Neil Mackay

TUCKED away in an ancient forest, with the dark Ochil hills rearing in the distance, there’s a secret slice of paradise in Scotland, owned by the ancestors of Robert the Bruce.

Brucefield Estate in Clackmannanshire, just a few miles from Dollar, began as lands handed down to the family of one of Old Bob’s illegitimate sons – of whom there were many. Seven hundred years later, the family has long given up rebellion and guerilla warfare to concentrate on luxury eco-tourism. I recently holidayed at the estate’s Slackbrae Cottage – a place that reminds you of the kind of little hideaway a tech tycoon might consider bijou and off-grid.

I was there as August turned to September. The cottage itself was the jewel in the crown of the experience. Yes, the woods are indeed lovely, dark and deep. Yes, there’s birds of prey in the sky and pine martins nosing in the forest. Yes, there are fields full of butterflies, so beautiful you have to stop still and just watch. So it’s quite something for a simple holiday cottage to rival the splendour of this kind of nature. Slackbrae is the sort of place you come to and then don’t want to step outside – in case, leaving just for a moment wastes all the fun of being indoors.

It took a lot to turn me into a tourist again – but Slackbrae did the trick. I haven’t travelled at all, really, since the pandemic hit. I couldn’t abide the thought of journeying overseas, travelling for hours in a mask, trying to orientate myself to Covid rules in a foreign country, or the panic of borders shutting while I’m away.

To be honest, I’ve looked at Brits abroad and thought they must have a screw loose. How on Earth can you holiday in a pandemic? But then I heard about Slackbrae. I could get away without really going away. The sun was shining, it was less than an hour from Glasgow – and it all came with the promise of private luxury, something I find very hard to resist.

The cottage itself is a homage to Scandi minimalism. Victoria Bruce-Winkler, the latest Bruce to own the estate, spent time living in Copenhagen, which clearly influenced her taste and style. She’s taken an old forester’s cottage and waved a little magic wand over everything: it’s environmentally designed, a smart home with long clean lines, wide open space, huge windows bringing the light and the outside in, fur throws, a sense of arts and crafts in the decor, a roaring modernist fire.

There are some neat little design quirks too. On the kitchen wall, there’s a series of tiles featuring old newspaper headlines in which Brucefield has appeared over the years. One, dated March 24, 1781, is a report on the front page of one of Scotland’s earliest newspapers, The Caledonian Mercury, about the ‘sale of black catill [cattle] at Brucefield’. It must have been a quiet news day…

You’ll want to cook when you’re here – picking up supplies from local butchers and grocers – but there’s food brought to the cottage if that’s what you want. Dinner was provided on the first night by a local caterer, delivered in neat little crockery and baskets, with new-baked bread, fish pie, fresh vegetables, apple crumble and good wine. Breakfast can also be arranged – with a little hamper full of the best eggs I’ve ever tasted in Britain.

The cottage is stocked by local craftsfolk and artisans – so when you wash your hands the herby soap, you’ll note, is made nearby. A small library is filled with books on Scottish wildlife and nature. There’s a herb garden outside where you can pluck a few leaves for dinner. If you need anything, the charming Dawid Nowak is your on-hand housekeeper.

Graham Hodgson is the land officer of the estate. While my wife spent the first morning snoozing in a bed so deep and soft it's like sleeping in marshmallow, Graham – who’s wonderful down-to-earth company – took me on a tour.

We wandered to the nearby Witch’s Stone. Now, if like me, you’re a fan of all things spooky, Slackbrae, with its velvety dark skies at night, is perfect. Everything feels folkloric here. The Witch’s Stone is girdled with myths – chiefly that it fell from the apron of a sorceress flying overhead on her broomstick. She must have been quite a size that witch as the stone stands just slightly smaller than me and it's about ten foot in diameter.

I’m a sucker for a midnight walk too and Slackbrae is romantic bathed in moonlight – though be careful on any nighttime wanderings as the woods can be treacherous when it’s dark.

Further into the woods, there are trees so old they were planted around the time of the Jacobite rebellions. These great beeches are like the thunking green legs of dinosaurs – so huge you need to crane your neck to see their tops.

I met up with Victoria and her German husband Michail as we wandered the woods. Michail is an effortlessly enjoyable conversationalist, and Victoria is a woman on a mission to take this ancient family estate, which she’s clearly besotted with, and open it up to the world so that strangers fall in love with it too. She can tell you a tale about almost every inch of the land she owns, including tangled family yarns and local legends featuring cameos by the likes of Mary Queen of Scots. Better still, get Victoria talking about this mushroom or that strange insect crawling on a nearby tree and you’ll have your own mini version of Autumnwatch.

We were rather honoured to be Victoria’s first guests – as Slackbrae has just opened for business. She and her staff are now embarking on extending their series of hidden-away high-end eco-bothies for folk slightly more inclined to the outdoors than us. Show the Mackays some rather fetching interior design, a few decent books, some good food and wine, a beautiful garden to sit in and watch nature, and you probably won’t see us move very far.

Victoria says the estate is a work in progress. You wouldn’t know that. Everything feels secluded and perfect already. But clearly she’s got more projects to master. One imagines that with a place like Brucefield, you could spend your life tinkering with this field, or that stretch of woodland. I mean what better canvas could you have as an artist than some of nature’s greatest landscapes in your own backyard.

What to do nearby?

Brucefield staff can sort you out with bikes – or you could arrive by train with your own bike and cycle along the traffic-free path from Alloa Station which takes about 30 minutes. There’s also bike trails through Devilla Forest and to the Wallace Monument and Cambuskenneth Abbey.

You can pop into Dollar for a bite to eat, or a visit to Dollar Museum. There’s also the Dollar Glen Walk where you’ll find Castle Campbell, or the Green Gallery in Dollar for contemporary art.

Culross is just a little further away, with Culross Palace. Along the road there’s Dunfermline where Malcolm’s Tower is worth exploring, together with Dunfermline Abbey and Palace – founded by Queen Margaret in the 11th century – where you’ll find St Margaret’s Cave, the queen’s secret place of worship.

To book Slackbrae Cottage just visit