Growing up in Stirling and the Trossachs was an idyllic childhood for Nick Nairn – and the perfect preparation for a life of culinary success.
I would have to say that my childhood was idyllic. I grew up on my parents’ 40-acre estate in Port of Menteith in the Trossachs.
It was pretty much Swallows and Amazons for me as a kid as I wandered, semi-feral, through the countryside in and around the banks of the Lake of Menteith, and further up into the slopes of the Menteith Hills, which lie in the shadow of the imposing mountains, including two Munros, Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin.
We really did have a free-range existence: my grandfather owned caravans by the edge of the lake, and we would befriend the kids staying there, and we would roam the countryside in packs. I don’t ever remember wearing shoes – and I could run on gravel with my ‘summer feet.’ I also don’t remember there being any midgies back then, but I was outside so much of the time I was probably immune.
Back then the holidays seemed to last forever, we had ‘proper’ weather: the sun shone throughout the summer and, with a lake on our doorstep, by the time I was ten I was a good swimmer, an excellent rower, and a competent sailor. We also used to spend a lot of time windsurfing. We would set up camp on the side of the lake, and I remember spending many fruitless hours at the lakeside trying to catch dinner.
Although I was pretty bad at line fishing, my brother and I used to snorkel in the lake, and we became fairly proficient at spear fishing: we caught plenty of eels, and one or two perch.
Once, whilst under the water I turned and came face to face with the largest pike I have ever seen. Magnified through my diving mask I swear it was sixteen feet long. I could see its razor-sharp teeth, and it looked right at me – as if sizing me up – before it darted into the darkness. Incidentally, the largest pike ever caught in Scotland, which weighed in at 39¾lbs, was caught in the Lake of Menteith.
I was not what you could call a model child, and I certainly got in to my fair share of scrapes. Perhaps the most memorable was when I set fire to the hills of Menteith. It was at lunchtime one day when I was at primary school – a classmate and I decided to wander the hills behind the school with a box of matches. Bone-dry, the gorse literally exploded when introduced to a lit match, and within seconds the hillside was a raging inferno.
We legged it back to the school, clothes scorched, faces blackened, and hair smouldering. The brushes used to prevent the fire reaching the school were so badly burnt they had to be replaced and I had to pay for them with my pocket money – sixpence a week – for the duration of my time at primary school.
In the winter the hills were ideal for sledging when it snowed, and the lake would regularly freeze. The ice was often thick enough to walk on. Once, my brother was towed across the ice by a friend driving a Lotus 7. He was on a plastic cot mattress with his helmet and leathers on, and the car was going about 70 miles an hour when it suddenly peeled off and catapulted my brother towards the family home. The friction caused smoke to billow up and he looked like a speeding missile.
My brother and I also towed a sledge across the ice with an old trials motorbike which was on its very last legs. The thing just blew up, so we just left it, and when the ice melted it disappeared. It’s still there, a small wreck at the bottom of the lake.
The Lake of Menteith was where the last curling Grand Match or Bonspiel took place, in 1979. Unfortunately I wasn’t there, but my family said that the noise coming off the lake – the roar of the stones on the ice and the hubbub of thousands of people – was extraordinary.
My brother also made a few quid selling parking paces in a muddy field. The match this year was cancelled, but there were still plenty on the ce. I tend to skate with a chair in front of me, but my wife’s a good skater and the kids took to it like a duck to water.
School didn’t do much for me, so when I was 17 I decided to continue with my childhood adventure and joined the merchant navy. It was the best decision I ever made. What a fantastic experience: seven years travelling all over the world, it was just brilliant. It was during this time that I began my love affair with food. Don’t get me wrong, we ate well at home – my mum was a great cook – but it was relatively plain and simple fare.
My epiphany came in Singapore, in 1976, when I ate satays prepared on bamboo sticks held over an open fire between the toes of the boys cooking them. They were so good I can still taste them when I close my eyes.
When I came back to Scotland, I wanted to eat as well as I had done on my travels, but being broke I couldn’t afford to eat out, so I cooked for myself. At 23 I decided to open up my own restaurant – Braeval, in Aberfoyle.
I had no culinary experience, no commercial sense and no money, but I thought ‘why not?’ The rest, as they say, is history. In 1991, only five years after opening, I became the youngest Scottish chef to win a Michelin star, an achievement of which I am immensely proud.
Coming from a rural background certainly helped me realise early on that good food is all about the quality of the produce. My parents grew their own vegetables and soft fruit, and so as a child I was aware of how these foods should really taste. In terms of raw produce, Scotland is as good as anywhere else in the world, which is why I didn’t hesitate in setting up my restaurants here.
Whether it is beef, lamb and game; fish and seafood; or vegetables, fruit and salad – Scotland has the highest quality of all of this produce. I have used the same butcher, Jonathan Honeyman in Aberfoyle, for over twenty years, and my fi shmonger is Willie Little, based in Crieff. There is also a really good fruit and veg market every Wednesday and Thursday at Boquhan Estate, near Kippen. You can also get the delicious bread from the Mhor Bread, Callander, there as well.
I love Stirlingshire and the Trossachs so much that we live right in the middle of it all, in a converted farmhouse just outside Buchlyvie, on the Carse plain, with unobstructed views of the stunning, unspoilt landscape. Because we have no neighbours, it feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere, but I have the best of both worlds because we’re a stone’s throw from the M8 and M9, so commuting isn’t an issue for me.
There’s so much for people to do and see in the area. Stirling itself is a beautiful city: we used to do the catering at Stirling Castle – great banquets that were really good fun to do, and I was always struck by the formidable history of the place. The Wallace monument in Stirling is iconic, but the David Stirling monument near Doune, which offers one of the most spectacular views of the distant hills of Perthshire, is also well worth a visit.
There are loads of fantastic walks, such as the Pine Walk at the top of the Duke’s Pass. It’s a two-mile circuit, with musical instruments that the kids can play, and it’s just brilliant. The Go Ape! high wire forest adventure course at the David Marshall Lodge in Aberfoyle is a great place for older kids, and at Blairdrummond there is the safari park and also Briarlands farm, where you can pick your own strawberries and the kids can play on go-karts.
Loch Katrine is also a good place to go cycling, and if you’re really adventurous you can take the bikes across the Loch on the streamer, and cycle the 13-miles on the way back. I was a late starter in mountainbiking, but now I love it – and I especially like to cycle through the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park.
There are also some great places to eat, such as The Lake of Menteith Hotel, which has an amazing view across the lake, and is also a great place for a pint. There’s my restaurant at Doubletree by Hilton Dunblane Hydro Hotel, Kailyard, but we also really like the Monachyle Mhor Hotel, in Balquhidder.
Another place we often visit is The Courtyard Café, at Knockraich Farm, Fintry. It’s very child-friendly, and they have a dairy where they make their own ice cream. Mhor Fish, in Callander, also do a delicious fish and chips.
Undoubtedly when it comes to raw produce, I am a dedicated champion of what the whole of Scotland has to offer. But when it comes to landscape and scenery that is not just stunning and beautiful, but is also within easy reach of both home and work, there is only one area I would champion: and that’s Stirlingshire and the Trossachs – what a fantastic part of Scotland.
(This feature was originally published in 2011)