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Scotland the WILD

28 May 2020

Slow is no longer a bad thing in travel, and when it's combined with a Highland safari and a lodge with a conscience, Siobhán Norton luxuriates in it

It's all about the long game at Alladale. While the 23,000-acre wilderness reserve looks incredibly wild to my urbanised eye, it's only a baby as far as the grand plan is concerned. Almost a million trees have been planted here, but it will be many decades before most of them are at their full height, and the grounds are once again covered in dense forest.

Although tundra-like in parts, the landscape is undeniably beautiful, with splashes of yellow gorse and an occasional haze of purple heather. "Come here in August and you'll see nothing but purple," my guide, Neil, tells me. Just 18 years old, he already seems to be an old hand at matters of the countryside, and knows the reserve well.

We are exploring in a 4x4, in a part of the world where humans are very much in the minority. In fact, I don't spot another person for most of the day - just nonchalant sheep and curious Highland cattle (inset), which wander up to see if we have any treats, while their teddy-bear calves gambol alongside.

I scan the horizon for golden eagles among the buzzards wheeling overhead, and wait patiently to see if I can spot any salmon leaping upstream, but no joy. This is no zoo, after all - I'm on their turf now.

It's fitting that Alladale is one of the highlights of a trip where slow travel is the name of the game. My journey begins when I board the older model Caledonian Sleeper at London Euston, bound for Inverness. It may be the most civilised way to travel, from the moment you're greeted by the cheerful staff (no liquid restrictions or snarling at the size of your hand luggage here). Sure, the 11-hour ride is longer than some plane trips that I've taken to more exotic climes, but I am far more refreshed when I disembark come morning.

Inverness, the handsome Highland capital, is the perfect jumping-off point for exploring the surrounding countryside. But first we are headed out into the Firth of Moray. The waters around Inverness are home to the biggest bottlenose dolphins in the world, which can grow up to four metres in length, with an extra-thick layer of blubber to protect them from the cold temperatures.

But, blubber or no, they clearly think better of venturing out today, while we slowly turn blue waiting for them. This is passive wildlife-watching, our Dolphin Spirit tour guide Freya explains, so the boat never changes course or gives chase, instead just letting the wildlife be. But on a good day, she says, you can see dolphins, seals, otters, herons, osprey and puffins.

I'm ready for a roaring fire, and Tulloch Castle in Dingwall provides me with just that, plus a gigantic stag's head over the mantelpiece. The 12th-century residence was the family home of the Bains, then the Clan Davidson, while also serving as a hospital after the evacuation of Dunkirk, and a girls' boarding house. After an atmospheric dinner in the dungeon - haggis bon bons with mustard mash, and salmon with fennel and basil - our waiter Ross begins to share some of the castle's paranormal history, his eyes twinkling as we start to shift in our seats.

At breakfast the next morning, everyone is well slept, although one woman swears blind that her television turned itself on during the night. But we have more earthly matters to attend to: a journey on the Kyle of Lochalsh commuter line, which is hailed as one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world. We pass lochs and moors, with glimpses of the Torridon Hills and gorgeous Highland scenery, all the way to the shores of Loch Alsh. From here, it's a short drive to Eilean Donan castle.

Built where three sea lochs meet, with views out to the Isle of Skye, the castle is wreathed in an air of mysticism. It's no surprise that it has popped up in many films, from Highlander to The World Is Not Enough. It's an impressive tourist attraction, where you creep through its 13th-century halls, visiting everywhere from the Great Hall to the kitchen.

Our last stop is Alladale where, after our Highland safari, we are welcomed to the Victorian lodge with a pot of tea and freshly baked banana bread. It feels like home from home - we pad about in our socks after leaving our borrowed wellies in the mud room, and the house dog Logan pops in and out of the lounge.

If Alladale's manager, Pieter-Paul Groenhuijsen, has his way, Logan will be joined on the estate by some rather less timorous beasties - wolves. His goal is to "restore the ecosystem" in a similar way to Yellowstone National Park in the US. At the heart of this mission is restoring the natural apex predator - in this case the wolf. "The Highlands are among the most damaged landscapes in the world," he says. "It used to be said that red squirrels could jump from tree to tree from Land's End to John O'Groats. That's certainly not the case now, which is a shame."

Reintroducing an animal like a wolf is no easy feat, and so far the Right to Roam laws in Scotland have scuppered their plans. Alladale's owner, Paul Lister, hopes to introduce a controlled release, to see what effect it will have on the deer population.

Alladale is also instrumental in the recovery of the threatened Scottish wildcat, and the overall goal is to plant 13 million trees. More than 7 per cent of profits are donated to the European Nature Trust.

It's no surprise that people come here to get back to nature. Braver visitors come to take part in the Bear Grylls Survival Academy, or practice the Wim Hof method - a winter endurance feat inspired by the Dutch extreme athlete known as The Iceman, which involves a freezing river plunge. I'm content with a dip in the claw-foot bath in my suite - the bespoke bath products with local thistle are as close to nature as I need to get.

It feels truly special to visit somewhere that is far more than a luxury retreat, knowing that the real fruits of this project will perhaps only be realised after our time.

It's a reminder to be patient - and time does indeed seem to slow down at Alladale. Perhaps it's the sense of stillness around me, or the sight of deer grazing outside my window, but I find myself desperately wishing time would stop altogether so I could stay a little longer.

Boarding my train to London, I am reluctant to shut my eyes, knowing that when I open them again I will see a very different view. Eventually, though, I drift off, hoping too much time doesn't pass before my next adventure in the wild, exotic Highlands.

Author - Siobhan Norton

Siobhan Norton is assistant editor and head of production at the i paper, as well as doing as much travel writing as she can squeeze in. This article originally appeared in the i paper and at inews.co.uk.