At a viewpoint overlooking a sea of canary-yellow gorse and delicate blackthorn blossom tumbling down to inky Loch Fyne, the six of us howl like wolves into a gentle breeze. It’s an exhilarating moment, adding to the euphoria as we near the end of the four-day retreat’s longest run.
It’s day three, and from our base at Auchgoyle Farm, a once-dilapidated dairy farm going through a rewilding transformation thanks to new owners David and Katharine Lowrie, we’d spent the morning sloshing through peaty burns, scampering across dunes and scrambling over rockpools along the quieter side of the Cowal peninsula. Aptly named Argyll’s secret coast, we barely saw another soul but did spot roe deer hiding in thick bracken, osprey circling overhead and eider ducks ushering their young away from shore.
Though the farm offers self-catering accommodation, in a two-bedroom eco-cabin handbuilt by David and a farmhouse newly refurbished by the couple, Auchgoyle Farm’s running retreats offer a more immersive way to appreciate this less-visited area. Over four days, guests of a range of abilities and experience run between five and 10 miles a day, enjoy restorative yoga sessions, visit a spa, learn about nature and rewilding on farm tours, and indulge in Katharine and David’s home-cooked meals and snacks. It’s part of a growing trend for active retreats: in August, Visit England forecast that in the next 12 months people will be more likely to seek time outdoors to enjoy sports or leisure pursuits.
It’s easy to lose your sense of direction on this convoluted, claw-shaped peninsula, with views of distant mist-clad peaks and islands in all directions. But led by Katharine, we venture deep into ancient woodland and race the tide along hidden bays without looking at a map. On our third day, after howling into the wind, we heave our soggy bodies around hilltop Asgog Loch for the final push, admiring nature’s attempt to consume the ruined castle on its shores before descending into the hamlet of Millhouse and back to base.
The constantly shifting terrain and wildlife spotting along the way keep everyone’s minds off any mile counting. However, this 10 miles is the furthest some in the group have ever run; for others, it’s a nice warm down from a recent marathon. Either way, endorphins are sky-high. While stretching around the farm’s fire pit, we all chatter excitedly, mimicking the swallows and house martins swooping overhead.
The Lowries bought Auchgoyle Farm in 2019. “We didn’t even look at the buildings; for us, it was all about the landscape,” David says over a welcome feast of locally sourced venison and clapshot (a Scottish swede and potato dish). The fire’s lit and we’re cosy as can be in the farmhouse, where running retreat guests stay in four comfortable double bedrooms. He continues: “From the stream tumbling down a gorge to the scrub, to the deciduous woodland and the meadows, we knew it was ripe for nature restoration, and that’s what we wanted to do.”
It’s a plan the couple have been brewing for years. Later that evening, we learn about David and Katharine’s environmental journeys during a talk in the farmhouse snug. Since leaving the UK for South America on an old wooden sailing boat in 2008, they have conducted bird surveys in the Caribbean, met the renowned environmentalists Kris and Doug Tompkins in Chile, and run the length of the continent (all 6,504 miles) while raising money for conservation charities and delivering talks for schools along the way.
Now settled here with their two children, they are still guided by nature in everything they do. Auchgoyle is an active part of a nationwide rewilding network called Scotland: The Big Picture. Once they had guest rooms and the cabin ready to rent out, retreats were an obvious next step. Katharine says: “We’ve always wanted to host trips that get people outside whatever the weather, experiencing the intricacies of this varied landscape. David and I use running to relax and switch off, and from feedback so far it’s clear more and more people are doing the same.” Over the course of a year, Auchgolye hosts a range of trips for up to six people, with some female-only and others mixed, and some retreats catering for beginners.
On day two we head out for a birdsong and farm walk, to see and hear the rewilding efforts. With over 20 years of ecology experience, Katharine is as enthusiastic as she is knowledgable. “The birds give me hope. We’ve got so much more to survey, but the increase in number of so many bird species proves we’re doing something right,” Katharine says, pointing out different calls. We tune into the reeling of grasshopper warblers, the alarm call of a redstart, the descending scales of willow warblers, and watch sand martins dart in and out of the sandy cliffs formed during wetland recreation.
“We want to let nature lead in restoring land, but we need some help. So come and commune with the cows,” Katharine continues as we approach eight sturdy Shetland cattle, a rare breed selected for “mob grazing” – naturally fertilising, turning and improving the soil as they move around the farm. Eventually, this small herd will also provide income for the farm through meat and milk.
Provenance and supporting local producers are prioritised during the fully catered retreat. Besides mountains of homemade goods (including yoghurt, granola, chocolate protein balls and fruit-puree cookies), fresh bread is delivered from local baker Botanica at the Barn each morning, and milk comes in refillable glass bottles from the Wee Isle Dairy across the peninsula. At lunch, neighbouring permaculture farmer Nicola Sowerby pops by to talk about the contents of our flower-filled, flavour-popping salads and herbal teas. She says much of this community still enjoys a “gift economy” – exchanging eggs for piano lessons or herbs for heavy lifting. It’s all very wholesome and idyllic, and we find ourselves scribbling down recipes.
One day we hop on the 478 bus to get to the start of the next run – an eight-mile scramble along the lichen-laden, moss-lathered boulders and temperate rainforest that line Loch Ruel on the Loch Lomond and Cowal Way. Learning as we go, we enjoy a little guerrilla conservation work – plucking up saplings of invasive rhododendrons – admire an organic tea plantation and marvel at seals bobbing in the loch.
At the highest point of the run, the site of an impressive ark installation built by Tighnabruaich’s Extinction Rebellion chapter to raise awareness of the climate crisis, we make a welcome pitstop for coffee and homemade lemonade. Award-winning Argyll Coffee Roasters’ Eve MacFarlane joins us to talk about ethical coffee production. It’s just the fuel needed to complete the route and take a breath-snatching dip in the loch before heading back to the farm to warm up.
On two evenings, yoga lessons with local teacher Kate Gray complement the running; gentle sessions tailored to the group’s needs aid deep sleep.
By day four we feel like locals, waving and chatting to people we’ve met as we embark on our final seven-mile run to Portavadie Spa, to soothe aching muscles in steamy pools and saunas. The heavens open for the last 20 minutes, but no one seems to mind, revelling in the mythical scenery of Glenan Wood – a waterside patch of ancient oak woodland managed by and for the local community. We enjoy a moment’s silence before plopping into the spa. It’s an indulgent finale before returning to reality, but nature steals the show even here. From the bath-like outdoor pool, we spy oystercatchers prancing on the rocky shore, gannets dive-bombing and harbour porpoises gracefully breaching offshore.
The spectacle is an apt end before we take trains and ferries back to Glasgow and beyond. A profound love for nature is the silver thread that sets this running retreat aside from others – a pared-back take on health and wellbeing that leaves the skin glowing, the muscles aching and the heart full.