The Scottish Highlands: a welcome retreat from city life

Laura Bailey finds a chic retreat deep in the Scottish Highlands is the perfect antidote to frenetic urban living

Just as the London parks were metamorphosing from green and grey sludge, and daffodils and snowdrops were beginning to dance with the promise of spring, I was starting my journey to Scotland for a four-day retreat in a cottage on the Cawdor Estate - and listening on the radio to the news of Inverness airport temporarily shutting down due to snow. A thaw meant I could fly as planned, but the icy landscape that greeted me was still a shock.

Cawdor had been calling me for a while. I had heard tales from diverse worlds: fashion crews describing breathtaking backdrops to this year's coat ... or bikini (glad that wasn't me); friends who'd decamped to finish novels, inspired by the mythology of the landscape (Macbeth's fatal ambition spurred by his ascension to Cawdor as Thane); couples who'd patched up relationships; and, of course, the hunting-shooting set who gather in season, scoring rich pickings and top-notch hospitality at Drynachan Lodge on the estate.

The lodge itself can sleep up to 22 people, either catered or self-catering. After a snoop around the exquisite bedrooms, deep antique baths and living rooms where you just want to curl up beside the fire and snooze and chat and drink whisky, you can't help but fantasize about inviting all your closest friends for the ultimate house party. In addition, there are eight cottages, each renovated by Lady Isabella Cawdor in an unpretentious loveworn style - cosy yet unfussy, reflecting her effortless elegance and intuitive feel for what travellers seek in such a remote landscape.

Of the eight, I chose Fisherman's Cottage because of its remote setting overlooking the River Findhorn. In a (brief) "I want to be alone" phase it seemed to offer a kind of solitary idyll, a black-painted timber cottage with a little red door perched on the riverbank exuding charm and Swallows and Amazons-style adventure.

Of course, plans change. Isabella decided to join me on a whim with her fourth child. So I absolutely couldn't leave baby Beatrice's mini-boyfriend, one-year-old Luc, behind. I'd still have my Scottish retreat, and, while the babies snoozed and played, I'd walk and muse and rest and read. A high-chair and travel cot appeared as if by magic, as did a few of Isabella's old friends, which meant my evenings were spiced up and far removed from the lonely novel-reading I'd planned.

The journey was a breeze: the Land Rover was waiting at the airport. I followed precise step-by-step instructions from highway to snowy country lanes to what felt like a journey across the moon, so dramatic is the Cawdor landscape. A couple of days later I knew every twist and turn by heart, but as I descended and glimpsed my cottage in the distance, my heart raced. I had the rare glow both of feeling I had been there before, and of being exactly where I was supposed to be.

Exploring what turns out to be a home from home is much more thrilling than flicking through a hotel directory (not that I haven't been partial to a little room service in my time). The cottage is a three-bedroom home, simply furnished with tartan armchairs and plaid blankets. There was a big dining table, and a huge kitchen with all the mod cons - not that we really needed them.

Evidence of Isabella's time as a Vogue stylist lines the walls, with prints of Carolyn Murphy looking unfeasibly glamorous in rowing boats and 4x4s. My hiking boots and multiple layers were* *nowhere near as chic, though indispensable all the same.

I loved my bedroom with its little writing desk and view of the river and the mountains beyond. I loved staring out the windows just before dark, taking in the quiet beauty as night fell and then closing everything up as though going into hibernation. Snuggled up on the sofa with blankets and books and a roaring fire, I simply became too relaxed to stay awake; one night I went to bed at nine, which I don't think I've done since I was aged nine. I needed to catch up, and here I could. I even watched television, which I never do at home. It felt like staying off work sick, but in a good way - just letting myself be looked after a little and doing less. On the kitchen front, at risk of sounding like a spoilt model, it is strangely liberating to start from scratch: to make a shopping list, plan meals, find out how everything works.

The only spoilt model on this trip was my son Luc, who treated the long hallway rug as his personal catwalk, showing off his new walk, backwards and forwards. This performance was interrupted only by the sight of Isabella, little Beatrice beaming from her arms, knocking on the window, bringing the spirit of adventure and camaraderie to our little gang. The babies' grins said it all.

We snacked on the hamper of treats that awaited us, ran down to the river gulping Highland air and laughed at Luc's twitches as snowflakes landed on his nose. Then I slipped into Girl Guide mode to nip into nearby Nairn and stock up on provisions to ensure we wouldn't have to leave the estate boundary again on our trip.

Nairn is notable for long sandy beaches, a pleasant microclimate and championship golf courses. It didn't disappoint on the food front as we filled the Land Rover with boxes of fruit and local vegetables and deli treats. It felt innocent and carefree, like childhood camping trips when the biggest thrill was to build a fire or make breador jump from bridges into fast-flowing water. I wanted to slow down in Scotland, stop my mad multi-tasking, make soup. We'd have porridge for breakfast, big stews, jacket potatoes, oatcakes and cheese, good red wine.

Back at the cottage I set off to explore, soon regretting all my thermals as the snow seemed to reflect light and warmth. There are, of course, maps and lists of birdlife, horses to ride, and fish to fish, but first I just wanted to explore aimlessly.

There were magical moments: a drive with my guide Derek up the old funeral path to a spot that feels like the Scottish Grand Canyon - mesmerising and stomach-churning in its dramatic allure. Returning to take pictures in a different, stormier light, it was all new again. These lands shift with the time and weather more dramatically than any place I've ever seen.

My last walk with Isabella was in sudden brave sunlight that chased away the last of the snow. The old stone cottages glowed in the late afternoon thaw, the river was our constant whispering echo. I imagine you could spend a lifetime walking these paths and feel you were just beginning.

