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There is a single, perfect moment during my visit to Eilean Shona, an idyllic private island about an hour from Fort William off the coast of western Scotland, when I feel I have reached peak “lady of the manor at luxe rural hideaway”.
Several wines deep, I am standing – or perhaps swaying would be more accurate – in a capacious living room that is the epitome of rumpled grandeur, next to a grand piano. The pale peach walls are decked with large-scale artworks, several of which have been painted by personal friends of the island’s owner, Vanessa Branson (sister of Richard); the shabby-chic rugs underfoot and battered couches keep things cosy. But, most importantly, I am singing – full-throatedly and acapella – the traditional celtic folk classic, “Wild Mountain Thyme”, alongside two fellow chanteurs, one of whom happened to have the words printed out and folded in his pocket. Both my heart and my glass are full, and all is right with the world.
It’s gone midnight and this impromptu musical performance followed a wander down to Loch Moidart in an attempt at stargazing – alas, the clouds had other ideas. Thankfully, the original plan of storming in for a night-time dip was quickly cast aside; the day’s scorching sun had given way to a bone-deep chill. The culprit behind such foolhardy thinking had undoubtedly been too many drinks at dinner, served alongside deceptively simple, expertly cooked Scottish fare: smoked fish, venison, a custard-dunked pudding that, rather than sticking to the ribs, managed to combine lightness with a finely tuned balance of savoury-sweet.
Time took on an elastic quality; hours drew themselves out languorously, like delicate coils of smoke, over an evening that seemed both never-ending and to pass in the blink of an eye. And all amid the spellbinding bombast of the dining room, with walls daubed in a riot of colourful shapes. Normally, only those who can afford to book the place in its entirety can stay at the main house, which sleeps 16. But a new “experience” package being launched on set dates means it’s now possible to book to stay there as an individual or a couple, with all food, drink and activities thrown in.
Looking around the table, you’d have thought we were attending a fancy dress party or murder mystery evening (or perhaps had experienced a collective nervous breakdown). On Vanessa’s encouragement, we’d plunged headfirst into the house’s walk-in wardrobe to play an adult version of dress-up. There were masks and capes, viking helmets and sequinned waistcoats; I’d channelled my inner Austen heroine, modelling a powder-blue satin dress paired with a floor-length velvet coat the colour of a kiss. Once we got over the silliness, it merely added to the louche, bohemian vibe of the place – as we struck a pose around the table for a photo, the recent adaptation of The Pursuit of Love, in particular Andrew Scott’s coterie of weird and wonderful house guests, flashed across my mind.
But by day Eilean Shona showed us another facet entirely, one consisting of fresh-faced exuberance. That afternoon we’d been kayaking across the clear water surrounding the island, deftly navigating our way over waves of varying choppiness under the blazing midday sun.
“Paddle forward but stay as quiet as you can,” Matt Waterston of MW Guiding, our kayak tour guide for the day, muttered under his breath. “See those brown dots on the island ahead? They’re seals. We’re going to get as close as we can but when they hear us they’ll jump back in the water.”
We made our way towards them, as stealthily as one can when wielding a double-ended oar and dressed in an electric-blue lifejacket. And there they were: huge, ink-black eyes, water-slicked skin, snuffly noses that bring to mind labradors’ faces. And – wait! – they had pups! Mere moments later the group clocked our presence and nudged their young into the water, disappearing beneath the waves themselves with the most graceful of belly-first dives. I’d only just caught my breath when another one stuck its head up, mere metres from the front of my kayak.
Sadly – yet happily too – Eilean Shona is so quiet that the seals have never grown too confident with tourists. They’ve remained shy, meaning they don’t hang around long once they’ve spotted an interloper; but this made our too-brief interactions all the more memorable.
Time took on an elastic quality; hours drew themselves out languorously, like delicate coils of smoke
It’s a fine kayaking distance to Shoe Bay, where we pitched up for a late lunch of langoustines and palest rosé after an hour or so. This hidden cove has all the bleached white-sand/spirit-clear turquoise waves credentials of a Caribbean isle. The only thing that’s missing is the warm water, but as I kicked out for a post-lunch swim, I truly wouldn’t have traded the refreshingly sharp tang of cold for wallowing in bath-like shallows.
It’s a stripped-back kind of holiday – one where you have to forget the lack of phone signal, shrug off the patchy wifi and rejoice in the present moment. The day after the night before, with its misty-eyed sing-song, we stock up on a full Scottish breakfast (essentially a full English eaten north of the border) to power up for a rousing hike around the island. We follow Vanessa, her gait as reassuringly sure and steady as a mountain goat, on rocky trails that take in the wildness of the fern and tree-clad slopes. The whole landscape looks as if it’s been dip-dyed in chlorophyll. And there, at every turn, is the water, its colour changing with that of the sky, quiet as a tomb today. Save for our chatter, it is pin-drop silent.
The word “untouched” gets bandied about a lot in travel writing but it’s hard to come up with an apter adjective to describe the surroundings: there are no telephone poles, no 4G masts, no roads, no shops to mar the view. In fact, aside from the main house where we’re staying, there are just nine guest cottages, sleeping from two to eight people, tucked in secluded spots; a rustic barn that doubles up as the town hall and the local pub (dishing out generous G&Ts one night a week); and the newly restored picnic bothy, which is the final destination of our morning’s walk.
We arrive to find a dream-like bolthole whose rough-hewn stone and exposed beams are the setting for a magazine-shoot-worthy spread – candles flicker in the corners, while the centre of the room showcases a solid wood table laden with homebaked loaves, caesar salad slathered in the thickest of dressings, a cauldron of cockaleekie soup and a cheese board piled high for afters, all displayed around a centrepiece of freshly picked fuchsia foxgloves. We “aw” and “ah” and take pictures before diving in like the pack of jackals we are.
I truly wouldn’t have traded the refreshingly sharp tang of cold for wallowing in bath-like shallows
Vanessa regales us with the very best kind of celebrity stories – like the time Kate Winslet, now part of the family having married Richard Brandon’s nephew in 2012, showed off her “merkin”, a pubic hair wig (while fully dressed, I hasten to add) – and before we know it it’s time to hot-foot it back to the house to slug some of the finest drams I’ve ever had the pleasure of swilling, with a whisky tasting from local, sustainable distillery Ardnamurchan.
And with that, the spell is almost over. Our 10-minute boat ride to the mainland awaits, as does our cosy overnight journey back to London, courtesy of the comfortable bunks on the Caledonian Sleeper. I know I will feel strangely deflated in the days to come, as I try to hang on to the magic of this place with all the futility of clutching the memory of a dream, even as it spills out of your head like quicksand. But whenever I hum “Wild Mountain Thyme” under my breath, I know I’ll get a flash of sunbeams echoing off water and emerald ferns brushing my calves; the smoky taste of single malt and the sound of sealskins slapping waves. My heart, if not my glass, will be full, and all will be right with the world.
The Caledonian Sleeper departs from London Euston and travels overnight to Fort William; a classic twin room costs from £170 return. It’s then about an hour’s drive to Dorlin Pier to catch the boat to Eilean Shona.
A four-night Eilean Shona Experience break starting on 1 September costs from £1,700pp based on two sharing (or £2,500 for single occupancy) including all meals, house wine, all activities, and return boat transfers to the mainland. Maximum group size: 12 people in six bedrooms.