A Highland adventure: A festive loch-in turns chilly
A rustic cottage beside a loch in the Trossachs looked just the place for a perfect New Year getaway. But that was before the freeze set in. Rhiannon Batten reports
Saturday 30 December 2006
The instructions were straightforward: scoot round the eastern end of Loch Tay and, just past the unpromisingly named Dull village, my friends and I would pick up the sign-posted trail to Highland Adventure Safaris. We weren't expecting to spot an African-style Big Five when we got there; but, depending on the season, the Perthshire equivalent offers deer, eagles, mountain hare, ptarmigan, wheatears, meadow pippets and grouse. As well as a shortbread and whisky-laced afternoon tea (served, not by a Masai tribesman, but by a kilted Scotsman) 3,000-odd feet up a mountain. "When the road stops," promised the website, "the adventure begins." For us, it was already well under way.
We had decided to spend New Year in the Trossachs, mixing outdoor adventure with a gourmet break in the cosy boutique hotel, Monachyle Mhor. However, the hotel's 11 rooms were already full, so we opted for the next best thing: renting a cottage nearby and booking in to Monachyle Mhor for the New Year festivities.
Searching the web, we quickly located a suitable candidate, on a farm just across the loch. It was within easy fording distance of the hotel, the owner told us, at the point where Loch Voil and Loch Doine meet in the glen. If it freezes, she had added, you can walk across the ice. If water levels rise, we could just row across in her boat.
It seemed that with or without the organised highland safari, we were going to have an adventure. Adding a nice touch of history, the farm to which it belonged had once been home to the local hero, Rob Roy MacGregor; his grave is in the little church in Balquhidder just down the road.
The cottage turned out to be a bottom-bruising half-hour journey along a four-mile dirt track. From the outside it was whitewashed and inviting. Inside, however, things were a little less welcoming. There was no festive hamper nor even a fridge stocked with bread, milk and butter. The basics are provided by most holiday cottages these days. The cupboards were bare, there was no toilet paper and, more importantly, no hot water.
The owner, a Gaelic animator with a no-nonsense attitude and Blitz mentality, shrugged her shoulders, her long grey plaits swinging behind her as she walked away: "This is Scotland and it's New Year. We won't be able to get a plumber out for days." Luckily we had brought plenty of provisions - and could see Monachyle Mhor twinkling across the loch.
The next morning we woke to find that it had snowed heavily in the night. The view was jaw-dropping. Behind the cottage a straight-backed army of pine trees was dusted head-to-toe in white. While we watched, a small family of deer darted out from behind the trees and, down by the water, a low ribbon of mist hung above the length of the loch, reflected perfectly in its glassy surface. It was as if we'd stepped out of Scotland and into Narnia (if so, they don't have hot water there either). There was just one problem. We were going to have to navigate that now-white-knuckle forest track to get to Dull.
Steering carefully through the deep snow, picking a path through the ghostly pale pines, it felt vaguely surreal to hear "Club Tropicana" on the car radio. As did coming across a blind hiker kneeling in the snow in the middle of the track, stuffing biscuits into his mouth. Skidding to a halt, we asked if he needed a lift, but he just scrambled to his feet and shook his head before stumbling off into the forest.
Narnia crossed with Twin Peaks was starting to feel like a more apt description. We careered through this other-worldly landscape in the four-wheel drive we'd hired in a fit of last-minute common sense. After a painstakingly slow-moving hour on the road, battling increasingly high drifts, we were forced to abandon the safari and crawl round to Monachyle Mhor for a bowl of warming soup by the fire. After lunch, part of our group decided to return to the cottage on foot to do a recce of the walking route for the following evening's celebrations. The stepping stones were easily negotiated. We were all set.
On the morning of New Year's Eve, however, snow-melt had raised the water-level. The stepping stones that skimmed the shortest section of the loch were now submerged. The four-wheel-drive option was also no longer viable. The farmer who, according to the website, "uses this track constantly in a Fiesta" had used it to skid off the road and crash, and was now blocking us in. The tractor he had used to try and pull the car out had also got stuck. We were trapped. With a New Year party to get to. It felt as though we were in old East Germany looking across at the West. At Monachyle Mhor there were blazing fires, gourmet food; we could almost smell the venison roasting. On the far side of the loch, in what by now was known as "the dark side", we faced a forlorn evening. There was nothing for it. We were going to have to row.
Packing our party gear and a large torch into rucksacks, we pulled on our wellies and headed down to the small boat that lay upturned by the loch's edge. It was a tiny two-man dinghy but seemed seaworthy. Finding a pair of oars in the barn, I called on the rowing skills I'd last tested a decade ago, and appointed myself chief oarswoman, paddling everyone across to the other side one by one. As we hauled the boat out of the water and started the snowy climb up over barbed-wire fences and through flocks of sheep, the freezing fog parted for a moment and we stopped, silent, gripped by the emerging view. We were standing at the point where the lochs meet. On each side, purple-tinged mountains rose up like arrows from the water, their reflection mirrored in the water. In every direction, there were dazzling combinations of snow, rock and plants. It was eerily magical. Sometimes it seems, to safari is better than to arrive.
Up at Monachyle Mhor the party was getting under way. A fire was crackling in the grate of the little bar and guests were emerging in their frocks and kilts for the feast and fireworks. Sipping champagne under the stars later that night, we looked back at Monachyle Tuarach hunkered into the mountainside.
The adventure wasn't over yet. Now we had to get back.
The closest main railway station to the area is Stirling, about 30 miles south-east (National Rail Enquiries: 08457 484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk). The nearest airport is Glasgow.
The writer's vehicle was provided by Alamo (0870 191 6937; www.alamo.co.uk). Weekend rentals start at £47 for a standard vehicle, or from £153.75 for a 4x4.
Highland Safaris start from £17.50 for a 90-minute tour (01887 820071; www.highlandadventuresafaris.co.uk). Tours start at Dull Village, near Aberfeldy.
Monachyle Tuarach can be booked through the Association of Scotland's Self-Caterers (01877 384740; www.assc.co.uk) from £250 per week.
Another alternative is Black Isle cottage in Balquhidder, which sleeps four and is available through Unique Cottages (01835 822277; www.unique-cottages.co.uk) from £285 per week.
Monachyle Mhor, Balquhidder, Perthshire (01877 384622; www.monachylemhor.com). Doubles start at £95, including breakfast
VisitScotland Perthshire: 0845 2255 121; www.perthshire.co.uk
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