I wave to Fred whenever I pass him snaking down the hill –usually through gritted teeth after screeching to a halt behind his slow-moving sheep. But we’ve never met – until now.
An Airbnb newsletter in my inbox had teased “explore your own backyard,” highlighting a handful of local “experiences”. The real staycation, you could argue, is holidaying at home not renting a yurt in Wales.
I’d scrolled down. The suggestions pinpointed for me (in the hills above Loch Ness) included dinner on a local croft and a Viking and Pict history walk.
“Isn’t that the Swifts’ farm?” I mused to my boyfriend clicking on the image of a Highland cow getting a haircut. “Hey, Fred trained as a wildlife ranger in Africa for three years,” I shouted at his retreating back. “They’ve got beavers down there!” It’s also a good way to find out what your neighbours are up to. I swiftly booked the farm visit.
The next day I swing into the yard. Fred, who is in shorts and wellies with a tangled top-knot, meets me with his sheepdog Mugie and we set off uphill for a quick history lesson and a view over the 400-acre hill farm. “This used to be Fraser land, that’s why the cottages are painted red; it’s the clan colour. Twenty families once farmed up here on small crofts; the landscape has been shaped by subsistence agriculture.”
Tramping back down through a field full of sheep (they have a thousand Suffolk and Texel-crosses) it is Mugie’s turn to shine with their “one man and his dog” routine. “You move the sheep a lot,” I say. “It helps carbon sequestration,” Fred explains. Ah.
This summer they’ve turned the neighbouring field into a wildflower meadow. “We used pigs to churn up the land and then sheep to trample the seeds into the soil.” Crouching down he points out hairy vetch. “It’s actually a legume and nitrogen-fixing for the soil,” he explains. And the bees love it. The two hives among the gorse bushes house colonies of British black bees, his Argentinian fiancée Sofi’s latest project. (They met in Kenya working in mobile tented safari camps in the Maasai Mara.)
Winding our way through the woods we come to a rustic cabin where we find Sofi with a flask of tea and homemade Bovril biscuits. The safari-style hideaway has an open viewing deck onto a secret loch. On the opposite bank, Fred points out the beaver lodge. They reintroduced beavers to the farm in 2008 to improve biodiversity. The animals were hunted to extinction in the UK around 300 years ago – for their pelts and the juice from their anal glands, which was used to make perfume.
Beavers are nocturnal (and “did you know [they] are vegan?”) so there’s not much to see – apart from teeth marks in the felled trees, the trunks whittled into a distinctive point. And trout leaping in the water, a red kite circling overheard, herons and a European peacock butterfly. “I saw a kingfisher the other day!”
As we circle the loch I spot towels hanging from the branches and a trampoline “diving board” – it’s clearly a good wild swimming spot. Fred studied geography at university and has long been interested in flood defences, he tells me, as we stop at the first of the beavers’ dams. The 10 “leaky dams” they’ve created have stopped the land further down from flooding, while during dry periods they create drinking pools for the cattle.
Experiences at home
It’s a wonderful morning, a captivating snapshot of how a Highland hill farm is evolving sustainably and, on a roll, I go home and book another, very different, “experience”: an Outlander-themed walking tour of Inverness with Alex, a German literary historian studying for her PhD.
The first thing she’s keen to clear up when we meet in town, in case I hadn’t done my homework, is that Inverness appears in the Outlander novels, but the television series wasn’t filmed here. Falkland in Fife stands in for Inverness. And the American author Diana Gabaldon wrote the first novel without having even been to Scotland.
Explore a working Scottish farm, £30, bit.ly/scottishfarmvisit
Exploring Outlander in Inverness, £20, bit.ly/outlanderinverness
Following in the footsteps of the series’ time- travelling heroine Claire we wander down the high street, stopping for Alex to read excerpts from the books and to point out the “library” (the city museum and 60s eyesore) where Claire donates her historian husband Frank’s books after his death before heading up to the castle. Here, beside the statue of Flora Macdonald, she recounts what happened to the real-life heroine after helping Bonnie Prince Charlie escape Scotland following his defeat at the Battle of Culloden.
She was thrown into the Tower of London but was released in June 1747 and later emigrated to North Carolina with her husband where they bought a plantation – the main Outlander characters meet her at a barbecue in the sixth book A Breath of Snow and Ashes. They were on the wrong side during the War of Independence and lost everything.
Winding along the banks of the River Ness to the Old High St Stephen’s Church, Alex points out the stone in the graveyard where the troops balanced their muskets to execute the Jacobite prisoners, as injured government soldiers in Balnain House on the other side of the river cheered at each shot.
I find the real-life anecdotes fascinating – that and meeting Alex. She’s been working on a potato farm during lockdown and lives in Portmahomack, a fishing village. “That’s where the crime novelist and convicted murderer Ann Perry once lived,” I tell her. “Did you see the film Heavenly Creatures?”
We chat, we swap stories. It’s the personal experience I’ve been missing since travel stalled.
The best experiences close to home
Make My Day has Covid-safe experiences including foraging in north London (£50), a Georgian food tour of Bath (£45) and learning to play the bagpipes in Edinburgh (£55), makemyday.travel
Sophy Robson runs graffiti workshops in London’s Leake Street Arches using recycled paint (from £36), sophyrobson.com
Tudor Farmhouse in Gloucestershire is offering stargazing safaris in the Forest of Dean (£30), tudorfarmhousehotel.co.uk