Tag Archives: falconry

The Blue Bar and other activities at Gleneagles, Scotland

Gleneagles Golf Resort and Spa ~ A Hotel Review

Gleneagles Fountain
Gleneagles Fountain

Four major fault lines run across Scotland; a geographical condition that created a country with contrasting landscapes. You’ll discover rugged coastline, Highland mountains, lowland valleys, numerous lochs and rivers and 787 islands. Along with dramatic scenery , legendary history, castles, clans, bagpipes and brouges make a worthy and memorable destination.

On a recent visit, I passed through peaceful rolling hills as I approached the famous golf resort of Gleneagles. The renown estate, home of three championship links courses, the 2005 G-8 Summit, and vacation getaway,  enveloped me in warmth and wealth. Every detail from spit polished brass railings to my room’s electric tea kettle and selection of shortbread spelled top of the line quality and five-star bend over backwards service.

Gleneagles Entrance
Gleneagles Entrance

My group arrived at the main entrance: an impressive French chateau looking structure. Stepping inside I found aristocratic touches: marble staircases, hand-carved wood paneling, mica chandeliers and a bevy of uniformed staff. The Gleneagles brochure aptly describes the 1924 hotel as “the palace in the glens which continues to attract those in search of rest, relaxation and exhilaration.”

Gleneagles sprawls over 850 acres, offers 232 guest rooms including 26 luxury suites. Overnight visitors choose between traditional Scottish decor rooms in the main building or more modern ones in the wings. My renovated room had a cozy gas fireplace at the foot of a massive and extremely comfy bed. A very romantic touch except I was alone. The wall of windows and patio allowed full views of the glorious countryside.

View from my room at Gleneagles
View from my room at Gleneagles

Golf is a huge draw, at least according to the Ryder Cup committee who chose Gleneages as their venue for 2014. The grounds comprise the PGA Centenary Course, designed by Jack Nicklaus, the King’s Course, the Queen’s Course and the nine-hole PGA National Academy Course, used for instruction.

However, the resort offers a long list of recreational activities for non-golfers. First, there’s the highly acclaimed spa, but I regretfully had no time for treatments. I was surprised by the number of families and grandchildren participating in gun dog classes, falconry, off road driving courses or fishing, riding and hiking. Day trips are easily arranged for wildlife sightseeing, as well as castle tours and visits to whisky distillers.

Gun Dog class at Gleneagles
Gun Dog class at Gleneagles

I chose to attend my first ever gun-dog class learning how dogs are trained for obedience, agility and hunting. The class starred two amusing black labs who had simply performed the drills so many times, they began to anticipate and tease with the commands. I took a turn working with a dog named Debbie. She ran to fetch on command and then sat still. This Debi couldn’t coax Debbie to return until her official handler called her; an act I thought was adorable, but he did not.

Following that class, I investigated the falconry mews. Falconry has long been regarded as the Sport of Kings, and birds of prey were traditionally flown by royals. Gleneageles added their Falconry School in 1992 which offers extraordinary introductory through advanced level programs on the grounds.

Falconry class at Gleneagles
Falconry class at Gleneagles

Having previously worked with hawks, I was very eager to try the sport again. The feeling of commanding a bird back to your hand is one of sheer delight. Seems the majestic free flying creatures return to please the falconer, but the truth is they fly for the food you present.

Johnnie Walker Blue Label
Johnnie Walker Blue Label

The temperature felt rather chilly, especially for a Floridian, and I was ready for a wee dram —  as is the Scottish custom. But, my wee dram would not be any ordinary whisky. I was invited to The Blue Bar at the Dormy Clubhouse (and one must be invited to visit). I would sip velvety smooth Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky on a heated leather sofa around a large circular firepit.

Although not much of a scotch drinker, my first taste of the superior blend was heavenly, no harsh alcohol burn down my throat. I was instructed to take three sips with water on the side. The first was to sample the flavor, the second to smell the peat and feel some heat, and the third to experience the harmony of the whisky’s fresh orange, smoke and spices. I admit I savored the precious elixir and would enjoy it at home if the cost didn’t run approximately $200 a bottle. I will have to settle for one of Johnnie’s less famous but more economical lines like the Green or Gold Label, around $55-$75 per bottle.

The outdoor Blue Bar also includes a cigar menu with brands like Bolivars, Cohibas, Cuabas, H. Upmanns, Montecristos and Partagás, and some pre-embargo Cubans. Those, I could easily skip.

