Many are quick to point out the decline in relations between Scotland and England since devolution a decade ago. Yet there are still elements of the once great Union which cannot be dissolved. Foremost among these are an Englishman’s love for the Scottish landscape and the Scots’ increasing ability to master the cooking of their native produce. Both are immeasurably improved if there is the prospect of some good sport at hand.
Since taking over the Killiecrankie House hotel in Perthshire three years ago, Ayrshire native Henrietta Fergusson has established a haven for sportsmen and kindred spirits. Sitting as it does in four acres of gardens and woodland, just off the A9 from Perth to Inverness, few hotels could boast such dramatic surroundings.
It is not just excellent Bloody Marys but blood-curdling history that wafts over the historic gorge where the whitewashed hotel stands in great tranquillity. For it was here in 1689, in this steep, dramatic landscape, with the River Garry flowing below, that the Jacobites, led by Bonnie Dundee, routed the government troops of General Hugh Mackay.
Today, there is an excellent and free National Trust for Scotland visitor centre at Killiecrankie. You will be directed to observe red squirrels and, depending on the season, dog violets and wood anemones. Surely, though, the finest time to stay is in the autumn when the auburn leaves and Indian summer throw up blazing colours to rival “the Fall” in America.
“I like to think we are halfway to anywhere,” says Henrietta, who for several years worked with Peter de Savary both at Skibo and Bovey Castle on Dartmoor. “We are a meeting place. Some people come to lunch, leave their cars here and pick them up days later.”
“I like to make people feel they are staying with friends,” she continues. “Often guests come to shoot at nearby Blair Atholl or to visit the spectacular seat of the Dukes of Atholl.”
For me, it was an afternoon’s trout fishing on the Tummel below Pitlochry with Simon Jones, who runs an excellent tackle shop, Quayles of Pitlochry. Between the hotel and Simon Jones it is also possible to arrange salmon fishing on the Tay and Tummel from £20 for the day.
“We can stay here till midnight if you like,” Simon told me as an unseasonal hailstorm scattered the water in the gloaming. My spirit was willing but my stomach led me to the snug bar of the hotel and the exemplary traditional cooking of chef Mark Easton, who has been at Killiecrankie for 14 years.
Joining me for dinner was Perthshire resident Roy Miller, a leading figure with Christie’s and a friend of many years. Taking time off from his busy rounds of European travel, he visibly relaxed as we enjoyed starters of smoked haddock and breast of pigeon with wild mushrooms, followed by sea bream and fillet of beef with duchesse potatoes, and delicious caramelised apple crumble.
Of the 10 rooms at Killiecrankie, several look out over the wonderful gardens to the Cairngorms and purple distant hills for which Perthshire is renowned. In bed, I re-read Gavin Maxwell’s The House of Elrig.
In it he recounts how, as a boy on Beachy Head, he rode a little bay mare called Giddy, with a friend on another pony. “We were racing neck and neck with the smell of leather and horse and sea wind in my nostrils when I suddenly burst through into a whole world of joy and freedom. The moment was
unique and never to be repeated.”
Next day, after a superb breakfast of poached eggs and black pudding, I walked the nearby loch at Butterstone, where my wife had been to school, travelling there by ferry from Mull with her pony, Cailin Beag.
After just one night at the Killiecrankie House hotel, I felt a reconnection with the Scotland of old and the kindly country house, right down to the friendliness of Henrietta’s dog Beanie, a working cocker. It was the Scotland of Gavin Maxwell and here it is still alive and well.
Contact Killiecrankie House Hotel
Prices range from £105 to £115 per person per night, inclusing dinner, bed and breakfast.
Dogs are welcome subject to room availability.
The hotel is closed in January and February