The news cycle may resound to the soundtrack of Harry and Meghan, but we’ll always have a place in our hearts for ol’ Wills and Kate. Three cheers for the couple who paved the way for the ongoing royal renaissance, who defined Sloane Ranger chic for a new generation of toffs and whose relationship we followed every twist and turn (and break up) of like it was some kind of Dawson’s Creek with tiaras. So in honour of our future king and queen (and for the owl – read on…), I took the train up from London town to spend the weekend where the royal romance began: at the five-star Fairmont St Andrews Hotel.
Watching the landscape evolve from grey London concrete, to chocolate box English fields, into wild Scottish moorland, the train journey alone was a strong start to a much-needed escape from the city.
Way back in 2002, the Fairmont St Andrews Hotel was home to the famous student fashion show, where William first realised he was falling for young Kate (her see-through dress may have helped move things along.) St Andrews might be best known for its royal university students, or its golfing opportunities, but there are plenty of other things to do. A good place to start if you want to channel your inner aristocrat is with Steve Brazendale, otherwise known as ‘The Scottish Countryman’.
Steve is a seasoned outdoor enthusiast, having managed country estates and taught others about nature and husbandry for 36 years. Clad head-to-toe in tweed, with a beaming smile and a contagious passion for the flora and fauna of Fife, he is an ideal guide for any city dweller looking to try their hand at country living, which on this occasion just so happened to be me.
My hosts had booked me in for some fly-fishing, but I couldn’t help being a little bit glad when it was rained off (you can take the girl out of the city, but not the city outta the girl as they say). Instead of spending the afternoon knee-deep in mud under the Scottish rain awaiting some poor unsuspecting trout, Steve quickly redirected me to his diminutive falconry centre, which was much more up my street.
I was initially nervous about the ethics of some traditional country pursuits, but Steve allayed my fears with his deep care for all creatures and his passion for sustainability. He refuses to keep the forty or so birds that many similar falconers have, to ensure each one can be exercised enough to make them as happy and healthy as they would be in the wild.
Every single one of his eleven birds charmed the (Pringle) socks off me. There is grumpy old Fergus the hawk, who squawks deafeningly when he isn’t getting enough attention. Ailsa, the eagle owl, is the leopard of the bird world, with massive orange eyes which fix you in her sights. Pity the prey who gets in her way.
But everyone’s favourite is Argyle the snow owl. He is the only bird Steve has ever come across who is scared of flying. He gets airsick if he flies too high, and nuzzles Steve when he is nervous (which is, by all accounts, often). This is a bird who would never survive in the wild, and who is of little use for traditional falconry; but he’s become so beloved of the Scottish Countryman that he has become one of the star attractions of his sessions, especially amongst children.
Before long, it was time to dive head first into a mountain of lobster over in the St. Andrews Bar & Grill: a perfect combination of casual countryside vibes and breathtaking vistas. Watching the sun set over the sea where my exquisitely cooked lobster had just been caught was quite something.
Outstanding food was a theme throughout my time in St Andrews. The proximity of the resort to award-winning local producers, as well as a lovingly-tended onsite vegetable and herb garden, means that every last ingredient is perfectly fresh and flavoursome.
The star of an altogether delectable menu, boasting prime cuts of local steak, fish and seafood, was, rather surprisingly, my starter: a whole plate of heritage carrots. Coloured vibrant yellow to deep purple, and sprinkled with lavender and hazelnut dukkah, I felt like I was eating a platter of exotic, multicoloured sweets, not merely the humble carrot. The hotel has its own pastry chef, who served up a platter of cloudlike delicacies I would expect to find in Paris rather than Scotland.
Another surprise was Zephyr, the Fairmont’s vegan sports bar. It’s an unusual pairing, and I wonder if golfers (who form the majority of the Fairmont’s clientele) will want to devour no-meat hot dogs or jackfruit pulled pork burgers whilst watching the Open, but it’s a nice idea, very much in keeping with the resort’s evident commitment to sustainability.
No visit to Scotland would be complete without a trip to a distillery. The Fairmont is close to Kingsbarns Whisky and Darnley’s Gin – so I chose both.
The gin is named after Lord Darnley, the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots. Darnley first spied Mary out of the window of nearby Wemyss castle, before causing all kinds of trouble once he married her – as portrayed by Jack Lowden in the recent Saoirse Ronan film. The modern-day Wemyss family now produce refreshing gins using local botanicals, and offer a gin school where you can distil your own blend.
Kingsbarns whiskey, aptly plopped next door, takes you through the process of how whiskey is made – you will get tipsy just on the fumes in the distillery, before even getting started on the tasting. If you’re still standing after all that, you could walk it off in the stunning surroundings. Personally, I went back to the spa in the Fairmont and fell fast asleep during my facial…
In the rugged Scottish countryside I felt like London was a world away. The bracing air, fresh food and warm hospitality was just the tonic. I’ve brought back some Darnley’s gin to add to it. How very regal.