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My weekend in a billionaire’s wild Scottish playground

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Being alone among the mountains is eerie. Particularly when the mountains in question are the snow-capped Scottish Highlands and they are looming over you as you swim alone in the black waves of a 40m-deep loch.

It’s an hour before sunset and Loch an t-Seilich, in the Cairngorms National Park, is empty except for me. If I were to walk east, I wouldn’t come across a single sign of life — no houses, no people, no traffic — for more than 25 miles. It is completely silent.

That is until I hear a shout from 200m behind me on the shore. It’s Grant Shorten, a guide on the estate my friend Miranda and I are visiting. “Look!” he shouts, pointing behind me.

He thinks he’s spotted a white-tailed eagle, Britain’s largest bird of prey, with a wingspan of up to 2.4m, soaring overhead. I clamber out, half eager to grab the binoculars, half desperate to hide in case the eagle, which nests in the cliffs above us, has spotted me in my orange swimming costume and thinks it might be about to catch an extra-large salmon.

I am in Wildland, part conservation project, part lavish Scottish estate. It’s a patchwork of 250,000 acres, worth more than £120 million and owned by the Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, the largest private landowner in the UK and Scotland’s richest man (he owns the retail clothing chain Bestseller and is the biggest shareholder in Asos). He visited the Highlands with his parents, and returned with his wife, Anne, and their children, spending months at a time, making his first land purchase in 2013. The lake I am swimming in is, essentially, part of a billionaire’s adventure playground.

The super rich seem to have a thing for Scotland. The Discovery Land Company, an American property developer and hospitality operator owned by Michael Meldman, a friend of George Clooney, has invested £300 million in Taymouth Castle in Perthshire. Ed Sheeran is rumoured to have bought property on Loch Tay. And then there is Donald Trump, who owns golf courses at Turnberry and Balmedie.

Hannah Evans explores Wildland’s luxury and wilderness in the Scottish Highlands

Broadly speaking, the land Wildland owns can be split in two: 110,00 acres south of Inverness, including much of the Cairngorms, and 110,000 acres of coastline stretching from the twin peaks of Ben Loyal to Loch Eriboll. It’s a 90-minute flight from London to Inverness followed by a 45-minute drive south, though some guests arrive by helicopter or private plane to a local airstrip.

There are 15 properties to book, from a 300-year-old castle on the shores of Loch Ness that sleeps 24 to a Ralph Lauren-designed lodge, Glenfeshie, where some of the second series of The Crown was filmed. There are also romantic converted bothies and remote coastal cottages. Most are self-catering, including a historic farmhouse at Killiehuntly, which dates from the 1600s.

The lounge in Geordie’s Cottage

The Farmhouse is run like a full-board hotel and sleeps eight, with guests dining together, and with extra space in nearby self-catering barns and lodges. The vibe is is Scandi-Scot, or Highland hygge — there’s not a whiff of kilts, bagpipes or tartan. In other words, quiet luxury. I’m staying in Geordie’s Cottage, which is cosy and chic with grey sheepskin rugs on the floor and fluffy armchairs.

Wildland offers a concierge service that gives guests access to a mammoth array of outdoor activities for an extra fee (£150pp). There’s also foraging, fly fishing (£85pp), guided mountain biking (£75pp) and loch swimming (free). Killiehuntly is in the south of the estate, where during the summer guests can take Highland ponies up into the mountains and stop off for picnics beside streams. To counteract the chilly temperatures during my stay, there’s a huge sauna inside a yurt in the forest. When I wake up on the first morning it is minus 5C outside and the water is just 7C.

After exploring nearby trails on electric mountain bikes (free for guests) we have a private breathwork workshop in a barn with Wildland’s yoga instructor and massage therapist Carrie Wilde, before heading down for a wild swim in a river. “Just breathe,” Carrie coos as we shimmy across the rocks and into the water (thankfully Wildland provides neoprene boots to stop us slipping), but in reality the only way to distract yourself is to admire the scenery. We are surrounded by the oranges and caramels of the Cairngorms in autumn.