Most memorable was a midnight walk back from dinner at Isabella's, feeling my way along by starlight as my eyes and feet adjusted to the changing path: stony trail to muddy track to rocky bridge, the only sound my drumming heartbeat. In that inky blackness, so much darker than any city night, I felt truly at peace. It was like a school camp exercise in trust when you're blindfolded and tied to a friend who you follow, stumbling, totally dependent. Except I was tied to no one. Pure instinct and adrenalin took me towards the distant twinkly light of my cottage, which finally appeared like the waiting embrace of an old friend.

Cawdor could offer a different experience on each visit. This time I wanted to nest in my cottage, walk alone, and dine and chat with Isabella. In summer, I'd ride along the coast and through Cawdor's ancient woodlands, picnic at a remote bothy (ancient shelters conserved by the Cawdors as meeting places and viewpoints), explore the 14th-century fairytale Cawdor Castle. The cottages in the village would be ideal for those who like to be less cut off and are also perfectly placed for a night out at the Cawdor Tavern. I think I'd try Lochanshelloch cottage next time, though my experience at Fisherman's will be hard to beat.

The guestbooks are full of happy honeymooners - initially surprising to me, but on reflection it makes perfect sense: to be in a remote cottage alone in love, walking in paradise, feasting in privacy, postponing the rest of the world. There are also the serious trekkers and wildlife buffs. I'm a bit jealous of them. I'd like to know the names of all the trees and the birds. Must try harder. And then there are the city runaways in search of an elusive peace.

And, yes, there was shopping. When Isabella suggested a jaunt to Auldearn Antiques I feigned indifference. "Maybe tomorrow," I said, a little blasé after living on top of Portobello market for so long. Three hours later as I lugged my haul into the Land Rover, ridiculously giggly and over-excited, half of me wanted never to tell anyone about this place. But the other half of me wanted to dispatch all my vintage-obsessed or endless house-renovating friends immediately. I feel obliged to list my loot for professional purposes to reveal the diverse treasures within, not because I'm smug. One £20 black lace strapless ballgown; one perfect blue sundress; two hats for my nanny; one hat box; one giant cuddly bunny in tweeds and hiking socks - Luc's new love of his life; one £5 kilt; 10 linen towels; one bedspread; and four or five tablecloths. Oh, and I think two school desks, a toy chest and a bathroom cabinet are in a lorry somewhere between Nairn and Notting Hill as I write. Maybe I'd spent too much time the last few days in hiking boots or wellies and needed a fix, but this was an unexpected dose of treasure-hunting.

The perfect mix. Time alone to write and walk. Time with my baby far from the madding crowd. Time with an old friend. A beautiful alien world gently melting into spring. And a dream dress or two.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Inverness is the nearest airport to Cawdor. The writer flew from Gatwick to Inverness with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). The airport is also served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com), Eastern Airways (08703 669100; www.easternairways.com) and BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.co.uk). To reduce the environmental impact, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Inverness, in economy, is £1.20. The nearest railway station to Cawdor is Nairn, on the line between Inverness and Aberdeen; National Rail Enquiries (08457 484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk) can provide times and fares.

GETTING AROUND

A Land Rover Discovery starts at £69 per day though Aberdeen 4x4 car rentals (01224 790858; www.aberdeen4x4.co.uk).

STAYING THERE

Cawdor Estate, Cawdor, Nairn, Scotland (01667 404827; www.cawdor.com). Three nights' self-catered rental of Fisherman's Cottage (sleeps six), starts at £310. Seven nights' rental of Drynachan Lodge (sleeps 16), starts at £3,300, self-catered but including daily housekeeping. Shorter stays and catered options are also available.

VISITING THERE

Auldearn Antiques, Dalmore Manse, Lethen Road, Aldearn (01667 453087).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Scottish Highlands Tourism (0845 22 55 121; www.visithighlands.com).

OTHER STYLISH STAYS IN SCOTLAND

EILEAN SHONA

There is a sandy beach to comb, moss-sprung hills to climb and skittish wild deer, seals and the rare pine marten to spot on this private island owned by Vanessa Branson off the west coast of Scotland. Then it's back to the big stone house, decked out with contemporary local artwork, to laze in front of a peaty fire, nibble on freshly baked cakes or ease aching muscles in a traditional roll top tub.

Eilean Shona, Acharacle, Argyll (01967 431249; www.eileanshona.com). The eight-bedroom house can be rented for three nights from £3,500 full-board but excluding alcoholic drinks

MONACHYLE MHOR, PERTHSHIRE

Currently appearing in the Great British Menu on BBC2, Tom Lewis is the chef and owner of this boutique hotel. With its moody loch-side setting and 11 cosily contemporary rooms this old farmhouse turned gastronomic retreat offers windswept walks and belt-loosening dinners.

Monachyle Mhor, Balquhidder, Perthshire (01877 384622; www.monachylemhor.com). Double rooms from £95-£220 including breakfast dinner from £44 per person

GALLOWAY HOUSE ESTATE, GALLOWAY

For fans of rural self-catering, there are three cottages on the organically farmed 600-acre Galloway House Estate, two of which are in converted 18th-century stables decorated with soft Farrow and Ball paints. The other is an old gamekeeper's cottage, powered by wind and solar power with a ladder to the attic bedroom, a log fire and views down to the sea.

Galloway House Estate, Garlieston, Galloway (01988 600694; www.gallowayhouseestate.co.uk). From £205 per week

THE HILL HOUSE, HELENSBURGH

The great Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh was commissioned by publisher Walter Blackie to create the Hill House - and everything in it. The property is now cared for by the National Trust and open to the public from Easter to October. The top floor apartment is let through the Landmark Trust.

The Landmark Trust (01628 825925; www.landmarktrust.org.uk). The house sleeps six people and prices start from £113 for a three-day break

Lucy Gillmore

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