Saturday evening, our first evening and all the course participants are gathered in the common room, already making friendships and eagerly awaiting our introduction. I have been to Aigas before but it is still a special feeling, the warmth and anticipation of the week to come.
First things first though and, only travelling from Carlisle I have come by car and the lovely journey through the Borders and into the Highlands is part of the holiday for me. I have plenty of time to take to the more quiet routes, looking for wildlife and enjoying the stunning autumn scenery. I time my arrival, as suggested, in time for afternoon tea. I mingle with others who have been picked up from the airport or railway station and we find out who are the first timers, not quite knowing what to expect and the old hands who are eagerly anticipating the week to come.
After the introduction, orientating new visitors and reminding returners, we proceed to the great hall for the first of many superb dinners, always a chance to sit with someone new and enjoy the wonderful food with a glass of wine. It’s been a long day travelling for a lot people so after a coffee in the common room most return to the well-equipped chalets to finish unpacking and prepare for the next day.
We have all received an itinerary and as I am on a themed week it mixes some old favourites with, in our case, visits to distilleries. I always enjoy a wander around the Aigas loch and, since my last visit another new hide has been constructed specially for red squirrels and crested tits and we are all wowed when, on cue, a crestie flies out onto the feeders. We also visit the nearby glens, soaking up stunning landscapes whilst keeping eager eyes out for wildlife. We are fortunate to be here at this time of year as the Red Deer rut is in progress. The stags are busy trying to attract and keep harems of hinds and we see them displaying and can hear the roaring, not just in the day but at night too.
The week always includes a visit to the Black Isle and a trip with skipper Sarah from Ecoventures to look for the Moray Firth bottlenose dolphins. We were unlucky this time with the dolphins but occasionally that’s how it is although we did get good seabird sightings. We had been out in the morning and then had the wonderful picnic lunches provided for us with hot tea and coffee overlooking the Cromarty Firth and were able to identify good numbers of birds feeding as the tide fell. Lunch, like all the food, is just right as before setting out in the morning we are able to select what we like from a range of foods spread out before us.
A visit to the Black Isle Brewery rounded off the day and was interesting as producing a beer is basically the first step to making whisky. We combined visits to three quite different distilleries both locally and on Speyside with more wildlife spotting opportunities. As someone else was doing the driving we were able to take advantage of some whisky samples!
In the evenings, after dinner, we were able to go on hide visits and we saw a badger and two pine martens. One evening of our week was set aside for a whisky tasting, very ably led by our guest ranger, Martyn, who introduced us to five different whiskies. Our group seemed to have added a couple of extra people for this evening! On the last day, Sir John invited us into the drawing room for a reading, usually from one of his own books but as he had done a launch for a new book the previous evening he delighted us by doing a couple of short readings from Oscar Wilde. After a wonderful meal, a couple of glasses of wine and with a roaring fire I struggled to keep my eyes open and I did notice some who lost that particular struggle!
All too soon the week has gone by and as I remarked over my porridge at breakfast on the Friday it only seemed like yesterday when we arrived. If I were asked for my highlights of the week I would have great difficulty in choosing – simple because everything is a highlight from the delicious food, the welcoming and knowledgeable rangers and staff, the range of visits and activities, the comfortable accommodation and so perhaps the whole week is a highlight and I can’t wait to go back.
Written by Aigas guest John Wright