According to Victoria Bruce-Winkler, owner of Brucefield Estate in Clackmannanshire, there’s an old folk story that involved witches dropping frogs from their aprons. When they landed, they’d turn into stones. Apparently, it’s a tale that’s common across Europe, as well as Scotland.
On the tour of her estate, not only do I get to meet their very own Witch’s Stone, which is an unusually shaped rock that’s probably a glacial erratic, I also nearly trample on a little frog somewhere nearby. Maybe this guy failed to metamorphosise on landing?
We’re staying at this estate’s new cottage, Slackbrae, which is painted custard yellow, like the houses in nearby Culross, and was once a forester’s cottage.
Bruce-Winkler, who can trace her ancestry back to Robert the Bruce, is a biologist, who used to work for a pharmaceutical company in Copenhagen.
In 2012, she inherited her family’s 700-year-old estate, and she recently returned to live here and action her ten year plan to regenerate the 420 hectares of land, which includes a lowland heath that’s a Natural Scotland site of special scientific interest. This involves a focus on wildlife, as well as the future creation of eco-bothies and the installation of new farming practices.
As part of her work with ecologists, she seems to have identified every tree in the area, from the limes that were part of an avenue created a couple of centuries ago, to the ancient granny pines and a circle of rowans (witch repellents). There’s even a trio of beech trees that have melded into one, like The Three Graces, and plenty of fallen trunks left to decompose, thus providing a perfect home for invertebrates and fungi.
You can see a few of these ancient trees from this self-catering cottage’s huge window, which also offers views out to the roe deer grazing at dawn in the field outside, and the buzzards suspended overhead, like drones. Apparently, there are pine martens about, though we don’t spot any on our visit.
Indoors, and they’ve used sustainable materials to refurbish and insulate the 18th-century two bedroom and two bathroom property, which was once owned by Stirling and Dunfermline Railway. The light floods in from every angle, there’s underfloor heating, and a unique ceramic wood-burning stove, which (through witch’s magic presumably) makes logs last for hours and burns from the top down.
Their front and back gardens are planted with herbs, which you can use in the kitchen, and there’s a charming old cow-bell instead of a door knocker.
The bedrooms feature bedding that’s as soft as puffball mushrooms, and all the furniture is very chic, from the teal velvet dining chairs to the yellow cushions on the sofa and polished elm cross-sections as artwork.
Since I don’t have the best book with me, I’m also happy to find there is no enforced digital detox. They have Wi-fi, and there’s a telly, with Netflix.
We are only the second set of guests, so everything in the cottage is box fresh.
Dawid, who spent over a decade working for Gleneagles, is their on-site concierge and housekeeping specialist.
He checks us in and gives us our breakfast hamper, which is included in the price. It contains Wild Hearth bakery sourdough, locally made jams and Big Birds honey, a date and walnut loaf, granola, yoghurt, sausages, eggs and other goodies. They can also do a dinner hamper for a fee (email for price) and ours consisted of beef stew with veggies and a monolithic cairn of profiteroles.
In a Kilner jar, we find jumbo marshmallows, in case we want to light up the firepit on their patio.
If you need anything else, there are three farm shops within close vicinity. Or, you could work some of that food off with a wander round the estate.
When we visited, they were in the process of creating paths. For now, expect a rough ramble through the ferns, across the thick mossy carpet, or up the undulating hill to the Witch’s Stone.
You can also join the National Cycle Route, which follows the original train line. Brucefield Estate provides bikes, and we pilfered a pair from their storage area. I chose an upright and heavy number - a proper sit up and beg, which made me feel like Mary Poppins, as I freewheeled along the path, shrieking all the way. You can get to Stirling’s Wallace Monument from here or go to Devilla Forest, but we didn’t venture quite so far.
We only made it to the nearby field of sunflowers, where we saw the bobbing white tail of another roe deer, springing through the long stalks.
I don’t know about witchcraft, but this is certainly a magical place.