Gleneagles in Auchterarder may be best known for its golf, but it’s also within easy reach of the historic deer forest and rugged hills around Loch Earn. We take a walk in Glen Artney, bag our first Munro, enjoy a thrilling brush with some deer, and discover stories of royalty, conservation and experiential luxury.
Standing by his moss-coloured Land Rover Defender (the cleanest, most impeccable off-roader that I’ve ever seen) is Yuri Janssen, Gleneagles’ country sports manager, dressed in characterful country gear: tweed shooting breeks with boot socks pulled over them, checked shirt, a creaseless Gleneagles branded teal fleece and Baker Boy cap, perched perfectly on his head, somewhat tilted like an army-man’s beret.
He greets us with a big smile; looks us up and down and sends us back to our room to change. It seems us city-slickers may have misinterpreted what today’s ‘walk’ would be. Having spent a couple of days in the self-billed ‘glorious playground’ of luxury that is Gleneagles has clearly lulled us into a false sense that ‘outdoor pursuits’ involve frolicking with packs of gundogs, falconry or trying our hand at clay pigeon shooting.
Gleneagles is a refined, destination resort. For those who golf, its reputation precedes it, but beyond its sporting renown, it’s a legendary Scottish getaway with an over-a-century-old reputation – fully modernised to world-class standards. It’s an effortlessly experiential hotel, with exemplary service by a hand-picked team. It boasts incredible cuisine in its many restaurants and has an air of glamorous jazz-aged-reminiscent sociality with lashings of informal fun, particularly after a few signature cocktails in its American Bar.
Returning from our Braid House suite, fully prepared to stay warm, dry and looking far less ‘London’, we set off on the road to Glen Artney, 45 minutes away. It’s the sunniest of Scottish days, but Yuri explains that where we’re going, things can change in a heartbeat. We’re headed to the Drummond Estate, a unique partnership carved out by the hotel with one of Scotland’s most storied grounds, an ancient royal deer forest steeped in history, today owned by the 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby – or “Lady Willoughby” – as Yuri affectionally calls her.
Around us, a rugged landscape unfurls theatrically. We descend into the glen of ancient moorland, flanked either side by high hills peppered with heather and juniper; turfed, giant ramps – bright yellow because of a long summer – leading up to a crisp, blue sky.
En route, we pick up another charmingly dressed man, Alistair – head-to-toe in Scottish slate-grey plaid, complete with matching cap and face-mask – the estate manager at Drummond. It’s an honour for us tourists to spend the day with Alistair, as he is usually kept busy running the 60,000-acre estate (seventy times the size of the sprawling grounds of Gleneagles) and more importantly, stalking deer.
We abandon the vehicle and kit-up for a hike that will take us to the peak of the monolithic hill we see before us. The trepidation of the ascent sets in, as does the cool glen wind, blasting away any warmth we may have felt from the bright sunshine. We’re glad Yuri made us change.
Glen Artney spans thousands of acres of ancient ‘forest’ (hunting grounds), with dramatic, undulating landscapes affording views of lochs and Munros.
“The hardest bit is getting up there,” Alistair pipes as if we didn’t already know. He trudges uphill to set the pace, but ten minutes in, we’re already struggling to catch our breath. Considerately, Alistair stops regularly, pulling out his binoculars to survey the landscape for deer, an exaggerated move to politely allow us to catch up. Each step has us sinking into tussocks of yellow grass and cushions of green sedge, but this doesn’t afford any relief to our burning thighs. “Every day is leg-day,” Alistair jests as he starts to tell us the story of the area’s history.
Glen Artney is considered one of Scotland’s finest examples of royal deer forest. The term ‘forest’ is used loosely because there aren’t any natural woods in sight. In old English, a forest is a large area of land, set apart by royal edict for wild beasts and fowls of chase, the ‘glorious playground’ of its day. It dates back to the time of King James I and was the favourite hunting ground of Mary Queen of Scots and other Stuarts before her.
Alistair recites a stanza from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake in his charming Scottish brogue: “The stag at eve had drunk his fill, Where danced the moon on Monan’s rill, And deep his midnight lair had made, In lone Glen Artney’s hazel shade.” Beyond its literary significance, the verse helps Alistair segue into the topic of deer management. He cleverly senses our discomfort on the subject of hunting and proceeds to give us the low down.