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From city lights to country life

Rhiannon Batten meets the former fashion editor who found herself in the wilderness of Nairn and set about filling the gap for holiday cottages in a region stiff with B&Bs and grand hotels but nothing in between

One of Europe's last great wildernesses is not, perhaps, the obvious habitat for a couture-clad It-girl, but Isabella Cawdor insists she's much happier living in a forested valley overlooking the river Findhorn in Scotland than she was on the London party scene. "I never dreamt about living in the middle of nowhere the way some people do," says the 37-year-old former fashion stylist. "I'd dreamt about falling in love and having children, but ending up here was a complete accident."

Born Lady Isabella Stanhope - the younger daughter of the Earl of Harrington - and brought up in Limerick, Isabella was working as a fashion editor for Vogue when she was introduced to Colin Campbell, now the seventh Earl Cawdor. At the time Colin Campbell was working as an architect in New York so, for a year, the couple conducted a transatlantic love affair. But the early death of his father prompted Colin's sudden return to Cawdor Castle and the 60,000-acre, 14th-century family estate in Nairn - and the end of Isabella's metropolitan way of life.

The couple married and, for a while, Isabella continued in fashion, mapping out freelance projects for the likes of Bruce Weber, Mario Testino and Annie Leibowitz from the wilds of Cawdor. But after having three children in quick succession - Jean, now six, James, five, and Eleanor, almost four - she decided to put her sense of style to use closer to home, developing some of the cottages on the estate into rental properties.

"When I first visited Cawdor I thought it was the most amazing place I'd ever seen - except possibly for Patagonia and Montana," she enthuses. "I'd travelled all over the world with my job but I'd rarely been anywhere as breathtakingly beautiful. Everyone knows about the west coast of Scotland, but the thing about Nairn [on the mid north-east coast] is that it has this vast, open sky. In Britain you're not used to that." When Shakespeare put Cawdor on the literary map in Macbeth, the King describes Cawdor on arriving, saying: "This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air/ Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself/ Unto our gentle senses." There was one blip on this good-looking horizon, however - there was hardly anywhere to stay. "There were B&Bs and grand old hotels but there was nowhere in the middle," explains Isabella. "There are so many people today travelling all over the place, and on the phone the whole time. What they want when they take time off is to go somewhere peaceful and beautiful but also comfortable."

So, she set about filling the gap. "I didn't do any research in the UK. I just took my inspiration from the travelling I'd done with work," Isabella admits. "As a fashion editor I'd been everywhere from Tokyo to Ethiopia, and I'd been really spoilt, but I think there's a fine balance between super deluxe and real comfort. Feeling comfortable isn't necessarily to do with staying in five-star places with fitted carpets and air conditioning. At Cawdor I wanted it to be more about peace and quiet, proper food and just enjoying this vast landscape."

The resulting seven cottages have been a blast of fresh air through the traditional British self-catering scene. There are no packets of stale shortbread masquerading as hospitality or bottom-bruising sofas slowly capsizing in the sitting rooms. Instead it's all old-fashioned comfort dressed up in chic new packaging. Towels are fluffy and white, walls are simple, clotted cream, the kitchen has everything you need (cafetières and stainless-steel pans) and nothing you don't (melted plastic spatulas or garish crockery) and the floors are either sleek, polished wood or cosy coir matting. More original still, you can also "order in" shiatsu treatments. "You have to be disciplined when you're designing a holiday cottage, though," warns Isabella. "You can't make things 100 per cent your own, full-on, style. You need it to be a bit more neutral so that it fits in with what more people want."

Not that it's all bland minimalism. Her own full-on style, it turns out, is "like a gypsy caravan" and there's an appealing hint of that in the cottages, with original stained-glass windows in one cottage porch, warm velvet drapes in another and painted farm chairs in most of the kitchens. If that still sounds a little restrained, there is always Drynachan Lodge - Cawdor's largest rental property - an established house that comes complete with antlers locked to the wall, blazing log fires, staff on hand to do the cooking and space for 20 guests.

For someone whose career began in the fashion industry Isabella is, surprisingly, as strong on function as she is on form. "It's no good just looking pretty," she chirps. "No one wants to rent somewhere with a rickety old bed that they can't actually sleep in. And the hot water has to flow fast and furiously." Cooking is another passion. "I've always been a glutton for delicious food and the wild-food side of where we live really excites me," she says.

Anyone who comes to stay gets a list of local suppliers, and tips, for instance, on who's the best butcher in town.

She will even shop for you so that you have supplies there when you arrive. "Some people want to have it all laid on," she says. "They don't want to pitch up and fight through the jungle. They want to know that they've got plenty of food, that the shiatsu treatments are booked and that they're scheduled in for riding the next day."

If Isabella sounds unusually sympathetic to the needs of frazzled guests she is speaking from experience. Besides looking after the cottages, and three young children, she also runs a location and production company, organising photo shoots for magazines and props and casting facilities for films. Thanks to her, the Beckhams managed an unperturbed introduction to the Highlands a few years ago when they stayed in Drynachan Lodge to be photographed for the cover of Vanity Fair (the scenery stole almost as much attention as they did).

Isabella is relaxed about the competition. "Several people have asked if they can look around the cottages as they want to do something similar. I always say: 'Yeah, sure'. I don't think it's good to guard things," she shrugs.

Apart from old habits. Proving she hasn't quite left the fashion world behind she says, "look at the Hermès Birkin bag. That's been ripped off everywhere on the high street but it hasn't made the real thing any less valuable."

Prices start at £246 for three nights in a one-bedroom cottage through Cawdor Cottages (01667 402 402; www.cawdor.com)