Travel review: The ‘Cotswolds of Scotland’

Whisky casks in Speyside.  PIC: PA
Whisky casks in Speyside. PIC: PA
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Liz Connor checks into the Craigellachie Hotel and enjoys the trappings of the ‘Cotswolds of Scotland’.

Robert Burns put it perfectly in his famous poem My Heart’s in the Highlands: “Wherever I wander, wherever I rove, the hills of the Highlands, forever I love.” Driving through the rugged Speyside landscape, taking in the patchwork of wild moors, heathery hills and fog-covered peaks, it’s easy to see why the Scots bard formed a lifelong connection with the area.

So unique is Scotland’s snug and windswept appeal, that it’s now even got its own word to describe it – cosagach. The term, which translates as “sheltered and cosy”, is said to be a growing lifestyle trend to rival Scandinavia’s trendy hygge.

If you’re on the trail for whisky, tweed and tartan – as well as a slice of cosagach – Scotland’s most famous Scotch-producing region is catnip for tourists who are looking for an authentic Gaelic getaway.

Perched on the banks of the salmon-rich River Spey, 40 minutes from Aviemore and around an hour’s drive from Aberdeen Airport, the Craigellachie Hotel (double rooms from £160 per night including breakfast; craigellachiehotel.co.uk) is the perfect base for a weekend in Speyside – a 26-room luxury bolthole that dates back to 1893.

A £3m refurbishment in 2015, at the hands of Piers Adam (the owner of London cocktail club Mahiki), and a string of rock and roll patrons including Kate Moss and Noel Gallagher, has put this sprawling manor back on the radar for design-conscious travellers – with velvet Chesterfield sofas, log-burning stoves and squashy four-poster beds giving it the feel of a modern gentleman’s club.

One of its highlights is the well-stocked Quaich bar with more than 900 whiskies; ask the attentive staff and they’ll give you a wonderfully boozy intro to some of the finest malts from the region, or whip up a modern twist on a classic negroni.

A cosy, country pub in the basement adds to the getaway appeal – part of a fruitful partnership with Copper Dog, a palatable and modern blended-malt whisky with a fruity and honey taste.

Despite its remote location and patchy mobile phone reception, the crowd here is a lot younger than you’d think. The area is making a rather boujie name for itself as “the Cotswolds of Scotland”, so get ready to see a lot of Soho Farmhouse urbanites who hike in Hunter wellies and like their country retreats to come with all the trappings: Michelin-worthy pub grub, the White Company bed sheets and avocado on toast breakfasts.

Speyside features the largest concentration of Scotch whisky distilleries in the country (full details at malts.com) including Glenfiddich and Macallan, and a pleasant afternoon can be spent tasting the fruits of the region. There are several trails to take, including the Cragganmore distillery, which is home to one of the most complex and characterful malt whiskies in the region.

Tours are about an hour long and take you through the fascinating process of creating whisky – from malting to maturation. Even those who can’t stand the taste of Scotch will find something deeply relaxing in the steaming alcoholic cosiness emitting from the bubbling copper pot sills. The Range Tour, which costs £28 and can be booked on the distillery’s website, ends with nosing and tasting a range of Cragganmore single-malt expressions with local food samples.

A visit to neighbouring Elgin, just half an hour’s drive away, offers the chance to see cashmere being manufactured at the world-famous Johnstons of Elgin Mill (johnstonscashmere.com). It’s a surprisingly moving insight into an industry that has remained largely unchanged for the past 200 years; fine wool is dyed, teased, carded, spun and finished by hand by a workforce of local craftsmen, with an attention to detail afforded to so few modern products.

As well as homespun tartan knits, the mill also produces Burberry’s trademark check scarves and Hermes blankets, so any fashion fan worth their Givenchy Antigona handbag will find plenty to gawp at on a two-hour tour (call ahead and book to avoid disappointment).

It’s a crime not to invest in at least one cosy Johnstons cashmere jumper before you leave – they cost from £75 upwards, but the mill regularly holds seasonal “fill a bin bag” sales where you can get scarves from as little as £5 (sadly the designer products can’t be snapped up here).

If you’re looking for a group activity to fire up the competitive spirit, a morning of clay pigeon shooting is a brilliant way to blow away cobwebs. House of Mulben (houseofmulben.com) offers a full range of activities in the bracing Keith countryside, which is a 15-minute drive from the hotel.

Start with a round of archery to practise your aim, then trundle into the Caledonian pine forest in a Land Rover Defender, where you can partner up and go head to head in a shooting contest.

A round of shooting and archery isn’t cheap – it will set you back £70 per head – but the whole experience is surprisingly cathartic. Forget yoga, meditation and transformational breathing, bundling up against the elements (Barbour optional) and taking a shotgun to a flying piece of clay is probably the most mindful thing you’ll do all year – and it doesn’t get more cosagach than that.