Thirteen miles south of Beauly, turn off the A831 as it snakes through Strathglass, head up a hill on a private road for half a mile and you’ll end up in Mike and Pawana Spencer-Nairn’s dream village.
It’s called Eagle Brae, and they had been working on it for eight years before it opened in September. A hillside hamlet of seven self-catering log cabins, it is already winning awards for being one of Scotland’s greenest tourism projects. It is also so utterly luxurious and looks unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
Why? Let’s start with the logs from which the cabins are built. The western red cedar from British Columbia can live for well over a thousand years, grow 230ft tall with a 13ft thick trunk. Eagle Brae’s logs aren’t that size, but they’re still disconcertingly massive. They retain heat better than conventional building materials, have natural insecticide properties, are immensely durable and beautifully grained, yet because they’ve got a relatively low density, a subtly-wielded chainsaw can easily carve out a table, bench or bunk space amid the appealingly chunky two-storey grand design.
Built in British Colombia and reassembled by Canadian specialists on site, the cabins are then given roofs which are planted with three kinds of wild grasses and a couple of dozen varieties of wildflowers. If all of this grows too profusely, Eagle Brae’s three goats take care of business. “We’ll just lead them up there and leave them there all day,” says Mike, adding that this summer was so dry that there wasn’t that much need for roof-grazing goats.
He is passionate about conservation, and proud that Eagle Brae is completely carbon neutral. Water is pumped up from a borehole before being treated and stored, and the electricity for the pump – and for everything else – comes from a 75kw turbine powered by Eagle Brae’s own micro-hydro scheme. Underfloor heating and hot water is powered by biomass pellets, and there is also a woodburning stove, as much for a focal point for the huge ground-floor open-plan kitchen/living room as anything else. Yet when you stay there, you probably wouldn’t notice much of this: the turbine is hidden, the water pipes from the spring are beneath the ground, the pellet burner so efficient that it only requires its ash pan changing twice a year.
You might, however, pick up on how well-equipped the kitchen is, how each cabin’s mezzanine office comes complete with printer, computer, wide-screen TV, or how you can order groceries, wines, home-grown meats and even cooked meals on the Eagle Brae intranet. Things have been thought through here.
But there’s more to the place than that. For as well as being as deeply green as any visiting tourist could wish for, at its heart is a very special cultural fusion. And for that, you have to know something about the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, just west of Tibet in the Himalayas. This is where Pawana is from, and also so much of the wood carving that decorates Eagle Brae. It’s this quirky mix of Canadian west coast and Himalayan chic in the heart of one of the most spectacularly scenic glens in the Highlands that gives Eagle Brae its unique appeal.
Mike met Pawana (pronounced Pubna) in 1998. She was finishing secondary school; he was a student from Jersey with fluent Hindi. Her parents owned a village guest house and after accepting her offer of sharing a meal with them, Mike soon realised that he and Pawana were the subject of village gossip. Realising how damaging this could be to her reputation, he began a formal, chaperoned, courtship that ultimately led to their marriage.
They moved back to Jersey at first, then up to Strathglass – where the Struy estate had belonged to his family since the 1930s – in 2008. But the links with the Himalayas endure – and are apparent everywhere in the decorative wood panels carved by Pawana’s brother-in-law. As they also have built several properties there, Mike and his wife frequently return, along with their two children.
But their dream remains Eagle Brae. The best of at least three different worlds, it thoroughly deserves to succeed.
Prices for two-bedroomed cabins from £1,100-£1,600 a week; smaller cabins from £800-£1,300, tel: 07738 076711, www.eaglebrae.co.uk