Wildland’s Geordie’s Cottage

Wildland’s Geordie’s Cottage

We’re invited for dinner back at the Farmhouse (though self-catering guests don’t usually get to do this): a candlelit three-course meal, all seasonal and locally sourced. We have mushroom toast followed by slow-cooked shin of beef and an enormous pavlova with fruit, plus cranachan, a Scottish dessert made from oats. It feels, in the best possible way, like being in an Agatha Christie novel — only without a murder. There’s a surgeon, a photographer, a yoga instructor, a physics teacher and an author. Some guests are Scottish, there’s a Danish couple and a few fellow Londoners.

Miranda and I take a 4×4 tour (£85pp) the next day, and Grant reels off facts about Wildland’s conservation efforts, including the 1.5 million native trees that have been planted in the Cairngorms. He points out the baby forests that have sprung up since the deer population was halved. We drive past the forest planted by the fashion house Louis Vuitton; the fashion brand owned a small estate here before Povlsen bought it, incorporating it into Wildland.

Over the next four hours we visit centuries-old bothies and explore ancient forests. When it’s time for lunch Grant pulls out a huge wicker hamper from the boot of the Land Rover Defender, to doll out sandwiches, cheese straws and whisky. It’s like being on a Scottish safari.

Most of the roads in the national park have been built by Wildland and are off limits to cars that don’t belong to the estate. By the time we reach Loch an t-Seilich, shortly before sunset, the national park is unofficially shut for the evening and we’re getting a private tour.

Post-dip, huddled around a fire Grant has built in a bothy, we talk about how odd it is to feel so disconnected to normal life. It’s wonderful too, of course. And perhaps the best way to experience Scotland — the mountains, the middle-of-nowhere-feel, and the added bonus of a lavish bed.
Hannah Evans was a guest of Wildland. Seven nights’ self-catering for five in Geordie’s Cottage from £2,250 (wildland.scot). Fly to Inverness

The smartest stays in Scotland

1. Candacraig Castle, Aberdeenshire

This 17th-century castle with 18 acres of gardens close to Balmoral and next to the River Don would provide quite the grand backdrop to a gathering. It sleeps 20 in 12 bedrooms (pelmets, panelling, four-posters) and has a Highland dining room complete with swagged tartan ceiling, contrasting tartan chairs and chandeliers. There’s also a games room, a smart drawing room, a whisky library and staff including a butler and house manager who will help to organise activities from Highland games to falconry and whisky tasting in the nearby distilleries The Glenlivet or Royal Lochnagar.
Details One night’s exclusive hire for 20 from £10,000 self-catered, or an extra £150-180pp per night for full board (candacraig.com)

2. Auchavan Estate, Angus
Also in the Cairngorms National Park is Auchavan, a small estate, where the setting rather than the accommodation delivers the grandeur. There’s a choice of four cottages. The Hayloft, with its own sauna and a cosy stove in the living room, is our pick. It’s the ideal location from which to embark on walks into Glen Isla or to the Loch of Kinnordy Nature Reserve where you might be lucky enough to see otters, waders or great spotted woodpeckers. The local pub is a ten-minute drive.
Details Seven nights’ self catering for two in the Hayloft from £1,456 (auchavanestate.co.uk)

3. Kinross House and Estate, Perth and Kinross

A handsome Scottish country house strikingly set next to Loch Leven, this estate, whose buildings were constructed by Sir William Bruce in the 17th century, sits directly across from the 11th-century castle — Lochleven — where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in 1567. Guests will have a more relaxing stay — there’s a spa next to the loch with cottage-style treatment rooms and formal gardens, which have been restored to Bruce’s original geometric design. Kitchen suppers with a chef can be arranged as can all sorts of activities from clay pigeon shooting to cricket and haggis hurling.
Details One night’s exclusive hire from £21,500 including breakfast. Minimum two nights stay (kinrosshouse.com)

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