“They’re terrorists.” Don gives his perfectly plated sliver of trout the eye as he delivers this bombshell. “They’ll drown a duck. Pull them down from underneath. Or bite their legs off.”
“What?” My mouthful of mushroom tortellini turns to clay.
“Oh, aye. When I was head gardener on an estate near Perth, we once found a savaged baby beaver head in the grass, a good fifty yards from the nearest dam.”
Don’s tumbling accent is one people dream of when they think of Scotland, but this anecdote is going nowhere nice. A background murmur of discrete staff and diners fades to far-away whispers as he selects a bread roll and throws me a craggy smile.
“Later, we saw a pair using it as a toy, bashing it about until they got bored.”
“That’s pretty … grim.” I tail off, lamely.
“It’s normal. Nature in the raw and all that. But they’re little monsters, I’ll tell you that for free.”
Swallowing hard, my pasta’s downward journey battles rising dismay. Otters. While the primary draw for this hiking trip is the burnished autumn hills of the Central Highlands, I know they live in the places we’ll be exploring around Fort Augustus and I’d love to see one. At least I did. Nothing like a mountain guide to crush your cute and fluffy animal ideals, along with your appetite.
Still, the terrorists stay firmly on the wildlife wish list and gory revelations aside, Don’s great company – a font of knowledge on everything from the Falklands War to Scottish tea plantations, with a bone-dry sense of humour.
He’s also an outstanding tracker. At Glen Affric, an hour’s drive along the fringes of Loch Ness and dog-leg-left into feathery pine forests, he strides to the trailhead, clad head to toe in technical fabric, ready for anything nature might throw his way.
The austere moorland, broken bracken and lilac, shimmers after several days’ rain. Each step oozes water, though this morning’s skies are clear; patches of pearly blue flecked with scudding cloud.
As we walk, Don regularly scans the horizon with some trusty binoculars. A couple of hours in, he stops, pointing to a scarred granite brae on the opposite side of the loch.
“Golden eagles. A hunting pair. You see?”
I look up to an empty skyline pushing down hard on the crest of the hill.
“Here.” He passes me the glasses. “Aim for that ridge and focus.”
Through the lenses, two tiny, erased-pencil marks slowly sharpen into relief, jagged edges that spread into caramel refractions, the birds sinking and rising in ethereal ballet as they search for lunch.
Lowering the binoculars, eagles revert to dust specks in an instant. Don grins and raises his eyebrows.
“Not bad, eh?”
Focus. For the rest of the trip, I try to channel this patience, willing an otter to emerge from the sweeping landscapes through silent mantra, ears pricked for claws skittering along burn banks; a glimpse, perhaps, of sleek fur amongst a clump of reeds.
Frustratingly, the little monsters fail to manifest. A string of flawless Highland moments, however – fresh October air whistling through damp woodlands, a muntjac bark piercing a silent valley, honey-sweet drams in dark pub nooks – have me plotting a Scottish re-run before the week is out.
At a farewell supper, I pepper Don with superlative questions, keen for some last-ditch insider knowledge. His favourite island, the best month to visit, the most awesome mountains. He bats back replies, quiz-contestant style. Skye. May. The Munros, of course; he’s bagged the range and is now ticking them off a second time.
And top places to otter-spot? Monsters they may be, but since I’ll be back anyway …
“Mull, that’s the place. They play and hunt by the sea all day long.”
There’s a brief pause. “To be fair, when an otter lands a fish, it’s a sight.”
The table tealights flicker bronze and pearl. For an instant he’s somewhere else. I see him with the binoculars, downwind, focussed. A small, lithe body rises from the surf and skips over rocks and sand to shore, life bleeding out of the prey in its jaws.
“Ah well. Next time, eh?”
Dessert arrives, a blob of pastel-pink mousse sprinkled with nasturtium petals. It gets the tracker once-over.
“Hmm. Looks like Petits Filous yoghurt.” He picks up his spoon, gives me that smile, tucks in.