As a Scotswoman, albeit with an English accent, living in London, I’m patriotic to the point of annoyance. I’ll happily wax lyrical on all things north-of-the border, from the low-brow (I’m a sucker for an Irn-Bru and a Tunnock’s teacake) to the somewhat loftier heights of Rabbie Burns and Rennie Mackintosh. I’ve always been well acquainted with Glasgow and Edinburgh, but anything further north and I become a tourist again. I have vague memories of a trip to Ben Nevis and adamant I’d seen Nessy at Loch Ness as a child, but the Highlands have been fairly unknown territory.
So, when I heard one of my favourite London-based restaurants Mac & Wild had an outpost in the Highlands, I couldn’t resist another trip to the motherland. A chance to fill my lungs with fresh Scottish air, reminding myself that you can be happy even when it rains for more than half the year, and, of course, sample some of the best food and drink the British Isles has to offer.
The restaurant was founded by two Scots lads, Calum Mackinnon and Andy Waugh. They started off with a hugely successful Scottish street food spot in London – if you haven’t tried one of their haggis toasties you haven’t lived – before opening two standalone restaurants in Fitzrovia and Devonshire Square. The latter even boasts a virtual shooting range for guests to get the real Highland experience.
Mac & Wild’s dishes have become some of the most Instagrammable around, from their epic weekend brunches – think venison roasts, all-day Scottish breakfasts and bottomless Buckfast cocktails. Or their ‘Veni-Moo’ – a behemoth of a burger super-loaded with beef, venison, cheese, bearnaise sauce and caramelised onions. Ooofph! If you hadn’t already guessed, Mac & Wild aren’t a first choice for veggie and vegan eaters.
The brand’s third restaurant sits approximately 45 miles north of Inverness right by Scotland’s famous Falls of Shin. And unlike the London outposts which really play on the Scottish aesthetic, this is bright, airy and more of a concept space than a standalone restaurant. There’s a huge outdoor area for families to eat al fresco, a gift shop (be sure to pick up some of their lethal bottled cocktails) and a range of events on offer throughout the year, from whisky tasting in the woods to watching the famous salmon leaping up the falls.
But it’s their outdoor Bothy at the Falls which is the real star of the Shins show. An outdoor entertaining space for up to 30 people, it can be hired for intimate dinners or raucous weddings, depending on how many wee drams are sunk.
Food at the bothy is cooked on a huge outdoor fire pit, marrying the rustic charm of the Highlands and eating from land to fork, but with the comfort of cosy sheepskin rugs and essential outdoor heaters. And I can honestly say if you visit, you’ll experience some of the best of British food you’ve ever had.
Think local, meaty salmon slightly cured with sea buckthorn and oak moss, venison tartare that has a rich, deeper taste to its traditional beef counterpart, scallops straight from the firepit and langoustine (in my opinion one of the UK’s most underrated local ingredients) made into a mouth-watering ravioli. And the pièce de résistance, seven-week, dry aged tomahawk served with roasties and seasonal veg all cooked on an open flame.
It’s traditional, simple cooking techniques that the Mac & Wild boys love to celebrate, from the lick of a flame to the sour taste of pickling, curing and foraging – and they’re all executed with love, passion and incredible skill.
For Highland hardcores you can also stay at the Falls in fully renovated Land Rovers that open up-top to form an adventure tent and bed for the night. Or, book into their space age bubble pod and sleep, quite literally, beneath the stars. For those who prefer a night cap by an indoor fire and a cosy bed instead, nearby Alladale Wilderness Reserve is another option.
The traditional, one-time estate has been transformed into a reserve to educate guests on how we can be more responsible to the land, hunt more sustainably and celebrate the wildlife with educational tours, walking guides and Scottish wildlife safaris. A must if you want to get the true Highland experience. I took a trip in one of their off-road buggies – essentially a mini tank – to ride over the nooks and crannies of the rugged Highlands to get to the top of the peaks. On the way I spotted herds of deer flying over the hills and nonchalant Highland cattle grazing. At the top, you can see for miles with not a single person, house or sign of human intervention, but rather a pure unspoilt expanse of nature. A dram (when in Rome) and homemade smoked salmon sandwiches were tucked into at the top of the peak to celebrate.
If it takes a London restaurant to get a Scot to visit the Highlands, it must be good. Forget the cities, for my next Scottish adventure I’ll be bypassing and heading further north. This isn’t just a Highland fling; this is a full-blown Scottish love affair.