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Nothing to grouse about

One male black grouse is squaring up to another, with an elaborate display of its white under-tail feathers, and our guide is clearly enjoying watching the drama unfold.

The setting is a small patch of green on the 145,000-acre Atholl Estates, in front of a stone house which was last occupied in 1939. And we are in the ring-side seats.

Sandy Reid, the driver and guide on our Land Rover safari, knew exactly where to find the black grouse. This is no great surprise, given that he has worked for more than 50 years on the Atholl Estates, the larger section of which is centred on the centuries-old Blair Castle, at Blair Atholl, in the Cairngorms National Park.

Sandy spent much of his working life as head keeper and stalker before moving into semi-retirement and running the Land Rover Safaris. He knew just how close he could drive up to the black grouse without scaring them into flight.

He is clearly relishing the spectacle, so much so that he opts for a close-up view of the unfolding scene through his binoculars. He compares the birds' behaviour with that of a couple of young lads. And he observes with a chuckle that, with the black grouse, there is a lot of talking and not a lot of fighting, as the aggressor returns again and again to attempt to pick a battle with its display of white feathers.

Five years into his semi-retirement, Sandy still clearly has a passion for observing all that is going on with the rich variety of wildlife as we drive along the rough and often steep tracks into the mountainous terrain which makes up part of the estate. Sandy comments on the beautiful purple colour on the black grouse. He also, wryly, contrasts the lack of parental involvement of the black grouse male with the attitude of the red grouse and other game birds.

His decades of experience make him the ideal guide. He knows, for example, that the red deer stags are more likely to be at lower levels in the winter, with the hardier hinds higher up in the hills.

On any given day, Sandy notes, there will be about 7500 red deer on the Atholl Estates. He does his best to spot as many as possible for his passengers. Sometimes, the deer can be seen silhouetted against the sky on the ridges. At other times, it is possible to spot about 100 together, and there is plenty of opportunity to get up close to view the red deer stags in all their majesty, with their impressive antlers.

There is an Alice in Wonderland-type moment when a white mountain hare, not quite the white rabbit but just about as unexpected, makes an appearance amid the patches of snow and heather. It is the first of several we see, bounding along and occasionally stopping to pose for a picture. The hare's coat, Sandy notes, will turn brown for the spring.

The hares can be prey for the golden eagles. There is one pair of golden eagles on Atholl Estates land, nesting on a ridge in Glen Bruar, but the cloud cover is too low on this particular day to see them soaring high. We do see a couple of buzzards, referred to by our driver as "T.E.". He has to explain his joke: tourist eagles.

Close to the historic Glen Bruar Lodge, we also see a pair of red grouse, which Sandy spots expertly even though the birds are fairly well camouflaged. Heading back through Glen Bruar, with views of snowy mountains and of cloud covering the top of Schiehallion, we get a great view of a group of red deer stags, which turn to stare at the Land Rover. We pass the Highland ponies which work on the estates. We catch sight of three flying ducks, resembling those on a Hilda Ogden 1970s-style wall display, and a goose in mid-flight.

The estate is also home to red squirrels, dippers, ravens, and, at certain times of year, harriers.

Blair Castle, which dates back to 1269 and has been home over the centuries to the Dukes of Atholl, has played host to Robert Burns, Queen Victoria, and Ronald Reagan.

At its grand entrance is a massive display of weaponry. This display includes two shields used at the Battle of Culloden. Among the highlights are the Derby Suite, believed to have been used by Queen Victoria when she visited with about 60 servants in 1844, the grand drawing room, the magnificent ballroom, still in regular use, and the red bedroom, last slept in back in 1921 by the then Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan.

Atholl Estates, with its friendly staff and laidback feel, is an ideal destination if you fancy a slower pace for a while. As well as historic Atholl Highland Lodges, it has modern woodland lodges and a caravan park. It makes a big effort to cater for families, with Sandy also running tractor and trailer tours.

Among the other Atholl Highland Lodges is Old Blair, which looks out on to the old St Bride's Kirk, where Jacobite commander John Graham of Claverhouse, or Bonnie Dundee, was buried after his death at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. Old Blair is a fabulous old house, with a huge amount of character. There is nothing better, after a day exploring the Atholl Estates, to light the fire in the drawing room and relax amid the scent of the wood smoke. Especially if the fire has been set expertly for your arrival by housekeeper Elspeth Cameron.

Ian McConnell stayed at Old Blair and went on a Land Rover safari, courtesy of Atholl Estates. Prices for a three-night weekend or four-night midweek breaks at Old Blair (sleeps up to 12 people) start at £1065. Contact Helen Graham on 01796 481355 or at helen@atholl-estates.co.uk.

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