Billionaires’ Britain: A Highlands helicopter ‘safari’ with Scotland’s glorious Gleneagles

Billionaires’ Britain: A Highlands helicopter ‘safari’ with Scotland’s glorious Gleneagles

In Scotland, the wild is rarely more than a whisper away. At Gleneagles we gazed over manicured croquet lawns, past the grand estate trees planted a century ago, beyond golfers on fairways, to the brooding heights of the Ochil Hills. Their slopes were a chaos of wild colours – purple, rose, madder, maroon, ochre. Their summits bumped against pewter clouds. Above them, golden eagles sailed on ocean winds.

We were enjoying afternoon tea in the hotel’s Glendevon lounge. “Papa,” said my 11-year-old daughter Sophia, between mouthfuls of a pistachio macaron, “are those hills the Highlands?” “A bit of the Highlands,” I replied as I savoured a white chocolate namelaka. “We need to go there,” she said.

Any hotel with its own railway station deserves respect. We’d boarded the Caledonian sleeper at Euston, dined somewhere beyond the Watford Gap with a couple of bankers escaping Manhattan, and been tucked up in 1st class in the Midlands by our Scottish conductor/nanny. In the morning we stepped onto the empty platform at Gleneagles. At first light, the station looked like a Harry Potter set. The air smelt of pine.

One of the revised suites at Gleneagles

As the grandest hotel in Scotland, opened in 1924, Gleneagles was once part of the «season». The privileged few would migrate from Ascot to Cowes to Henley, before heading north for the Glorious Twelfth, and grouse shoots and golf at Gleneagles. Though still as Scottish as caber tossing, Gleneagles has emerged from recent renovations – under new owner Ennismore – with a stylish and contemporary glamour that makes 1920s grouse shooting seem like the Dark Ages.

On arrival we were shown to our Whisky suite, which felt like an entire wing of a country house. Walking into the drawing room, my first instinct was to ring for tea, then curl up on the sofa with a book. My companion had other plans, however: Sophia had come for excitement and devoted every evening to plotting the next day’s explorations.

And so we raced ferrets, rode horses, went clay pigeon shooting, played golf, cycled for miles on back lanes – all without leaving the Gleneagles estate. We even chanced our arms at archery; mercifully no one was wounded. Then, over afternoon tea, we found ourselves captivated by those heather-coated Ochil Hills.

Those heather-coated hills CREDIT: GREGOR SCHMATZ

Before you could say «another scone, please», we were signed on for a highland «safari». We set off the following morning with our guide Philip in a Land Rover full of binoculars, bird books and a couple of Harris Hawks. Following the Strathearn Valley through the stone village of Comrie, we crossed the River Earn where salmon lurked in the shallows.

The valley itself feels pivotal in the country’s history and culture. This is as far as the Romans got; the haunting hummocks and ridges of Ardoch Roman Fort are spread across several meadows. But there is something else about Strathearn that is central to the Scottish identity. It lies along the boundary between Lowlands and Highlands, a border that bisects Scottish character and history as clearly as its geography. Here is where the cultivated meets the wild; the tame turns savage.

Heather the Harris Hawk CREDIT: GREGOR SCHMATZ

Philip unpacked our two passengers, Heather and Comet. Considered among the most intelligent birds, Harris Hawks stand almost 2ft tall. Which is quite a lot of hawk when it’s perched on your wrist eyeballing you, that curved killer beak a few inches from your face. We «threw» them into flight from our gauntlets and they soared into blue air. Comet spotted a pheasant from what seemed like several miles up. She plummeted, and it was all over in a flurry of feathers.

After a morning’s hawking, we tucked into a picnic of champagne and smoked salmon. Then a helicopter arrived to return us to Gleneagles: a spectacular journey from the purple-hued hills over the sun-spattered fields of the Strathearn. From the air, the property looked like a palace. And arriving at palaces by helicopter prompts proprietorial feelings: Sophia strolled from the chopper to the waiting vintage Rolls like a returning princess.

Exploring the Highlands by helicopter CREDIT: GREGOR SCHMATZ

Another excursion – less glamorous but just as fascinating – was led by Andrew Fairlie,whose restaurant at Gleneagles holds two Michelin stars. He took us along country roads to an old manor house, and in the grounds we came across a creaky wooden door on which, a generation ago, children had painted «The Secret Garden». Pushing it open, we stumbled into a Victorian walled garden – the secret inspiration of Fairlie’s kitchen.

Stanley Stewart and his daughter Sophia, rambling through the countryside by Land Rover CREDIT: GREGOR SCHMATZ

We wandered for an hour through this fragrant world of berries, edible flowers, herbs and salad leaves, ripening vegetables and trellised fruit. We admired the rows of Chioggia beetroot with its marbled flesh, rainbow chard, purple Shiraz mangetout, sage, garlic chives and salsify – nibbling samples along the way.

For Fairlie, a chef of international repute, this place has transformed the way he works, with garden and kitchen; growers and chefs in symbiotic relationship. For us, this was another Scotland, an enclosed world of cultivated peace – all the sweeter for knowing the wilds were just over the next hill.