A Stay in Rural Scotland
Published: June 2009
By Frank Rose
Three country-house hotels exemplify the best in manors
Rocky and often forbidding, Scotland is a place where even shepherds' huts are hewn from granite. The dark gray stone lends a stern and brooding presence to castle and cottage alike, but it also hints at safety and warmth inside. What it doesn't suggest is the luxury that can often be found there as well.
We probably have Queen Victoria to thank for Kinnaird, since it was she who started the English upper classes buying hunting estates in Scotland. In 1927 Sir John and Lady Ward acquired Kinnaird, a 9,000-acre estate in Perthshire, just north of Edinburgh. The couple expanded the already impressive 18th-century manor house to accommodate the hunting parties they were to bring up every fall from London. Sixty years later their newly widowed daughter-in-law, Constance Ward, began to convert the property into a hotel. Not a hotel, exactly; more like a stately home in which guests pay to star in their own fantasy production of Masterpiece Theatre, with the other guests as walk-ons.
To begin with, there are only nine guest rooms. (Eight stone cottages elsewhere on the estate can be rented by the week.) If that sounds intimate, consider the scale: rarely will you be within earshot of a stranger. On the main floor, the paneled Cedar Room opens into a billiards room hung with a half-dozen or more 50-pound salmon reeled in by guests in the 1920's and 30's. The stairways are decorated with prints—pheasant-shooting, deer-shooting, duck-shooting, more pheasant-shooting. My room was a marvel of pink-and-white chintz set off by hand-painted wallpaper, with an 18th-century highboy in the corner. A dressing table blocked the window, but the handsomely proportioned bathroom, with its old-fashioned fixtures and faintly medicinal Penhaligon's toiletries, almost made up for it.
Of course, you can't have a country house without country, and Kinnaird has more than its share. One side of the house commands a view of the river Tay; on the other side, past a stand of oak and hemlock, the land juts up to a rocky moor inhabited only by pheasants and sheep. The hiking is terrific; fly-fishing and horseback riding can also be arranged. A short drive away are the Tayside village of Dunkeld—its cathedral a romantic ruin for centuries—and the summer-festival town of Pitlochry. But you will definitely want to return in time for dinner. Chef Trevor Brooks's creations are as elegant as the faded Rococo-style frescoes in the dining room—prosciutto-wrapped monkfish with a shimmering asparagus mousse; risotto topped with sea bass, its skin delicately crisped with curry; a thrilling passion fruit crème caramel zested with orange. Next he plans to set up a dining table somewhere in the enormous ground-floor kitchens. How Upstairs, Downstairs can you get?
Kinnaird Estate, By Dunkeld, Perthshire; 44-1796/482-440, fax 44-1796/482-289; high-season doubles from $410.
Passing through the gates at Gleneagles, the legendary golf resort in the hills of Perthshire, one drives through heavenly gardens to the main entrance, to be greeted there by—Sean Connery in a kilt?No, not Sean Connery, but definitely a man in a kilt. It was the last I'd see of my car for a while. At Gleneagles, there's no reason to leave until the money gives out.
That could be sooner than expected if you failed to book one of the all-inclusive packages, like the "golf break" or the "falconry break." Most likely you've come for the golf: Gleneagles has three of the finest parkland courses in Scotland, plus a new American-style course (carts allowed) designed by Jack Nicklaus, and a staff of pros to offer instruction.
For decades, golf was all there was, but in recent years new diversions have been added at a feverish rate. You can ride a horse, shoot clay pigeons on the moor, practice your archery, or go hawking for rabbits. You can fish for salmon or trout, or splash downstream in a Land Rover. You can board your horse or your hawk (dogs stay free in your room). You can get a facial. And should an emergency arise back home in London or New York or Tokyo, there's a handy business center outfitted with computer, photocopier, fax, even shredder.
