High life in the Highlands
Chris Carter heads to the Tulchan Estate for a spot of fishing on the Spey.
Chris Carter heads to the Tulchan Estate for a spot of fishing on the Spey
"Autumn is dark on the mountains; grey mist rests on the hills. The whirlwind is heard on the heath. Dark rolls the river through the narrow plain." So said Ossian, the old Highland bard of 18th-century poet James Macpherson's imagination, describing the rugged Scottish terrain.
But while the wind does ruffle your hair as you stare out towards the sombre peaks of the Cairngorms National Park, today encompassing Macpherson's birthplace, the Spey is no dark river. At least not when I was on its banks in August, merrily fly-fishing for trout. The water, unseasonably warm, rushed over the rocks, guiding not one of its scaly denizens towards my fly-baited hook. That had as much to do with my trouble in casting as anything else, despite the best efforts of Lawrence, one of the resident ghillies, to teach me.
For eight miles, the banks of this pristine waterway are owned by the 120-year-old Tulchan Estate, which this month opens to guests. But not the water itself that belongs to the Queen, Frank, the convivial manager at the lodge, carefully pointed out, as we sped away from Inverness airport in one of the estate's sleek dark green Land Rovers. The Queen's father, George VI, had stayed at the estate, as had her grandfather, George V, and great-grandfather, Edward VII.
Less than an hour later, we turned into the grounds of Knocktulchan, one of the estate's lodges, drove past startled pheasants and pulled up outside the lodge. Wide and airy, with warm wood-panelled walls and a grand staircase that leads up to the spacious ensuite bedrooms, the lodge has a living room with bar, fireplace and sofas on which to relax with a wee dram from one of the many local distilleries.
But you have to earn your whisky in the Highlands. So it was over to the estate's beautiful Hill Loch to try my hand at clay-pigeon shooting. There we were met by Tulchan's "Coffee Defender", a Land Rover kitted out with a coffee machine and bar. I felt an air of reverence as Les, the head-keeper dressed in deerstalker and Harris Tweed, handed me the loaded shotgun. Nestling the butt of the gun into my shoulder, I squinted down the barrel. The "bird" flew up into the air. I pulled the trigger. Bang! Those assembled by the Coffee Defender spilled their drinks. I heard a thud in the grass behind me, and sure enough, the blasted pigeon had returned to earth unblasted, in one piece.
Never mind. It was time for dinner. Head chef Ollie Wilson, previously of London's The George and The Gilbert Scott, overcame the elements to produce a wonderful barbecue of venison haunch and wild sea trout, with fresh salads sourced from the estate's kitchen garden. The next night, Ollie served up pigeon salad, roast mallard and a raspberry Eton tidy for dessert. Surely "Eton mess", you say? Not at Tulchan.
Live like a laird
You can be forgiven for wanting to have the place to yourself. The good news is that you can. All 22,000 acres of it, including Tulchan Lodge. Larger than Knocktulchan, this characterful stone building with its neo-Gothic round tower has just undergone a complete renovation, transforming it into the ultimate country retreat. It even has its own spa, cinema, and gun-room.
But before you can lay claim to your own personal fiefdom for the week, you first need to be accepted as a member (see Tulchan.com for details). And that doesn't come cheap. Membership costs £95,000 a year, and there can only be 25 members at any one time. (Knocktulchan and the surrounding cottages can be hired out to non-members, however. See below for a full list of the benefits.)
Still, if you have deep pockets, one of the best perks for enthusiasts of country pursuits is access to world-class pheasant shooting. That's because, unlike some other estates, Tulchan limits itself to 300 birds a day for two days. It's a question of maintaining "quality, not quantity", says Laura, the estate's director. And what gets shot gets eaten. As for me, in the words of the great Robert Burns, it was "Farewell to the Highlands".
What £95,000 a year buys you at Tulchan
- Two shooting days for eight guns with a maximum of 300 birds per day (pheasant and partridge). Each gun will be provided with a loader.
- Post-season members' dinner held in London in February/March.
- Shooting dates for the following season (ie, season two onwards) will be allocated at random at the post season dinner.
- First right of refusal to grouse shooting when available at a preferential rate for members.
- First right of refusal to available salmon fishing at a preferential rate for members.
- Access to roe deer stalking.
- Preferential rates at Ciekuri, a Latvian sporting estate, with wild boar, pheasant, duck and fishing (trout, pike and carp).
- Year-round secure storage facilities for sporting equipment.
- Exclusive use of Tulchan Lodge for up to 28 guests in Tulchan Lodge and access to Knocktulchan Lodge with accommodation for 12.
- The Club is available at Christmas and New Year by special arrangement.
- Transport to and from the airports/train station to the Lodge. Estate cars available for members when at the Lodge.
- All food and non-alcoholic drinks.
- Alcohol at a Club rate.
- Daily excursions or activities for non-shooting guests.
- Hampers with produce from the estate.
- Year-round concierge service in relation to Tulchan Club, London restaurants, private members' clubs and high-profile events.
- Benefits with partner brands.
- Use of the spa and gym.