The famous Blue Bar
The famous Blue Bar
Panna cotta plate
Panna cotta plate

My evening would not include dining at Gleneagles finest: Andrew Fairlie, ranked as Scotland’s only two Michelin star restaurant. Instead I attended an elegant banquet complete with a tartan decorated table. Following cocktails, we feasted on a goat’s cheese panna cotta decorated with apple blossom and pomegranates. Then, a loin of slow cooked lamb, followed by warm chocolate fondant with sour cherries. Quite impressive, I’d say. My visit to Scotland was off to a magnificent start and Gleneagles surely lived up to it’s glamorous reputation.

Visit gleneagles.com.

Ireland – Gone Hawking

Dingle, the owl

Gone Hawking-Falconry Lessons at Ashford Castle

By Debi Lander

A dignified hawk soars over an emerald green meadow, and then rips through the air, plunging downward, deftly making a kill for his owner. Falconry, hunting with trained raptors, is an ancient art. In recent times it has again become popular, and now Irish falcons are in high demand. Small wonder: the native Peregrine is the fastest bird of prey, estimated to dive or “stoop” at over 200 mph.

The sport arrived in Ireland by the seventh century, with nobles flying prized hawks and falcons in contests; hence it became known as the sport of kings. For common folk, birding provided a means of survival. And now my family, instead of larking around on vacation, would fling ourselves into a highly anticipated adventure, at an ancient Irish site.

Falconry was well established in 1228 when the Normans laid the first stone of their tower, which later became Ashford Castle. Hidden in the wilds of County Mayo, Southwest Ireland, the fortress kisses Lough Corrib’s shores, said to have an island for every day of the year. Acquired and restored by the Guinness family, the huge chateau-style building is fit for a king, including Rapunzelesque turrets and towers amid formal gardens. Indeed the Prince of Wales, later King George V, visited for a shooting holiday in 1905. More recently actor Pierce Brosnan rented the entire estate for his three-day wedding.

“It is inconceivable that throughout Ashford’s history, falcons and hawks were not kept within the castle grounds,” said Deborah Knight, owner of Ireland’s School of Falconry.

Today Peregrines nest only 15 minutes away from land once belonging to the estate.

Upon entering the stately hotel, we receive directions to our scheduled Hawk Walk. Off we traipse down walkways lined with gnarly old trees, hung low with lichen-laden branches. Ferns and spongy moss cover the ground, while shafts of sunshine peek through gently swaying foliage. Soft swirls of mist add to the mysterious aura in this fairy-tale-like enchanted forest.

Ashford Castle at dawn

We arrive at the School’s high walled fence, carefully guarding the valuable animals. Rod Hare–our aptly named instructor –welcomes us to the aviary, introducing the birds of prey. “Harris Hawks have keen eye-sight, approximately eight times better than a human’s and are naturally inclined to co-operate,” he explains. Rod, an Australian with a subdued Crocodile Dundee persona, charms us with his vast knowledge and stories of raptors’ deadly conquests.

We enter the mews, a quiet, dark enclosure for the birds’ overnight protection against predators and poachers. Untrained Harris Hawk chicks sell for $700 and a Peregrine for $5,000 or more. Falconers carefully record every bird’s weight, keeping each under the fed-up level, so they want to work for food.

Laura and a hawk

With our wee bit of knowledge, we don heavy leather gloves called gauntlets on our left arms. Rod picks up Liffey, a chocolate-brown and black-feathered Harris Hawk, and perches him on my fist. Liffey calmly peers at me with his russet eyes over his curved blue tipped, yellow beak. I timidly grasp hold of leather strips or jesses, attached to his ankle bands. All the birds wear falconry bells to help locate them in the wild. My daughter Laura receives an equally majestic bird, named Skellig. Our hawks will fly as a pair, a social trait unique to this species.

I feel privileged, like Mary Queen of Scots, an avid falconer, who often flew merlins. Tis an honor to carry this living creature, I think, strolling to an open glen to “cast off”. Like a Mama Bird nudging babies from the nest, I pray them to spread their wings and fly. Up they rise, fluttering onto the lower tree branches, watching us carefully. ” No problems so far, ” I say, but have to wonder, will Liffey and Skellig return?

Rod pulls a gob of meat from his pouch and hides it between my gloved fingers. When I extend my arm, quick as a flash, Liffey plummets for it and my heart rate accelerates to hummingbird-speed. Whoa–what a thrill. I forget to be frightened, watching the hawk greedily snatch the lure with his sharp talons, feeling the pressure through my glove. I am Mother Nature with a haughty grin; I feel powerful. Yet Liffey is in control, trained to follow his instinct for food; he merely permits me to enter his world.

