Wild swimming and magical walks in the woods on the Scottish island that inspired Neverland

I stand at the end of the pier, gazing at the sparkling, tranquil waters of Loch Moidart. Feeling some trepidation, I quickly count down and jump. The cold water is incredibly numbing but so invigorating.

Wild swimming around Eilean Shona is just one of the many activities available to guests on this secluded private island off the west coast of Scotland.

Owned by Vanessa Branson (Richard’s sister), the island is only five kilometers long but teeming with flora and fauna, its bewitching landscapes enhanced by the striking ruins of Tioram Castle just opposite Loch Moidart, making also the even more extraordinary wild swimming. .

There are over 2,000 acres of moors and forests on Eilean Shona, and diverse wildlife including hawks, seals and pine martens. During the summer, dolphins, minke whales and basking sharks frequent the surrounding waters.

Visitors stay in one of nine beautifully designed cottages, all modern, comfortable and decorated by Vanessa, who has a flair for design honed as the founder of the Marrakech Biennale arts festival.

However, staying at the Eilean Shona Main House offers a more immersive experience. For 16 people, it’s usually offered at large independent parties, but is open to couples and solo visitors on several “experience” breaks throughout the year, and I joined one earlier this summer.

A wild swim in Loch Moidart off Eilean Shona will cause blood to pump

The house was built as a sea captain’s hunting lodge in the mid-19th century. It was renovated in the 1880s by famous Edinburgh architect Robert Lorimer, who doubled in size to create the grand mansion it is today.

His illustrious guests included JM Barrie, who visited frequently and was inspired by the rugged, verdant beauty of the surroundings for his fictional Neverland. Vanessa, too, confessed that she fell under his spell.

Speaking of when she and her ex-husband Robert Devereux came to see it when it was in the market, she said: Couldn’t but buy it.

So a year later, in 1995, the island became the property of the Devereux-Branson family and Vanessa was quick to put her own stamp on the house.

The antique furniture comes from auctions across Scotland, giving it a warm and traditional feel, but it’s the contemporary art collection that really makes the house stand out.

Paintings including Girl and Dog by Portuguese artist Paula Rego and responsible charcoal hedonism by South African William Kentridge adorn the walls, while the floor-to-ceiling mural at Glasgow Fred Pollock is the focal point of the room. to eat.

Vanessa Branson in a moss covered forest on her private island

“I love bright colors and I love contemporary art,” explains Vanessa, explaining that she knows most of the artists personally and will usually have original anecdotes to reveal about most of the pieces.

While the house may be an art lover’s dream, the island itself – whose name comes from ‘sea island’ in Old Norse – will appeal to hikers, wildlife enthusiasts or simply anyone who wants to reconnect with nature after the lockdown. In addition to wild swimming, there is also yoga, a whiskey tasting with the local Ardnamurchan distillery, and Scottish cooking classes. Kayaking is another highlight – led by skipper Matt Waterston, we spotted a seal colony while visiting the west coast of the island.

“It will make everyone happy – it’s good for the soul, it’s a magical playground,” Matt said as he led us around the coast.

On land, there are hiking trails that wind above heather-covered moors, through mossy forests and wide peaks.

Beinn a’Bhaillidh is the highest point on the island at 265 meters and after about an hour of guided hike with Vanessa we are rewarded with spectacular views of the surrounding small islands of Eigg, Muck and Rum. It is a beautifully sunny day and the sea is surprisingly aquamarine, as if we are not in the Highlands but in the Mediterranean.

The colorful main house dining room on Eilean Shona

After all these activities, refueling for further exploration is welcome. Chef Angus Mackinnon doesn’t disappoint with his menu of hearty Scottish dishes made with organic ingredients, 70 percent of which come from an 80 km radius. If not grown in the island’s own tunnels, Angus will use produce from a nearby organic farm or local smokehouse, including the Ardshealach Smokehouse.

Our days begin with a full Scottish breakfast, while for lunch and dinner we sample local seafood including langoustine, oysters, smoked salmon and haddock. Cock-a-leekie soup, hairst bree and cullen skink are traditional products, along with tasty local venison with pearl barley, mash, local kale and mangetout.

During my stay I feel pleasantly disconnected from everyday life – there are no cars on the island, no televisions in the rooms, the phone signal is practically non-existent (there is however Wi-Fi) and often the only sounds you will hear are birdsong and the waves crashing on the shore.

Vanessa is keen to preserve this and has started a rewilding project to plant many other species native to the island – including holly, rowan, beech, ash and birch – within the 600 acres of a regeneration zone. To date, over 125,000 trees have been planted.

“It’s really a nature reserve, but it’s also a culturally important place because we have a history of literature here, and I think we can enrich it,” says Vanessa. “It is a place of learning, a place of creativity and a place of wonder.

Indeed, despite a short stay on Eilean Shona, that awesome feeling for her pristine natural beauty has stayed with me for a long time. And it taught me that often it’s better to go for it.

How to get there

The Caledonian sleeper (sleeper. scot) from London Euston to Fort William offers comfort seats from £ 45, classic rooms from £ 140 solo or £ 170 shared, club rooms from £ 205 solo or £ 250 shared and doubles Caledonian from £ 335 solo or £ 400 shared. Accessible rooms are also available. From Fort William, Eilean Shona is accessible by car and boat.

Where to stay

A four-night Eilean Shona Experience break (eileanshona.com; 01967 431249) from 7 May 2022 costs £ 1,700 per person (or £ 2,500 for single occupancy) including all meals, house wine, all activities and round-trip boat transfers to the mainland. More information Visitecotland.com

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