Scottish Daily Mail
How the Middletons do LOCH down
Despairing of Covid isolation? Read this enthralling account of how Kate’s brother James and his fiancee found a magical escape in the Highlands: their ice-cold dips at dawn... the joy of a wood-burning stove... life’s simpler pleasures... and you’ll almost feel you’re there
AS A soft grey dawn breaks over Loch Affric in Invernessshire, my fiancee Alizee and I stand at the water’s edge in bathrobes, sipping our morning tea. We’re steeling ourselves for a shock — the sensory jolt of our daily dip in the icy water.
A l ow mist hangs over the mountains; there is promise of a golden winter’s day ahead. We gird ourselves for the leap, then jump. The cold i s numbing, l i terally breath-taking. Every nerve- end and sinew tingles into life with the startling chill of it. And as we duck our heads under the water, we shiver and laugh.
The dogs have joined us now — my three black spaniels Ella, I nka, Luna, and our golden retriever Mabel — swimming with their noses above the waterline. We strike out into the freezing depths for just a few metres, then i t’s time to swim back to the shoreline, shake ourselves off (the dogs in a rainstorm of shivering droplets) and r ush i nto t he cottage to shower.
I never feel more exultant, more thrillingly alive, than I do after this morning dip. The dogs are rugged up snugly in their little turquoise towelling coats; Alizee and I are cosy in jumpers, thick trousers and stout boots. A wood fire blazes.
Next there is breakfast: porridge with honey from the bees I keep at Bucklebury Manor — my parents’ home in Berkshire — then newly l aid eggs and my homemade sourdough bread.
This has become our new earlymorning routine, how Alizee and I have begun our day since the latest lockdown — or lochdown, as we have come to call it — sent us scurrying from London to this remote and beautiful Scottish retreat.
I am fortunate because the Glen Affric Estate, where Alizee and I are staying — we came up just before the latest Covid restrictions prohibited all but essential travel — is owned by my sister Pippa’s in-laws.
The main house, a Victorian lodge built in 1857, sits peacefully on the water’s edge, looking west up the loch. There is a cottage in the grounds and this is where Alizee and I are holed up: in contented isolation in this glorious wilderness, with just our dogs and wildlife for company.
In the week we work, of course — Alizee for a financial start-up, while I run my own businesses — but the joy is, we can both do so from our remote Highland outpost.
But our l eisure hours and weekends are crammed with activity, with the rugged outdoor pursuits we both love.
There is the loch flanked by ancient Caledonian pine forests, where we sail and paddleboard — the dogs joining us, too — into sunsets so stunning they bathe the whole glen in rosy light.
Feeding the estate’s horses — Rosco, Menno and Marcus — has become a happy ritual.
The dogs trot behind as we drive the quadbike, laden with hay bales, to the field where they are waiting, frisky with anticipation, for their fodder.
They nuzzle the dogs, who dart and gambol with them, excited by the sudden flurry of activity.
The great Lakeland walker and writer Alfred Wainwright once observed: ‘There is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothes,’ and this adage could not apply more keenly than in the Highlands.
But Alizee and I, dressed in woollens and waterproofs, are never perturbed by the cold or wet. Driving polar winds and horizontal rain do not deter us from our 20-kilometre hikes and runs in the Munros.
Last weekend we laced up our fellrunning trainers and resolved to race to the top of the nearby peak. It is lonely, rugged and challenging; there is no path, but we followed a series of little cairns, the dogs, excited, scampering alongside us.
The wind had a sharp edge and icy rain whipped up as we began the ascent.
Sleet stung our cheeks l i ke needles and on one wind-lashed ledge Alizee could barely stand. We almost made it — within metres of the peak — when the cold and wet of the gathering dusk defeated us and we turned tail to skip and leap our way downhill again.
There’s a fisherman’s bothy — a tiny one-room hut, warmed by a log-burning stove — two miles from our cottage, where we stop to light a fire and in the steamy heat revive
is part of my own. His Scottish father had worked as a miner in the pits of both the Central Belt of Scotland and i n England’s South-East. Both talk and talked with nothing but love for that lost trade.
It was a love born of camaraderie and shared experience in an often dangerous world.
Underground it hardly mattered where you had been born, as long as you could do the job and cared to look out for the wellbeing of the other men on the shift. Miners were miners.
IHavE noticed that differences in accent and dialect, style and demeanour, the countless idiosyncrasies providing the dizzying multicolour of the tapestry of Britain happen mile by mile, between one valley and the next, and are not all about national boundaries.
Most of all, and best of all, I can say with hand on heart that I have been received with nothing but affection in every town and city, nook and cranny.
Year after year, as a Scot abroad, I have been made to feel at home all over. When I toured Britain with one of my books last year and the year before, going f rom theatre to theatre, I stepped out onstage one memorable night in Liverpool into a welcome of cheers that took me aback so much I almost burst into tears.
I have no connection to that city on the Mersey and yet I was nearly knocked to the back wall of the stage by the wave.
I know that might sound selfindulgent but I have to write about what I have experienced as a citizen of Britain, to make clear why it all matters to me the way it does.
all of this is personal in the end, perhaps for all of us. How could I not love this place – this whole place – and so hope with all my heart that it remains one place?
If so much is cut away from me I will feel the itch of missing limbs until my dying day. I have been around enough of the wider world to know that most places are not like Britain, not at all.
Every time I hear the place being run down for some or other alleged failing I want to ask: ‘Compared to where?’
That anyone at all would imagine it were possible to break this wonder into pieces and yet somehow retain its fragile, precious gifts in each of the tattered remnants is beyond me.
a torn fragment of a work of art is not enough. Once it’s gone, it is forever and we will all be diminished by its passing.
This Britain of ours has been and remains a bright light in a dark and darkening world, a magnet for humanity moving in hopes of somewhere better.
When the EU was conjured into being, it copied our Union in hopes of having a fraction of its success. Whatever the intention, those builders fell short of the mark. There is no EU welfare state, and German taxes do not pay for healthcare in Greece or pensions in Spain.
Most of the wider world would rather it were more like us, that it might have what we have had. When it comes to western liberal democracy, ours is the original marque.
What I said in 2014 I will say again. The idea that we Scots might look on at a whole Britain in need of repair, in need of realignment and updating to cope with the future, and choose to cut and run just makes me blush to my fingertips with shame. I am a British Scot and the Britons are my family, all of them.
I don’t give a fig for politicians and I certainly don’t allow my feelings about the present bunch to blind me to what Britain actually is – no more than I would let this year’s crop of midges blind me to the beauty of the Highlands.
I set aside my feelings concerning the latest incumbents of various parliaments on the grounds that they – and all of us besides – are temporary tenants.
These islands of ours are rented accommodation whether we like it or not, and sooner or later we will vacate the place for new occupants. You don’t burn down the house just because you don’t care for those living in it now.
Keep the house together. This house of ours is the work of 300 years (and the rest). If there are repairs to be done, then so be it.
LET’S treat it like the grand home it is, and make it wind and watertight for the whole family again. The whole family. Let’s not break it into flats like a dodgy conversion job by cowboy builders.
I don’t base my decision on politics or economics or even history. I make my choices based on the responsibility I feel for people – alive now and yet to be born.
I love Britain more than anywhere else in the world. With all my heart I declare that those of us born here, or who have made a home here by choice, are the luckiest, most blessed of all people.
I am British. I will always be British.