Great Places to Stay in Scotland
- Mar Lodge, Braemar, Aberdeenshire

Mar Lodge through the trees
The Mar Lodge Estate, 72,500 acres in the heart of the Cairngorms, is one of the most important nature conservation landscapes in the British Isles. Once home to Princess Louise, the daughter of King Edward VII, and her husband the Duke of Fife, Mar Lodge has been in the care of the National Trust for Scotland since 1995. Having completely refurbished the magnificent Caledonian pine-panelled Lodge, the Trust has now created five beautifully appointed self-catering apartments which are let for a week at a time. Travel writer Bruce Stannard reports on the ultimate Scottish holiday.

This feature and the illustrations first appeared in the Scots Heritage Magazine. My thanks to the editor of that magazine for permission to create this Web version.

Arriving at Mar Lodge
A soft, grey Highland mizzle masked Glen Dee as we crossed the tumbling river and drove carefully through the darkened woods to the Mar Estate Lodge. Then we saw them; first one set of gleaming antlers, then another and another. Red deer stags seemed to be everywhere and so close we might have reached out and touched their streaming hides. We stopped and watched and their black liquid eyes returned our gaze without alarm. A six-pointer calmly leapt a fence, trotted across the road in the yellow glow of our headlights, paused and looked back at us with an almost haughty disdain. Then, one by one, the wild creatures walked on and were soon swallowed up by the gloom of the great pine forest.

It was an wonderful introduction to the Mar Estate and one which immediately made us aware not only of the wild glory of this place but also the extent of the problem faced by the National Trust for Scotland in its brave attempts to conserve and regenerate the estate's native Caledonian pine woodland. We were to learn more of that in the days ahead but with dusk fast closing in, our first priority was to find the Lodge. A discrete sign at the foot of an ancient pine pointed the way through the trees to yellow lights twinkling in the gloom. Our first glimpse of Mar Lodge drew yelps of amazement from our 14-year-old daughter, Alexandra. "Wow," she almost shouted, "are we staying there?" I must confess we stopped and chuckled at the prospect. Even from a distance the Elizabethan-style lodge looks enormous and as we edged closer, up a long straight drive flanked by vast manicured lawns, the three storey lodge with its rough hewn granite walls and steeply pitched red tiled roof grew and grew out of the flat valley floor until it seemed almost as big as the surrounding hills.

An extraordinary Victorian edifice, Mar Lodge was built not as a permanent Highland home, but simply as a sporting lodge for the use of the Duke and Duchess of Fife and 25 of their guests during the summer and autumn months. Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for her grand-daughter's new home in 1895. Balmoral Castle is just up the road. In the nineteenth century a staff of 50 live-in servants was required to look after the Duke, the Duchess and their guests.

Mar Lodge Today, Sandra Dempster is the only resident member of staff at Mar Lodge and she was on hand to usher us in out of the rain and show us to Derry, our beautifully-appointed private suite in the west wing. There are few pleasures to compare with the sheer joy I felt in being welcomed into the pine-panelled warmth of Mar Lodge. In the cavernous reception room the glass eyes of row upon row of trophy stags looked down from the walls while brightly burnished brass chandeliers shed a golden light on antique furnishing and the dark-stained woodwork hung with ancestral portraits. We had entered a Victorian time-warp and I confess that I found myself grinning at the realisation that all this - the magnificent Library, Drawing Room, Dining Room and Billiard Room plus our own two bedroom apartment, was to be ours for the next week. I poured a Speyside single malt on the strength of it and toasted The National Trust for Scotland for having had the courage to assume responsibility for the estate and to make it available, not just to Trust Members like us, but to anyone who cares to make a booking.

Staying at Mar Lodge
Sitting Room, Dalvorar The five luxurious self-catering apartments at Mar Lodge, named Derry, MaeDui, Dalvorar, Braeriach and Byriack, are let all year round. There were other guests during our stay and yet we scarcely knew they were there. The entire estate seemed to be ours. Before our arrival we had called in at H.M.Shenidan, the Ballater butcher who holds no less than three royal warrants, and there stocked up on excellent Aberdeen Angus beef, venison and chicken together with an array of delicious home-made condiments. Using the excellent modern kitchen in our apartment we were thus able to dine "at home' - which we did each evening save one when, on my wife's birthday, we treated ourselves to a champagne dinner at Braemar's Invercauld Arms.

Mar Lodge lies just five miles to the west of Braemar and is therefore a wonderful base from which to explore Aberdeenshire. We made forays out to other National Trust for Scotland properties - Crathes Castle, Drum Castle, Castle Fraser and Leith Hall and also took long walks in the glorious solitude of the estate. The autumn weather was, as you would expect, a mixture of mizzle and sunshine but the hills were always gloriously golden and we walked and walked and walked in the cool, clean fresh air.

The estate manager, Alister Clunas, regaled us with stories from its heyday when more royal guests visited Mar Lodge, he said, than any other house in Scotland, save Balmoral. The Duke of Fife was a lavish entertainer and during the season His Grace held functions for guests, tenants and employees in the ballroom decorated with 2,500 stags heads. When Queen Victoria attended balls at Mar Lodge, the Duke arranged for an avenue of kilted Highlanders holding aloft blazing torches to light the way from the house to the ballroom. On one of the Queen's visits an open-air torchlight ball was held and the highlight was a reel danced in darkness by Highlanders bearing flaming torches.

In 1991 the Lodge was severely damaged by fire but restoration began almost immediately and by 1993 it was completed refurbished and finally sold to the National Trust for Scotland in June, 1995.

The Estate
Mar Lodge Estate Alister Clunas runs the entire estate with a management committee which oversees the work of a fulltime staff of 13 including five gamekeepers. The estate is managed "to conserve the landscape, archaeology, buildings and wildlife and to provide public benefit through access and conservation". Much of their current work is focused on reducing red deer numbers to help promote the natural regeneration of native Caledonian pine woodland. Although there are now 2,700 red deer including 900 stags on the estate, the management plan seeks to reduce the deer population to only 1,750 animals and aims for an extremely low stocking rate of only five adult animals to every 100 acres in the south-cast corner of the estate where three glens - Derry, Lul and Quoich - harbour the largest remaining stands of Caledonian pines. Alister Clunas says culls of 200 stags and 500 hinds every year have put the targets within reach.

Although the Romans recorded the daunting presence of "the Great Forest of Caledon", the vast Caledonian pine forest which once covered much of the estate, centuries of overgrazing by sheep and the unrestricted browsing of huge deer herds have today left the hills almost entirely barren. Only 800 hectares of remnant Caledonian pine forest remain on the entire Mar Lodge Estate. The National Trust for Scotland's aim is to regenerate 4,000 hectares with pine, juniper and dwarf birch over the next 200 years.

Although visitors enjoy free access to the estate, motor vehicles and especially four-wheel drives which might damage the fragile landscape are discouraged. Twenty four kilometres of the 72 km of roads on the estate are being permanently closed while an additional 13 km are to be reduced to footpaths only.

In a melancholy mood at the end of our stay I reflected that one might spend an entire lifetime here and never see it all. We were privileged to see its wonders at the beginning of the new millennium, but having listened to Alister Clunas, I quite like the idea of going fast-forward in my time machine to glimpse the Great Forest of Caledon as I've no doubt it will be, green and dark and beautiful, two or three hundreds years on.

For Mar Lodge bookings see The National Trust for Scotland Web site.

Return to the Index of Great Places to Stay in Scotland.

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