The perfect trip: The Scottish Highlands
‘Photostalking’ is popular among visitors. ‘The principles of stalking and photostalking are the same: stay low, and downwind. A deer can smell you a mile off.’
In khaki coveralls, we set off into Knoydart’s rough terrain; Tommy has had word of a hind (female deer) with twins roaming the hills. He pauses to look for clues: small cloven hoofprints, fresh droppings, nibbled foliage. We make the last part of our approach on hands and knees and are rewarded for this caution by a sighting of the trio: unaware of our presence, they graze as we watch in rapt silence.
Knoydart provides ample scope for solitude, but when people want company they head to The Old Forge. This is where Knoydart’s growing number of babies are bounced from knee to knee, and gossip is passed on over pints of Corncrake ale, brewed on the nearby Isle of Skye, and bowls of fish pie. Stay late and a ceilidh band usually starts up, filling mainland Britain’s most remote pub with the sound of accordions, fiddles and bagpipes.
Where to eat
At Inverie’s Knoydart Tea Rooms & Pottery, browse a collection of pottery, books and craftworks before tucking into haggis and cheese, and slices of cake (lunch mains £3.20; closed Sun; 01687 460191).
Where to stay
Set among shady woodland in an alpine-style timber cabin, bedrooms in Knoydart Lodge have en suite wetrooms and French windows opening on to a sunny patio. For breakfast, try egg baked in a cheese soufflé in the communal dining room before spending the day exploring the nearby community garden and pretty Long Beach (rooms from £90).
Appin: Best for castles
Surrounded by rolling Argyll countryside and situated on a tidal islet in Loch Laich, Stalker is one of Scotland’s most photographed castles. Yet it is also known by another name – the Castle Aaargh of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
When King Arthur chances upon the 16th-century tower house in the film’s final scenes, he is met with a bombardment that includes a dead sheep. ‘The production team apparently intended to use a fake,’ Ross Allward, Castle Stalker’s owner, tells me with a laugh. ‘But on the drive up from London they found a dead sheep by the road – apparently the actors weren’t too happy about being hit with a corpse!’ These days, retired lawyer Ross offers guests a much warmer welcome: though used as his family’s holiday home, Stalker is open for a limited number of tours each year.
Ross’s father bought the castle in 1965. ‘It was a ruin, with no roof. The family spent 10 years restoring it on a shoestring budget.’ Castle Stalker isn’t like a National Trust property: you arrive on the small family vessel kept in a boathouse at nearby Appin, and once inside the castle’s thick walls there are no information boards or roped-off areas. The sandstone floor, huge open fire and oak table in the Great Hall suggest medieval Scotland; the stereo and books in the corner, less so. ‘It’s not a museum,’ says Ross. ‘It’s lived in as a family home’.
Castle Stalker was probably built as a hunting lodge, and has received illustrious guests including King James IV of Scotland. ‘It’s unusually well-appointed in the toilet department,’ says Ross, ‘and above the entrance is a weathered stone plaque with a – possibly royal – coat of arms. This place was built for someone fairly important.’
Now the Allwards are busy filling Castle Stalker with their own memories. For Ross’s 21st birthday celebrations, guests were forced to sleep on the battlements for want of room. ‘Castle Stalker,’ Ross tells me, ‘is a place where it’s possible to feel totally cut off from the world.’