PERTHSHIRE, SCOTLAND--Is it possible for a vegetarian to survive in the land of meat and potatoes, while also staying at a hotel known for its falconry hunts and recently established gun dog school? When I told people I was going to Scotland, those who know I haven't eaten meat in six years scoffed, "Good luck!" Surely there's more rabbit, lamb and haggis on every menu here than I've likely seen in my entire life, but that doesn't mean the country has turned a cold shoulder on its herbivore residents and tourists. In fact, they've even managed to come up with a vegetarian version of haggis (a Scottish dish similar to sausage), made of lentils and other beans. Edinburgh offers one of the more tasty vegetarian restaurants I've visited, David Bann, a trendy spot off the Royal Mile that certainly appeals to more then just vegetarians and vegans. Though you might not need a reservation, the restaurant on Monday night filled up pretty quickly, suggesting that it would be wise to call ahead on the weekends.
My next test was falconry lessons at Gleneagles Hotel, where I was staying, followed by gun dog training. Gleneagles may be known for its golf and superior service, but sports like falconry, horseback riding and gun dog training make up most of its slate of activities. Given that the property is pretty secluded, it would be impossible to get through a stay without partaking in at least one, and I highly recommend both falconry and gun dog training, so long as you don't mind getting a little dirty.
When William first introduced us to his collection of hawks and eagles, I thought I'd feed the birds some seeds and watch them do some tricks; I had no idea we'd actually take them into the surrounding fields of farmland to hunt rabbits. Though not quite as popular a sport in the U.S. as it is in Scotland and England, William tells me there are roughly 5,000 self-professed falconers in America.
On the three-hour trek, our birds of prey, Saunders and Victor, were 50/50, netting two kills out of four attempts. It wasn't as heart-wrenching as I thought it would be--after all, I wasn't the one killing the rabbit, I was merely following the bird that did. William was careful to make sure the animal didn't suffer, discreetly ensuring the rabbit was dead and not just in shock before he disposed of it. (The deceased are later taken to a nearby rehabilitation center to serve as food for wounded wild animals, so at least it's not all for sport.) In truth, it's the chase that's thrilling, but you'd be mistaken if you thought I looked hard to spot rabbits for these hawks to swoop down on and kill.
Surprisingly, I still had an appetite after the falconry, so we headed to lunch, only to resume our animal education once again by training Labrador retrievers to catch fallen prey--thankfully using toys made to look like pheasants and rabbits.
Having grown up with dogs and now being residents of New York City with small apartments and no yards, my travel companion and I were in terrible dog withdrawal, and may have been more excited to be out playing with dogs than they were to be out of the kennel and playing with us. Here too the animals are well cared for and the trainer delicate yet stern with the more rambunctious animals. Gleneagles' gun dog school has been open only since March, and the trainer tells me the sport has been slow to catch on among guests but has been picking up. Indeed, the lessons we did attracted a crowd with cameras.
The trainer also tells me that once the 11 dogs, which are between three and four years old, become too old or are injured, and therefore no longer are as spry, they will be found good homes, rather than dispensed to a shelter. I've already signed up to have Debbie, a three-year-old black lab who nuzzles your leg for attention, shipped to me when the time comes. (JM)