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About eight red deer more than 5 feet high stand motionless as if posing for a portrait on an emerald-colored lawn at the edge of the forest. Innes MacNeill brings a blue bucket filled with dried food pellets. A few of the deer approach slowly, cautiously. The tallest one with the largest antlers (12 tines) comes forward and takes the pellets from MacNeill’s hand. He is the leader of the herd given the name Frank. While MacNeill feeds Frank he tosses pellets to the other deer that are more cautious. When the bucket is empty MacNeill walks away and the deer disappear into the forest.
This small herd is among the tamest of the wild fauna in the Alladale Wilderness Reserve, a 23,000-acre estate in the Scottish Highlands that serves as a comfy luxury retreat in a remote natural setting. The main guesthouse has seven cozy rooms that can accommodate 14 people. There are two lodges on the property that provide a more luxurious and secluded experience. For a more rustic experience there’s a bunkhouse that sleeps 18 in a comfortable camp-like atmosphere. There’s even a bunker-like hut in a secluded area of the reserve built into a ledge for picnics.
The estate is about an hour’s drive from the city of Inverness. My wife, Maria, and I were taken there by Ted Innes Ker, the founder of Ossian, a company that provides unique travel experiences in the Scottish Highlands. As his Jaguar SUV masterfully hugged the winding country roads, the former professional golfer says that his young firm can tailor luxurious travel itineraries, including a variety of active adventure tours. He works with a number of castles and estates in the area, including those with British royal provenance. Some are private residences that are occasionally opened to the public under the right circumstances. Ker, who also has royal pedigree, can make it happen.
At Alladale, we stayed for one night in the main guesthouse, which has a gym, a small sauna, a billiards room and a comfortable living room with a welcoming, lit fireplace—because even in the summer it gets cold in the Scottish Highlands. The house is stationed on a plateau that provides astonishing views from every window.
Meals are taken communally on a long wooden table beneath chandeliers made of deer antlers. Guests included a couple with their two children from London, solo travelers from Missouri and Sri Lanka, and two young women from Romania. Conversation at dinner and afterwards was easy and enjoyable.
Local venison was served for dinner in the form of steak and as sausages for breakfast by the highly capable chef, Tom. For lunch we had locally caught salmon terrine. The manager, Steve, was always on hand providing anything we needed.
There are plenty of activities, including trout fishing, pony riding, hiking, mountain biking and stalking (hunting for deer on foot). I believe the best way to enjoy the reserve is as a place for rest, relaxation and the opportunity to learn about the history, culture and ecology of the Scottish Highlands.
Paul Lister, a conservationist and multi-millionaire heir to a British furniture retail chain, purchased the property in 2003 and has since set about a highly publicized “rewilding” effort to return the land to its natural state before the clear cutting of forests and the widespread killing of several animal species. It began with the “Highland Clearances” in the 18th and 19th centuries, when farmers were forcefully evicted from their homeland and agrarian way of life to make way for sheep herding, and continued with the industrial revolution and two world wars that followed. Lister has managed the planting of 900,000 indigenous trees (the majority being pine, along with alder, rowan and birch) and has repopulated some of the wildlife. The most noticeable newcomer is a herd of Highland Cattle. The most controversial is a proposal to introduce wolves and bears on the reserve.
MacNeill, who manages the 23,000-acre reserve with Lincoln, his ever present Red Labrador Retriever, gave us a tour of the property that is reachable by jeep. A good portion of the land can only be traveled by foot.
The Alladale River cuts through windswept hills of grass and exposed rock, with only a scattering of trees. Patches of early summer purple heather mingle with the green terrain. It’s a rugged, beautiful landscape. There is fencing in areas to protect recently planted trees from grazing deer, which are everywhere. Part of the reason Lister says he wants to introduce predators is to cull the deer population and protect the saplings.
At one point we stopped along the Alladale River where the Highland Cattle graze so MacNeill can pour food pellets to supplement their diet. It’s a scenic spot with a clear view of the rugged, bending river making its way through the hills. The cattle are distinguished by their long horns and long wavy coats that even extend over their eyes.
MacNeill also took us to view three Scottish wildcats being kept in an enclosure. The idea is to eventually release these predatory cats into the wild. They look a lot like large domesticated cats except their stare says “don’t mess with me.”
None of us will live to see if Lister’s goal to return the land to its original state will happen. But visitors can enjoy the process as well as the comfort of the estate.