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“This is how a springtime trip to Scotland became my absolute dream holiday”

A trip to Scotland becomes a holiday with a history lesson on the side for writer Kate Wills…

The sun is warming my face and I’m standing in front of glassy blue water, surrounded on all sides by rugged mountains covered in ancient pine trees. 

With the peaks and the sky reflected in the water, it feels like I’m seeing double. It’s the kind of epic scenery and uplifting remoteness I associate with New Zealand or Canada. 

But in fact I’m in Scotland, at Loch Ordie in the Forest of Cluny in Perthshire. I’m rather sheepish to admit that this is my first visit to Scotland.

Before the pandemic, I jetted around the world, neglecting spots on my own doorstep in favour of foreign city breaks and exotic beach holidays. 

But with lockdown filling me with a newfound motivation to visit the UK spots I’d always wanted to visit, I’ve decided to take a trip a bit closer to home.

I’ve rounded up five of my oldest friends, hoping that the fabulous views and lungfuls of fresh air will be just the break we all need after an exhausting few months in London, and unbeknownst to me, it’s about to become my dream holiday.

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Although we might normally choose a villa in Ibiza for a girls’ break like this, we’re all keen for something different from this holiday. 

We’ve heard that spring is a great time to visit this part of Scotland, when the snow has melted and the wild flowers are in bloom, but before the summer crowds arrive. 

And crucially, we all have a similar outlook on how active we want to be on holiday – happy to strap on our hiking boots and get muddy occasionally, but also requiring plenty of downtime by the fire too.

There’s certainly plenty of scope for both at our accommodation.

Queen Victoria once stayed at Glenfeshie Lodge, which dates back to 1880 and was the stand-in for Balmoral in Netflix’s The Crown.

It now sleeps up to 12 people in six sumptuously-designed, unique rooms, with antlers and antique oil paintings on the wall. Glenfeshie manages to feel both cosy and hugely luxurious.

Staff are on hand to bring you hot chocolates in bed and clean your wellies after a walk in the glen. It’s the little things.

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The next morning, after a deliciously rib-sticking breakfast of porridge with poached rhubarb from the gardens, we go for a short walk in the bens (mountains) and even egg each other on to take a bracing dip in the river, before heading back to snuggle by the fire with a tartan blanket and home-made shortbread.

Later we take a drive through truly majestic mountain passes to Clava Cairns, a bronze age cemetery near Inverness.

One of our group is a big fan of the TV show Outlander and wants to make a pilgrimage to this mysterious collection of standing stones which feature in the story.

With the evening sun casting a golden glow on the moss-covered boulders, it’s a good spot for a wee dram of scotch from a hip flask.

We may not be able to touch a stone and go back in time like in Outlander, but we can certainly feel the magic of the landscape here.

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The next day we pack up our hiking boots and head to The Fife Arms in the Cairngorms National Park

This recently-renovated coaching inn in Braemar has been transformed into a boutique hotel and art gallery by Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the Swiss power couple behind the Hauser and Wirth galleries

So there’s a Picasso painting in the lobby and a Louise Bourgeois spider in the garden. In the hotel’s pub The Flying Stag – which has an actual taxidermied stag leaping over the bar – I try my first Cullen skink soup. 

It’s a deliciously creamy haddock, leek and potato broth from the town of Cullen in Moray Speyside.

That night, feeling very cosy in my Victoriana-themed room at the Fife Arms, I cast my eye over the books artfully piled on my coffee table.

It’s here I pick up a copy of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain.

The Scottish poet, novelist and hill-walker is often called the Scottish Virginia Woolf, and as I settle into my canopied bed and read her descriptions of the Cairngorm mountains, I realise I can see the range she’s writing about from my window.

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I’m so gripped by Shepherd’s descriptions of her walks in the peaks that I can’t wait to explore them myself. 

The next day, we set off for an expedition in the Cairngorms National Park and sure enough, it’s breathtakingly impressive. 

I tell the group a bit more about Nan, who was born in West Cults, a tiny village near Aberdeen in 1893 and died there in 1981 and lived in the same house all her life. Although The Living Mountain was published in 1945, it was something of a ‘lost classic’, until it was republished in 2016. 

A picture of Nan now graces the Scottish five pound note.

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That night, propping up the bar at the Flying Stag and sampling some of their 180-strong selection of whiskies, including single malts from Royal Lochnagar, the distillery up the road from Balmoral, I make some big life decisions. 

I realise I need to include Nan Shepherd in a book I’m writing about female explorers. 

Although she didn’t travel around the globe, through her many explorations of the Cairngorms she discovered a whole world. 

Scotland in spring has been a riot of colour as vivid as any tropical rainforest, with the lush green moss, purple heather and crimson flowers. 

I realise that I need to return to the Cairngorms National Park. 

This trip has fulfilled my dream for a holiday full of restoration, culture and beautiful scenery, and there’s always room for more of that.

To put it simply, it’s put a Highland spring in my step. I will definitely be back for more.

Start planning your springtime trip to Scotland with VisitScotland. From scenic escapes and rural retreats to unique city breaks, there’s something for everyone.