By Janice Hopper

The Old Manse of Blair is a country house and historic boutique hotel situated in rural Perthshire. Its transformation, from a run-down listed building to a luxurious hotel, has been a labour of love for a Scottish couple originally from Barra and North Uist. The restoration efforts have paid off, as the property recently received five-star accreditation from Visit Scotland as a ‘restaurant with rooms’.

Despite the accolades, the manse offers a relaxed, informal and welcoming escape. Each detail has been selected or discovered by owner, Anne MacDonald. Quirky pieces add their own story to each room, from a dramatic sheep’s skull hanging in the dining room, to a handmade mirror fashioned from grouse feathers. Taking centre stage in the dining room is a specially commissioned table, crafted from a 200-year-old oak tree that fell in the grounds of Blair Castle. The public rooms feature textiles by Iona Crawford, bespoke carpets designed by Stevens & Graham, and David Hunt chandeliers feature throughout. The overall style is modern and contemporary, yet sympathetic to the 19th century property.

Situated just outside Blair Atholl, the Old Manse has eminent neighbours such as Blair Castle. Although it’s an elegant retreat, the manse is gaining a family-friendly reputation. As guests pull up the sweeping driveway, past the horses grazing in the field, towards the ivy-clad country house, it appears a very chic destination for rug-rats. Artistic and inviting, boasting a head chef formerly of Gleneagles, could this property offer luxury for couples and families alike? It’s a subtle balancing act, but the manse succeeds.

Each bedroom of the property is different. Solo travellers or couples may opt for rooms such as the Junior Estate or Paddock Suite. Executive doubles include the Minister’s Study and The Governess’s Quarters. Families can experience The Bothy, a double double with interconnecting rooms and an extra-large shower. Alternatively, consider the smart Georgian suite. The two-storey Georgian wing was added to the building in 1842, and this suite is a spacious den for families or couples looking to treat themselves. The suite’s living room (or whisky snug), is rich in olive green hues, with an open log fire, and distinctive artworks by Scottish artists Peter Nardini and Cecilia Cardiff adorning the walls. French doors lead out into the grounds, where a small outdoor seating area makes an inviting spot for a pre-dinner drink on fine evenings.

Dinner is served in the new Orangery restaurant, housed in a bright, modern conservatory. A chilled portrait of a Highland cow takes pride of place; ‘Buttercup’ is an eye-catching piece of artwork, selected because it reminds Anne MacDonald of the machair of her island home. Diners in the Orangery have three menus to choose between: an à la carte menu, a children’s menu for little ones, and an ‘Inbetweeners’ menu for youngsters aged 8-12. The Inbetweeners offering is a stroke of genius that surely should be more commonplace – portion sizes to suit the customer, whatever their size.

Kids tuck into Aberdeen-Angus sliders or an iron steak and fries, whilst adults savour starters that include Orkney hand-dived scallops and hot smoked salmon with shaved fennel salad, followed by a beautifully cooked blade of beef or peppered loin of Highland venison. Desserts for kids include fresh Scottish strawberries and jelly or a mini chocolate brownie, whilst a beautifully presented salted chocolate and caramel ganache graces the adult menu.

Head Chef, Jonathan Greer, doesn’t simply hide away in the steam, pots and pans of the kitchen. For a more personal foodie experience, Greer welcomes diners to his chef’s table, where a six-course tasting menu is dished up within the kitchen itself. Guests can discuss the food, ask questions, learn about the provenance of the ingredients, explore cookery techniques, or simply enjoy the cuisine set before them.

After dinner, retreat to the drawing room with its stylish art deco vibe. A baby grand piano sits in the corner, and gracing the walls are exceptionally striking images by Gerard Burns, whose paintings hang in the Scottish Parliament. It’s a rich setting for music and sweet digestifs.

The following morning there’s ample sites to visit in close proximity to the manse - it’s impressive how many attractions are mere minutes from the hotel.

Heading west, the Falls of Bruar is a rugged site of natural beauty. Robert Burns visited in 1787, but he was so displeased with the barren landscape surrounding the falls that he penned a poem, ‘The Humble Petition of Bruar Water’, requesting that the Duke of Atholl plant additional trees and foliage. Today it’s a lush, green spot, popular with hikers, and with adventurous canyoners who fling themselves into the watery depths. Nearby, The House of Bruar, known affectionately as the Harrods of the Highlands, is a short walk from the falls.

As well as specialising in Scottish country clothing, this luxury rural shopping experience boasts a vast food hall, country gifts, fishing supplies, children’s toys and clothes, artworks, and a popular café/restaurant. The Falls and House of Bruar are only a few minutes drive from the Old Manse of Blair, but many guests take the option to follow a country path, running behind the hotel, for a more scenic, tranquil option.

Head east to visit the village of Blair Atholl and its farming museum, distillery and quirky water mill. The mill stands out as one of the last three operational watermills in Scotland. The stone-ground flour and oatmeal is used to bake a variety of breads, cakes, bagels and rolls. These fresh goods are served in a little tearoom, situated where the old grain store used to be. For those who wish to get more hands on, bread making courses are available at a ‘basic’, ‘intermediate’ or ‘advanced’ level.

For more gruesome local history head to Killiecrankie, the site of a bloody Jacobite battle. Here, in 1689, the Jacobites overwhelmed the Government forces in a matter of minutes. Stop at the low-key visitor centre, which contains artefacts and weapons from the conflict, then head through the woods to ‘Soldier’s Leap’, the spot where a Redcoat soldier leapt eighteen feet across the raging River Garry, fleeing the pursuing Jacobites.

For visitors seeking a culture fix, Pitlochry’s renowned Festival Theatre is an artistic beacon. The theatre hosts a varied and colourful mix of plays, performances and musicians. Keep an eye out for ’The Crucible’ and Noël Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ running till the end of September, and folk musicians Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham and ‘A Christmas Carol’ are scheduled for later in the year.

Floodlights aren’t the only illuminations lifting the spirits in Perthshire. A final highlight is The Enchanted Forest. This captivating event brings light where there is darkness, brightening the atmospheric natural backdrop of Faskally Woods. The theme for 2019 is ‘The Cosmos’, so prepare to be mesmerised by this unique rural light show.

From illuminations and battlegrounds, to mills and waterfalls, the Old Manse of Blair provides a luxurious base for a weekend of history, craftsmanship and natural beauty. With Scottish art, food and history on offer, take time out to relax and indulge in a creative, country setting.