The wild and windswept Highlands of Scotland are home to some of Britain’s tallest mountains, deepest lochs and largest stretches of intact wilderness. I think this is one of the most rewarding corners of the planet to explore on foot – and especially if you’ve got a cosy stay waiting at the end of a day in the elements.
Enter the Black Sheep Hotels. This new trio of inns is here to offer a warm welcome to Highland explorers in three unique hotels scattered through the mountains – The Cluanie Inn, Rokeby Manor and The Whispering Pine Lodge. These are inns with a mission – the owner, after one too many draughty and uncomfortable stays in a cold and creaky inn while on a Scottish walking holiday, set out to create the kind of hotels you might dream about when you’re standing on a rainy hillside – expect log fires, hearty fare, big comfy beds, lochside views and impressive whisky collections in all three inns.
If you’re itching for an adventure in the Highlands of Scotland this autumn, I recommend grabbing your hiking boots and watching the colours of the season come in from the comfort of one of these three welcoming hotels.
The Cluanie Inn, Glen Shiel
Earlier this year I embarked on a hiking, swimming and road-tripping journey through the Highlands to visit all three of the Black Sheep Hotels. We started our adventure at The Cluanie Inn. Flanked on all sides by soaring mountains (the hills literally stop at the doorstep of the inn) on the edge of Loch Cluanie, the inn is a cosy refuge in the rugged remoteness of Glen Shiel. Walk inside and you’re immediately greeted by a soft warm glow from lamps and the crackline fire – the hotel is heavy on historical prints on the walls, squashy sofas and bedrooms with huge four-poster beds and windows looking out at the ever-changing mountains. I loved the relaxed vibe of the restaurant, which serves traditional fare (I have a soft spot for haggis) as well as innovative takes on Indian fast food – the two styles of supper go surprisingly brilliantly together.
As cosy as Cluanie Inn is, I had to drag myself outside knowing that Glen Shiel was waiting just outside the door. Hiking trails abound here, but people definitely don’t – we took an hour’s hike into the surrounding mountains and soon found a pristine and untouched little loch in a high valley where we were totally alone. The Inn is also the perfect place to stop for the night if you’re on your way to the Isle of Skye, following the A87 on what has to be one of the most beautiful road trips on earth.
Rokeby Manor, Invergarry
Onwards to Rokeby Manor. This pretty building has stood on the edge of the village of Invergarry since the 1840s, and retains the peaceful character of its previous life as a Georgian country house. Bedrooms have old-fashioned charm, tartan hues and snippets of poetry on the walls. Supper is served in Emily’s Byre – a wood-panelled dining room that is tremendously old-worldy and cosy. But like all of the Black Sheep Hotels, the menu here is fresh and modern, serving street food classics with an Indian twist.
Out-of-doors, the landscape around the village of Invergarry is gentler than Glen Shiel, with miles of thick pine forest to wander through – it’s also an easy flat walk to reach Loch Lundie, a lovely spot for wild swimmers. I took a cooling dip in fresh peaty waters, watched over by an old boat house.
The Whispering Pine Lodge, Loch Lochy
The Whispering Pine Lodge is well-named – a tall pine tree stands guard outside this former hunting lodge, which perches right above the deep waters of Loch Lochy. The surrounding landscape couldn’t get more Scottish if it tried – behind the hotel is a rank of pine trees, while in front are the brooding depths of the loch and a veritable wall of mountains – the peaks of Meall na Teanga and Meall Dubh look back at the hotel from across the lake. Whispering Pine’s wide terrace is the perfect suntrap for watching boats go by and clouds roll over the mountains with a cup of the hotel’s excellent homemade chai tea.
Inside is all about the outside at The Whispering Pine Lodge – comfortable, modern lochside bedrooms have balconies that feel like they’re hanging over the water. And did I mention you get your own mini beach here? Loch Lochy (so good, I have to assume, they named it twice) is just steps away along the hotel’s pebbled shoreline – irresistible for wild swimmers, and the water wasn’t quite as cold as I was expecting.
When you’ve worked up an appetite in the water, have supper at The Lochside Brasserie, perhaps the most glamorous of the Black Sheep restaurants. Picture windows look out over the loch and the Brasserie feels rather nautical, matching the menu, which does a fine line in fresh seafood. When you’ve had your fill of locally-sourced fare, the Burns Bar is my favourite nook in the hotel – an oak-panelled bar hung with portraits of Scotland’s best-loved poet, and with a temptingly long line of local whiskies to choose from. Does it really get better than a loch swim followed by lobster and a wee dram of Laphroiag?
The Black Sheep Hotels are easy to drive between, and visiting them all is the perfect way to explore some of the Highlands’s most epic landscapes in just a few days. Each hotel in the group is unique, but they do have some lovely things in common. We found a warm and friendly welcome at each one, plus a fine line in comfort and tradition (without feeling stuffy or old-fashioned) and hearty, global fare perfect for hungry hikers. Just the kind of stay the owner set out to offer, in fact.
Stay at Rokeby Manor from £96, The Cluanie Inn from £133 and The Whispering Pine Lodge from £200 per night. Whispering Pine Lodge offers spa treatments from £15.
Eat at Emily’s Byre at Rokeby Manor, The Cluanie Bar and Kitchen at The Cluanie Inn and The Lochside Brasserie at The Whispering Pine Lodge, all of which serve similar menus using locally sourced ingredients and often with an Indian twist.