Then I look over and sense Laura’s trepidation as she braces for Skellig, who swoops to fetch his prize. Instantly she laughs with glee. “That’s brilliant,” she exclaims, an expression picked up in the UK. She turns to us, looking smug.

Together we hide in the twisted tangle of bushes, playing hide and seek, which is all too easy for out feathered friends. We develop a partnership, a rhapsody with the raptors. They don’t even have to sing for their supper, as we provide them with fast food— if they come and get it.

To better understand how raptors hunt in the wild, we exchange the birds for a female hawk, named Balina. We carry her into the overgrowth, where a rope and pulley hide. Rod attaches a lure to the rope–a meat-garnished pretend rabbit and we fire-off the mechanism. The little lady dive bombs with such force, she almost crashes and bounces off the ground. What an awe-inspiring simulation. Being amid the action is far superior to mere sightseeing.

Rod quickly steps in, making a meal trade with Balina, while she “mantles” or surrounds her food with her wings. My husband Jay humorously mimics her loud squawking. In a true hunt, the falconer wants to keep the catch and not permit his bird to feast.

Then my group returns to get Dingle, a European Eagle owl weighing four pounds, much heavier than the hawks. Rod explains how his unique serrated edged feathers permit silent flight.

Dingle swoops low

“The owl is a stealth assassin,” he says. “They catch their prey with 100% deadly accuracy,” he continues. “They have eyes equipped with telescopic lenses and their hearing is exceptional. These fellows can detect a mouse 100 meters away and they absolutely rule the night.”

Rod attaches a tracking device to Dingle as Laura inspects the owl’s surprisingly scrawny body, camouflaged by downy fluff. We exchange our gloves for thicker ones, to protect against razor sharp talons. Owls are not good falconry birds, often undecided about chasing quarry. Should he not cooperate, Rod could locate him using the monitor.

To entice Dingle to work, our instructor scoops an owl’s version of a tempting morsel onto my gauntlet, shows it to him–then the proud falconer, and his trained- but- temperamental bird, strut away. The path is straightforward and we all are ready. The hooter swoops low, almost touching the ground with his enormous wingspan and, at the last moment, pounces onto my wrist.

“Saints preserve us,” I cry –something my Irish Mother-in-law often says. What a regal creature; I am euphoric and can hardly resist petting him, like my golden retriever, as a reward for a trick well done. Touching is not allowed, as birds of prey do not understand that type of behavior. Falconers get deeply attached to their birds, but the raptors aren’t emotionally attached. They work solely from appetite.

Afterward, Jay and Laura have a turn experiencing the difference of landing an owl versus a hawk. My trio photographs each other, attempting to capture the moment of the strike.

Completely unaware of the time, the cold and dampness, we regrettably end our exploits. This twilight performance includes all the scenes an Irishman would spin into a spirited story. And it doesn’t take long …together we march right to the hotel bar for hot mulled wine- or hot chocolate- and begin bragging about our extraordinary escapade.

The word “raptor” comes from the Latin word meaning “to seize,” and taking a hawk walk was more than seizing the day. The Ashford afternoon humbled us: we were delighted by Dingle who gave us new admiration and understanding of owls. Liffey and Skellig, the Harris Hawks, touched our hearts, not just our gloved hands, accepting our entrance into nature’s food chain. Throughout the world, birds of prey symbolize power, and our encounter in Ireland left us with a powerful raison d’etre: to roam again with raptors.

Liffey and Skelling on a tree limb


If you go:

A car is needed to drive to rural Ashford Castle, approximately 30 miles from Galway in County Mayo. Pass by farm fields, crumbling stonewalls and flocks of wooly sheep before reaching the tiny hamlet of Cong. The town is famous as the location where The Quiet Man was filmed, a 1951 movie, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.

Ashford, a five-star castle hotel, resembles a country manor house with paneled lounges, carved ceilings and blazing fireplaces scattered amidst suits of armor and objects d’art. Don’t miss the hall of fame-a room filled with hundreds of signed photos from notables who have stayed at the castle.

Lough Corrib is renown for spectacular fishing, and the Castle grounds for shooting, riding, golf and the Falconry School.

Ashford Castle in Cong, Country Mayo–http://www.ashford.ie/.

Ireland’s School of Falconry–http://www.falconry.ie/

Telephone 094 954 6820