Scotland for the soul: a relaxation retreat in the Highlands
A new relaxation retreat in northern Scotland strips life back to the simple pleasures of being creative in one of the UK’s last great wildernesses
It wasn’t just the remote and beautiful Highlands setting, the days spent immersed in nature, yoga, arts and crafts, or even the wholesome home-cooked food that made this relaxation week the perfect antidote to urban living. Its unquantifiable but invaluable USP was that it was provided by a couple who, with a complete absence of corporate front, clearly love doing what they do.
Any nerves I had about spending a week with a group of people I’d never met were calmed from the off by the twinkly-eyed Alex, one half of Wild Rose Escapes, whose effortless friendliness seemed to bode well.
He met the guests at Inverness station and drove us through Drumnadrochit, on the north shore of Loch Ness, and up a track to the beautifully converted Polmaily Steading, our hideaway for the week. We were greeted with wide smiles by Rosie, who led us through the huge open living area where logs burned invitingly on an open fire and comfy russet-coloured sofas beckoned.
In the large, country-style kitchen we sat around the table while Rosie served tea and freshly baked lemon cake. Rosie outlined the week ahead, emphasising that no one had to take part in any activity if they didn’t want to. I briefly considered spending my visit doing nothing more than exploring the steading’s cosy nooks with an armful of novels.
After a dinner of quiche, salads and baked pears and plums, I headed for my pleasingly simple and very quiet room. I slept for nine hours that first night, a third more than my usual quota. At 8.30 the next morning, music lured me downstairs to where Joany, the yoga teacher, had laid out mats for some “wee stretches and postures”. After an hour, knots in my neck and back were singing to me and I made a rash promise to myself to join a yoga class back home.
Breakfast was a leisurely affair with more of Rosie’s astonishing array of homemade goodies – granola, bread, jam, marmalade, chutney, hummus, and chunky flapjacks. It was a civilised 11.30am before the six guests climbed aboard the people carrier for the day’s outing. I stared out of the window at mile after mile of Loch Ness while Rosie chatted knowledgeably about indigenous and imported trees. At Glen Affric, we meandered around the stunning landscape where lichen shrouded the trees like pale green snow amid a blaze of autumn colour. After an untaxing walk of around 45 minutes, we picnicked overlooking the River Affric, warmed by a giant flask of tea from Rosie’s rucksack, and then returned home.
Our days alternated between outings to a beauty spot – including the spectacular Plodda Falls, one of the highest in Scotland – and holing up in the steading for arts and crafts. I’d never tried batik, the Indonesian dyeing technique, and battled with inner doubts about not being able to draw before immersing myself in paints, crayons and melted wax, which we drizzled over plain canvas bags with pipe-like tools.
The next day we dipped the bags in indigo dye and later ironed off the wax that had protected sections of the bag from the dye. I did feel a surge of delight at the end result, but couldn’t help thinking, churlishly, that our efforts would probably fetch less than £5 on a market stall. I also found myself calculating the effort-to-potential-profit ratio when we spent the best part of a day felting – making a template, picking bits of coloured wool to lay on the template, doing this again at right angles to the first layer of wool and a third time in the original direction, then soaking it all with water, placing bubble wrap on top, and soaping and rubbing this for an hour or two until my wrists were red raw.
But even though I’m not about to quit my day job, I felt pretty proud of my rainbow creation and – this is really the point – there is something about the rhythm of creativity that utilises the unthinking part of our brain and calms the mind.
But Rosie’s passion for getting back to basics and making things from scratch really became evident the day we went foraging. After collecting sorrel, nettle and chickweed, we took the plants to the caravan where Rosie and Alex live with their baby, Thora. It has no running water or electricity and the compost toilet is a short walk away but Alex lit a fire – using a stainless steel tool, tree bark and an old wasps’ nest, but no matches – and a meal of buckwheat stew with our hand-picked greens followed surprisingly quickly.
“She hates convenience,” said Alex when I asked him what had drawn this couple from Wiltshire – they were at school together and both studied archaeology – to such a remote and harsh environment. But while Rosie is evidently as tough as boots herself, she took great care of us, making sure we were comfortable and inquiring what each of us wanted to do each day. She was never too busy to talk or take an interest in our lives.
Each day Rosie conjured up some new culinary treat, culminating with a birthday cake for her friend and guest, Lucy, on the last day. Rosie had bought chocolate buttons to decorate it but at the last minute beckoned me outside to help her pick berries and leaves for the cake instead, and left me to arrange them. She also taught us to make bread and, while she cooked the evening meal, dictated recipes to me so that I could try them at home.
She also produced mulled wine for us to sup around the fire one evening as we listened to a visiting storyteller. Other evenings included a facial massage class – using Joany’s homemade, oil-infused creams – and a relaxation session. I can’t tell you anything about that one because I fell fast sleep within minutes of it starting. On the final day, Rosie taught us a word/mime game and the conviviality of the week reached a peak.
How on earth, I wondered, did Rosie manage to accomplish so much and remain so attentive, informative, sweet-tempered – and relaxed?
“This brings together everything I love,” said Rosie, who worked in catering and tourism before setting up her own business with Alex. All Wild Rose Escapes are an immersion in Rosie’s favourite things, delivered with the love and attention of an enthusiast. Lucy later revealed to me, entirely unsurprisingly, that Rosie had also once worked as a counsellor.
There is an entire industry devoted to the art of relaxation, but Rosie and Alex delivered this retreat in a way that completely epitomised the worth of the concept. I returned to my normal life feeling slightly rueful that I am not, in fact, Rosie, but grateful for the sprinkling of her aura that I was taking home.