While the Scottish Highlands are often seen as the preserve of the aristocracy, ELISE RANA says there’s still plenty to see for us common folk.

Things may be looking shaky for the couple at the moment, but when Madonna married Guy Ritchie at Skibo Castle in Dornoch back in December 2000, Scottish tourist authorities thanked her with her own tartan for providing the Highlands with their best publicity coup since the first sightings of Loch Ness Monster.

While there’s certainly been no shortage of star-struck wannabes willing to fork out £700 a night to follow where the Material Girl’s been, the true appeal of the Highlands doesn’t have to cost quite so much.

More than 150 years before Madonna began flirting with the trappings of aristocracy, a party of true blue blood was discovering the benefits of Highlands seclusion. Hooked after their first visit in 1842, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert began a royal holiday tradition, with a railway line and station purpose-built to retain their privacy. Now a sleepy little museum complete with eerie waxworks and the original royal toilet, Ballater station displays diary excerpts from Victoria’s first night at Balmoral:

It was so calm and solitary… all seemed to breathe freedom and peace, and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoil.”

It may have been written before the development of long-lens photography, but Queen Vic’s description still rings true. Swathed in silver birch and green pine, there’s a bleak, romantic grandeur to the wild landscape that inspired Byron and Wordsworth. The highland clearances of the 17th century still echo, but it is this deserted quality that has become a major selling point.

‘Getting away from it all’ in the Highlands is traditionally a rather upper-class pursuit. The hills are striped purple and grey from recent ‘muir-burning’ – done to encourage new heather growth, and with it more grouse for shooting parties. ‘Royal Deeside’ is still a very exclusive place, we learn as we cruise alongside the sparkling river where Charles and Camilla came salmon-fishing a few weeks earlier.

It’s this exclusivity that’s drawn the world’s A-list. Jim, driver to the stars, is on first-name terms with numerous Hollywood actors, pop idols and general movers and shakers. Elton is a very nice man,” Jim confides in lowered tones. “He comes here an awful lot.”

For Z-listers like the rest of us, use of Skibo’s 7500-acre grounds for a spot of ‘hunting, shooting, fishing’ fun might be a bit out of financial reach. However, the noble pursuits that the Highlands has to offer are for everyone – here’s how to make the most of them in full animal-friendly fashion. And no need to build your own railway line to get there.

Highland Wildlife Park

Leave the senseless slaughter to the toffs, and take aim with your camera instead. Drive safari-style through grazing herds of black highland cattle, mouflon, deer and European bison in the main reserve, before getting a closer look at more reclusive animals, including otters, wolves, wildcats, owls, lynx and reindeer.
Kincraig, Kingussie, Inverness-shire (01540-651 270; www.highlandwildlifepark.org)

Abernethy Reserve

The osprey, an impressive, pale-feathered breed of fish eagle, was once hunted to near-extinction in Scotland, but has been successfully reintroduced. At the the RSPB Osprey Centre, set in primitive pine forest beside Loch Garten, banks of binoculars and telescopes are trained on a breeding pair. It’s like Big Brother for twitchers, with video highlights of recent showdowns between rival females being shown to a rapt audience. Make it out of bed early enough for a glimpse of the bizarre-looking, endangered Capercaillie, a spectacular native bird. Ten miles east of Aviemore between Boat of Garten and Nethybridge (01479-831 694; www.rspb.org.uk)

Rothiemurchus Estate

Lord and Lady Huntingtower – Jonny and Philippa if you’d prefer – have a 21st century approach. Get your outdoor fix quad-biking or four wheel driving, then flex your rifle skills on pigeons of the clay variety. You might not be able to cast a line right next to royalty but you’re pretty close – fish for salmon and sea trout on the River Spey or go boat fishing for Brown Trout and Pike on lochs with views of the Cairngorms. Don’t go home empty-handed though – stock up on wild venison from the excellent Rothiemurchus Larder.
Near Aviemore, Inverness-shire (01479-812 345; www.rothiemurchus.net).

• For more information on activities in the Highlands, see www.visitscotland.com or call 0845-225 5121.”