But like much of Scotland, Gleneagles has an identity crisis: baronial or contemporary?It was built by the Royal Caledonian Railway to promote train travel, and it slumped along for decades under British Rail until it was privatized by the Thatcher government. Now owned by a food-and-beverage conglomerate, it fairly glistens with the sparkle of enterprise. But how to update it?The Scots, weighed down by all that granite, are understandably eager for the light and open. Unfortunately, they lack the feel for it. Lunch in the jaunty white-and-aqua restaurant in the hotel's extravagant new spa complex was tasty enough, but both the shrimp pizza and the orzo paella were soggier than one might have hoped. A better bet is the Dormy Clubhouse, out by the golf courses, where the food is plain but honest.
The same identity crisis is played out in the hotel itself, a vast stone pile whose 229 rooms and suites were long the epitome of matronly elegance. In the past year, much of it has been redone—40 guest rooms by Glasgow designer Amanda Rosa, the lobby and clubby bar by the London-based firm Sedley Place—in a sort of futuristic Deco, with bold color schemes and flying-saucer ceiling fixtures. The effect is highly theatrical and only minimally disconcerting. It works best in the bar, which looks at first glance as if it might have been that way when the hotel opened in 1924. Other areas—most of the graciously scaled guest rooms, the grand and all-but-endless hallways, the resolutely formal Strathearn restaurant—seem fresh but untouched.
Particularly the Strathearn, which is all one could want in a hotel dining room. The tables gleam with silver and crystal, Ionic columns support a distant ceiling, polished young waiters perform an intricate ballet while bearing flawless creations—an ethereal crab-and-lemon tart on arugula, delicate John Dory with briny little mussels on a bed of sweet anise. But most of all it is the service that impresses: eager yet reserved, correct but never sanctimonious. Like the waiter who identified the curious-looking finger of meat surmounting my sliced guinea hen as the parson's nose—and then returned to ask, with the faintest possible smile, "Were the odd parts satisfactory, sir?"
Did he mean the guinea hen, or my stay in Scotland?"Yes, quite," I replied.
Auchterarder, Perthshire; 800/628-8929 or 44-1764/662-231, fax 44-1764/662-134; high-season doubles from $466.
For some hotels, the approach is everything. At the Isle of Eriska it begins on a two-lane highway that wends its way west through barren Glen Lochy and past the aptly named Loch Awe to the seaside at Ledaig, where a narrow road leads through sheep pastures to a clanking metal bridge. On the far side is Eriska, a 300-acre private island where a turreted Victorian castle stands amid green lawns and woodlands. Inside it's more cozy than grand: a succession of homey parlors, a massive staircase, 17 well-appointed guest rooms done in creamy hues of pink or sage and furnished with agreeably mismatched antiques. Outside, a sweeping lawn is set with big, comfy chaises. Relax. You've arrived.
There's not much else to do on Eriska; that's the point. You could drive to the port town of Oban, where ferries leave for Mull and the Western Isles; or you could head for the Great Glen, the rift valley that runs past Loch Ness to the North Sea. The walking trails on Eriska itself can be covered in a couple of hours, and the six-hole course is hardly tempting to the serious golfer. Remote, serene, ringed by water and mountains, Eriska is a place to be, not to do. The food is wonderful, which is fortunate because the next option is 45 minutes away. And the service . . . well, let's just call the service eccentric.
Virtually abandoned for 20 years, Eriska was purchased in 1973 by Robin Buchanan-Smith, who moved his family here and turned the place into a hotel. They run it now with a starchiness that verges on caricature, especially in the dining room, where Mr. Buchanan-Smith dines alone as waiters stand at attention in ill-fitting waistcoats and the evening light slowly fades. No complaints about the cooking: grilled local scallops on a creamy sea-lettuce risotto, rack of lamb carved tableside with rosemary gravy. But I did find it disconcerting to ask for coffee with dessert and be told, with a nod toward the adjacent library, "I'm sorry, sir, the coffee is in there; the coffee is not in here."
The library, it turns out, is quite a scene after dinner, its chairs occupied by other guests—most of them British, many of them regulars who return for a week each year. There's a great selection of malts, and the mood is convivial, especially after a waitress puts a plate of scraps out on the lawn for the badgers and turns on the light so we can watch them feast. No one talks of golf, except to laugh at the corporate types who go to Gleneagles and boast of their score. Here at Eriska, that would be bad form indeed.
Oban, Argyll; 44-1631/720-371, fax 44-1631/720-531; high-season doubles from $335.