Highland refuge: Scotland’s serene, socially-conscious hideaway

As I totter across a little footbridge in the gloaming, the water below takes on a treacly sheen, slithering out to sea in the fading light. Ahead, over marshy tussocks, the outline of a ruined barracks looms out of the mist and some lights flicker on in the little red-roofed cottage beyond it. A bank of rain is chasing me over the bog. It catches me just as I reach the village’s (closed) inn so I turn and sprint back to my holiday cottage, Taigh Whin, as the deluge draws a soggy curtain over the landscape. I’ve come to Glenelg, in Scotland’s north-west Highlands, to connect with nature and it’s seeping straight in.

Taigh Winn in Glenelg

Fortunately Taigh Whin is the ideal place to shelter. It was opened in June by garden designer Sarah MacLaren and her partner, artist and writer Sophie Howarth primarily for letting out to people working for the common good in Scotland, be they campaigners, carers, community leaders or volunteers, public servants, artists or activists.

There’s a single-story two-bedroom house and a studio-style bothy, and the two properties can be rented separately or together. I’m staying in the larger one, which has a funky custom-built ply kitchen, a drawer full of practical picnic equipment and lambswool hot water bottles but is otherwise light on frills.

A beach very close to the cottage
A beach very close to the cottage

“We didn’t want it to be too flash, just really safe and cosy and warm,” says Howarth. “It’s got an air-source heat pump and underfloor heating and there are lovely blankets but there’s no bath salts, no TV, no posh coffee machines. We want people to arrive and feel a deep and simple permission to rest.”

Having recognised a chronic need for respite among those working for the common good in Scotland, the couple set up Taigh Whin as a social enterprise. For a few weeks a year, the property is available as a conventional holiday let, and the income from that supports subsidised stays. Scottish residents or organisations working appropriate sectors can apply through the website and pay half the commercial rate (there are full bursaries for those who can’t afford that).

Though the couple (who both have family connections in the area) acknowledge the irony of buying a second home to help those unable to afford traditional holiday rentals, they believe Taigh Whin can help support those tackling some of Scotland’s social and healthcare challenges by giving them restorative time off. Its name means “gorse house”, a nod not just to the spiky plant that surrounds it but also to its yellow flowers’ traditional use as a remedy for despair. The hope is that guests get to bolster their drained physical and mental health by spending time in nature. In return, the deeper connection to nature that they leave with makes them better advocates for the causes they work for.

Taigh Whin is perfect for relaxed days spent reading and gazing at views.
Taigh Whin is perfect for relaxed days spent reading and gazing at views. Photograph: Sam Boyd

What the property eschews in conventional fripperies, it compensates for generously with gentle prompts for connecting with nature. Howarth co-founded the School of Life in 2008 and the same thoughtful, therapeutic approach is apparent at Taigh Whin. A choice of suggested walks range from 10-minute strolls to 12-hour hikes. Litter-picking sticks can be borrowed and watercolour pencils and paper are supplied, along with encouragement in the form of Norman Ackroyd’s A Shetland Notebook. The bookshelves are stocked with equally inspiring titles, from Katherine May’s Wintering and Mary Oliver’s Devotions to Christopher Stocks and Angie Lewin’s Book of Pebbles and Emma Mitchell’s The Wild Remedy.

The garden, too, has been designed with wellbeing in mind, its lichen-dappled boulders and young rowan and birch trees chosen to reflect the local flora, colours and shapes so that guests with limited mobility can also get their nature fix – something MacLaren, who runs a nature club for secondary students, cares deeply about.

“We wanted to make it easy to connect with the outdoors whatever the weather,” says Howarth. “There is no right or wrong way to spend your time at Taigh Whin. Watching the weather, watching the tide, watching the light … those are all valid things to do”. So, too, is doing nothing, she insists, but I find that more challenging than I expected, despite dipping into the library’s copy of Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. Instead, I slip on my walking boots and wander up the forest track behind the house, scrambling over a boggy former fir plantation to reach the top of Glas Bheinn. Stopping to snack on squares of chocolate with “tablet” (sort of Scottish fudge) from Chocolates of Glenshiel, I peer across to Skye, whose late-autumn flanks turn from rust to gold as a sudden beam of light breaks through the cloud.

The cottage boasts views across Kyle Rhea straits to the Isle of Skye.
The cottage boasts views across Kyle Rhea straits to the Isle of Skye

Chasing the sun, I head back down to the shore, turning right past Taigh Whin to drop down to Bernera Beach, with its free-roaming cows, and follow the coast around to Glenelg’s little dock. Summer visitors can hop on the last manually operated turntable ferry in the world for a day trip to Skye, but it’s worth walking here on winter weekends just for a coffee and homemade ginger cake at the cute Shore Station cafe. I’m considering carrying on, boosting my nature connection with a full loop around the Ardintoul Circuit, but as I glance west I see another storm front skidding in and hotfoot it back to the house.

Taking a trip around Taigh Whin’s library instead, I light the wood-burning stove and settle into the sofa to r, about her solo retreat to a cabin in the Catskills, author Barbara Bash tells how she he unpacks, has a long nap and then sits outside, listening to the drumming of a woodpecker and watching a pair of foraging woodchucks.

Following her lead, I listen to the hail pelting the windows and the wind rattling around the roof and gaze out through floor-to-ceiling windows, mesmerised by the grey-gold ripples of the Kyle Rhea straits. The house is so close to the shoreline I can almost feel the spray coming off the waves. The storm has put paid to my plans for a dip but, as I sit and look out at the water, I realise that these few days at Taigh Whin have left me with the kind of immersive calm I sometimes get from a swim.

The trip was provided by Taigh Whin. Full rental rates start at £800 a week for the main house (sleeps four) and £400 for the bothy (sleeps two). Contact Taigh Whin for half-price subsidised rates and bursary places

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