IT was when the tree roots began to make their presence felt beneath my wheels that I remembered this is the Year of Natural Scotland, when we’re supposed to be celebrating the natural beauty of our country.
So what, then, could be more appropriate than landing on my backside among a tangle of twisted roots, autumnal leaves and mud... as was likely to happen at any moment during this Segway tour through Blair Castle estate?
I wouldn’t possibly get much closer to nature than that unless I happened to ingest some pine needles.
But it never happened. I remained valiantly upright - though was left trailing in the wake of some youngsters with the balance of sprightly mountain goats. And when I did raise my head to look around - rather than glaring steadfastly at the handles to make sure I wasn’t pushing them too far forward and about to go over the top - the views were decidedly of nature and quite beautiful. The best views of the weekend, though, were when we were just 200m short of the top of a Munro, having been driven up there to spot red deer, grouse and the elusive white ptarmigan. Land Rover safari is my way of conquering a Munro. But more of that later.
We (that’s me, husband and our three kids) were staying in one of the woodland lodges on the Blair Castle estate in Blair Atholl for a long weekend - and for parents looking for a change of scene with the kids this October school holiday, then it couldn’t be more appropriate, just a couple of hours north of Edinburgh but, as my daughter said, “this is where Merida lives”.
That’s the princess in Disney animation Brave for the uninitiated. Scotland can feel like a different country have sometimes.
Blair Atholl sits on the edge of the Cairngorms national park, and the estate itself is slap bang in Highland Perthshire, surrounded by the deep velvet green of mountainous countryside.
The estate has existed since the 13th century, and then as now, Blair Castle sits at its heart, though these days it is just one part of a huge business which includes a massive tourist complex, with a caravan park, the woodland lodges, and historic lodges hidden in glens, where fishing, hunting and other country sports are on offer, and farming and forestry also help bring in the money.
All in all, there’s 145,000 acres of the place from rolling farmland to wild, open hills. Much to explore.
We were lucky enough to be able to get a woodland lodge, which are a fairly new addition, offering Scandic-style accommodation, with wood panelling internally and a verandah running round the building’s exterior.
Although we arrived fairly late in the afternoon we were soon out getting a feel for the place. The castle was a ten minute walk away along a tree-lined avenue (soon to become my nemesis, courtesy of SegwayEcosse).
It’s sparkling white paint job gleams at you through the foliage, enticing you on. Before we reached it, though, we had to make friends with the hens in a coop, and then have a detour to a children’s woodland park opposite the castle.
After running some energy off, food was required and so it was a trip to the local fish and chip shop in the village and then a decision to follow a path along the river Tilt, which while beautiful, seemed to be heading miles down the road to Pitlochry, so we about turned and headed back to the lodge.
The next day we had to be up early as we were being collected by former head keeper of the estate Sandy - who was kitted out appropriately in tweed plus fours, waistcoat, jacket and cap - in his Land Rover for a vertical drive to 2800m amid the clouds.
Billed as a Scottish wildlife safari, binoculars are a must to catch sight of some elusive creatures who couldn’t care less that they’re supposed to be putting on a show for the Year of Natural Scotland.
By the time we’d bumped our way close to the top, we finally managed to see some wild deer on the crest of a Munro some distance away, though more excitingly we saw white ptarmigans, the masters of camouflage take flight - even Sandy was impressed.
Back down to earth and lunched, we wandered back to Blair Castle, this time to have a good look around the stunning 700-year-old pile, home to dukes and earls of Atholl down the centuries.
Thirty rooms are open to the public - including the grand hall, where there’s even a dress-up box to keep the kids amused, if counting all the stag antlers which line the walls isn’t doing it for them. As always with kids, it was a bit whistle-stop, but the cafe is nice.
Back outside we walked past the castle and towards a park where red deer are allowed to roam, just in case you didn’t manage to catch them on safari.
Sandy, by this time, was behind the wheel of a vintage tractor and trailer which takes visitors on tours of the grounds. Nearby were the stables for the Highland ponies which trek into the heather-covered hills and through the forests and even across rivers.
Back towards the Castle we meandered through the tranquil Diana’s Grove with its neck-craning firs, and then into Hercules Garden, a stunning nine-acre walled garden - complete with statue of the great man - which has recently been restored to its original design, and boasts landscaped ponds, a folly, a Chinese bridge and an orchard of more than 100 fruit trees.
It’s far from wild, and probably doesn’t meet the ‘natural’ idea, being so well-planned, but it is a beautiful place.
The next day - and our last - and I was off out, sans children, to take to the Segway. I had never set foot on one of the wheeled contraptions before, but owner - and instructor - at SegwayEcosse, David was brilliant at putting me, and the rest of the group, at ease with the machines.
In case you don’t know, a Segway is a two-wheeled motorised scooter on which you stand, and move by shifting your balance forward and back.
Balance is important, but David says that for those with walking issues, or even conditions like Parkinson’s, a Segway can prove the best way to get around the estate.
After a trial run on some nice smooth grass, we were off on a 20-minute woodland tour - which is where the tree roots came into play. But despite the bumps, and my fear of tipping over, my toes eventually began to relax their fearsome grip inside my boots - 10mph had never felt so fast - and I began to relax.
Soon we were weaving in and out of the trees along the avenue of Blair Castle Drive, then went ‘off-road’ into the forest, before Segway-ing through Hercules Garden and Diana’s Grove again.
By the time we were back at the start - just behind the caravan park office - I was ready to book again. David kindly then let my kids have a turn round the trial area and unsurprisingly they loved it. This is something everyone should do.
As is a visit to Blair Castle estate. It is a natural wonder of Scotland
• To stay at Blair Castle Caravan Park visit. www.blaircastlecaravanpark.co.uk. Prices for a three-night stay at a three-bed woodland lodge are around £395. For more information on SegwayEcosse visit www.segway-ecosse.com. Prices starts at £10 for 10 minutes, £16 for the woodland tour.