in some green beans and enjoyed a hearty meal prepared by our hosts, along with a bottle from their wine cellar.

The intranet is also filled with additional experiences which can be booked in advance, such as deer stalking, dog sled rides, fishing and canoeing. They also work with with mobile beautician Lynn Urquhart Highland Beauty who comes to your cabin to provide a whole host of relaxing treatments.

On the morning of our check-out Megan opted for a massage and facial package which lasted about an hour and her skin felt incredible for weeks afterwards. Lynn even gave us a bottle of her own blend of essential oils to take home.

Relaxed, refreshed and stocked up with complimentary Orangina from the stores at reception, we reluctantly left Eagle Brae knowing that while we had packed in a lot into our short break, there was still so much more to do. We did, however, take a piece of it home with us in the form of a bottle of Scapa Skiren, which is unopened to this day as not too long after we got home, we found out we’re expecting a baby so are saving it to wet the baby’s head.

A short break in Parus starts from £683 and a 7-night holiday starts from £1,366. Short breaks are only available throughout the low season.

To book visit www.eaglebrae.co.uk

Megan is the owner of Rural Roots Media, specialising in rural tourism, where her passion for travel, heritage and a great visitor experience inspired her to start 'The Rural Travel Guide'.

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