We arrive at Gargunnock House on August 6th. The car crunches along the gravel driveway and when the elegant façade finally comes into view between a clump of trees, even the kids go silent. There's an intense drama about the place that pulls you in -- think "Gosford Park" meets "Wuthering Heights." I've been coming here since 1996 and it still gets me every time.
(Gargunnock House, Scotland. Available for rent here.)
The housekeeper has hidden the front door key for us and we go into the massive entry hall, our steps echoing across the worn flagstone floors.
The children dash up the staircase and promptly vanish into the labyrinthine recesses of the house. We aren't alarmed. Periodic peals of laughter float down from another floor letting us know they're more than okay.
I go straight to the dining room and fling open the windows overlooking the kitchen garden. The air smells like woodsmoke, wet stone, freshly turned earth and flowering buds, and I'm in heaven.
The dining room is empty and still. The superstitious side of me swears that the long-dead faces on the wall are glancing around expectantly for stirrings of life.
Could they have peeked into their immediate future, they would have seen this:
In the living room, the rose-colored George Smith sofas and gold velvet curtains lend a theatrical air to the room. The stage is set and awaits its players.
Within hours, we are cozily ensconced in front of a crackling fire surrounded by books, puzzles, games and other 19th century pursuits.
The chef de cuisine (i.e. my husband) is in the midst of a culinary orchestra of chopping, cutting, slicing and dicing.
Piero's dinner is simple, honest and kid-friendly, with fresh, rustic ingredients that hit the spot. In the words of my idol, Nigel Slater, "Right food, right place, right time."
That evening, I wander into a sitting room to pay a private visit to the late Miss Viola Stirling, the last owner of Gargunnock House. Over the fireplace, there is a painting of her as a young girl being taught the finer points of gamekeeping by her father. I am so grateful to be back in her home.
Our days soon settle into a comfortable routine. We make no attempt to head off our jet lag; instead, unhurried breakfasts at 11am eventually evolve into leisurely mid-afternoon hikes. There is only one rule: Wellies are mandatory.
Gargunnock House is nestled amid acres of Arcadian pasture and, thanks to the UK's public rights of way rules for ramblers, nearly all paths less traveled are open to exploration.
In this enchanted land, streams are meant to be forged...
...and fences are meant to be scaled.
Have you ever seen such contented sheep in your life?
Here we are, minus the men (who are training their lenses on us). The goal for this hike is the top of that hill in the distance.
Our backpacks are stocked with sandwiches, cheese, apples and Hob Nobs. We are a ragtag team of deliriously happy adventurers.
My friend Hillary picks the perfect spot for a picnic.
The children ask if they can climb to a nearby waterfall. "Go! Run! Explore!" I tell them. The words have a novel taste to them and I realize that the phrase doesn't come trippingly off my lips back in Los Angeles.
When at long last we reach the peak, a blue-and-white surprise awaits.
And then another: a picture postcard view of our very own manor, its mellow stone walls magically spotlit by the sun.
Back at the house, we devour freshly-baked scones with butter, clotted cream and three varieties of Fortnum and Mason jam that I've brought up from London.
It's a different world here. In Hollywood, we're plain ol' Piero and Lisa and Luca. But here we're the McGiramontis: the Laird, his bonnie wife and their wee bairn.
On our next-to-last day, we succumb to the allure of the nearby William Wallace Monument.
Standing beneath it in the shadows, the forbidding toothy peaks look eerily similar to Tolkien's tower in Mordor.
We climb 246 very narrow stone steps. Encountering someone coming down when you're going up requires a firm grasp of navigational geometry. "Hmmm...if I put this part here, can you possibly fit that part there?"
At the top, we are greeted by a view so stunning it nearly knocks us flat.
I mean that literally. The wind is gusting so fiercely that it's nigh impossible to stand up straight. Luca and his friends seek shelter with Piero.
Our week-long stay at the house comes and goes in a flash, the way it always does when your greatest wish is that time would stop and you could exist in this space, in this time, with these people, forevermore.
Before we know it, it's time to take our boots off. Unfortunately, bursting suitcases mean that most of us end up having to leave them for future guests.
(I said most of us. Do you honestly think I could leave mine after they'd been embedded with the romance of the moss and the moors and the heather? I wrapped those babies in a plastic sack and wrestled my suitcase until it finally gave in.)
Back in Los Angeles, someone asks me what it is exactly about Scotland that I love so much. "It's the hairier version of England," I reply. My friend laughs. But it's true, and I say that with a love for England that defies boundaries.
Compared to the glorious clipped gardens of England, Scotland is unkempt and shaggy and bristly. It has more unpredictable weather, more untamed moors, more rugged hills, more unbridled romance, more sheep, more peat, more moss...well, you get the picture.
I found two very moving odes to Scotland by poet Jeannette Simpson. I extract liberally from them below.
I have seen your highlands and your glens
and felt a recognition I did not expect.
I long to be back on your soil to stay
even though I have people and things here who need me.
No, you are not the land of my birth,
But you are the land of who I am.