New money and old talent have made Skibo Castle the finest country retreat in Britain, says John Arlidge
THERE ARE GRAND British country-house hotels all over these isles. Some have bulletproof settings: think Lime Wood in the New Forest. Some have a back story to stay for: how many people go to a rather dowdy Cliveden simply because of that girl? Some boast the best food, say, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. Some, such as Coworth Park, the Dorchester’s country pile, offer the height of modernity for Notting Hillbillies who want to leave London but not their lattes. But few combine all those attributes to create the grandest of all grand house hotels in Britain. In fact, only one does. Its name? Skibo Castle.
Ah, Skibo. Poor, unloved Skibo, sitting all alone on the Dornoch Firth, an hour’s drive north of Inverness. For years, the private home of the wealthiest man of his day, Andrew Carnegie, the steel and railroad pioneer, was left to decay. I first visited in 1995, when it had just been bought by Peter de Savary. The charm was there, all right. I remember opening the drawer of Carnegie’s desk and finding a stack of his original business cards. I was so impressed I didn’t even dare steal one.
But the place was falling to pieces. It wasn’t just that the carpets and wallpaper were threadbare, or that the stuffed lion’s paw was falling off. Going for a swim in the enormous pool in a Victorian greenhouse, you took your life in your hands. There was mould growing on the floor and chunks of masonry used to fall off the ceiling. Somehow, thanks to the golf course, American patronage and the efforts of the brilliantly eccentric staff, notably Alan Grant, it soldiered on, even attracting a certain American singer who married her British beau there.
I visited every few years from 1995 but little changed until 2003, when help arrived in the form of new money and old talent. US businessman and investor Ellis Short bought the castle for £23 million from de Savary and set about spending a Carnegie-sized sum of money on it. Once he had sorted out the hardware — you can actually have a shower now without the water running alternately scalding and freezing — he needed new software.
He found it in the imposing form of Peter Crome. The big fella has form. He used to run Chewton Glen in Hampshire and does things his way, describing himself as ‘a benign dictator’. He once threatened to throw Michael Winner out of the dining room at Chewton Glen because he turned up wearing jeans. Skibo could have been made for him, his tweeds and his springer, AC.
CROME AND SHORT have created a new Skibo, worthy of Carnegie’s stated aim to create ‘heaven on earth’, a mission statement still carved into one of the walls. Skibo is a Famous Five adventure land for children who want to ride, explore, scavenge, and compete in the children’s highland games; a spa haven for those who want to be poked and prodded back into shape; a Brigadoon fantasy for Americans to enjoy and Brits to laugh at them as they do so; an 18-hole championship golf course for swingers; an earthy, organic kitchen for people who hate antibiotics and food miles; and a haven for twitchers, clay pigeon shooters, stalkers, falconers, off-road drivers, horse riders, mountain bikers, fishermen, walkers and tennis players. If none of these sets your heather on fire, Skibo is simply a place to go to enjoy the vast Highland hills, the deafening quiet, and a sky that never darkens in summer.
If you can, stay in Pulrossie Farmhouse, which is set in splendid isolation on a small hill, surrounded by nesting oyster catchers, grouse, ptarmigan and pine marten. Don’t worry about getting there and to and from anywhere else on the 7,500-acre private estate — Skibo gives you a green Land Rover for the duration. It’s that kind of place. The same goes for wellies, Barbours and even hiking boots.
Pulrossie Farmhouse is so perfectly decorated with period furniture, roaring fires — yet has a modern bathroom and a hi-tech kitchen — that I suspect it has never done a hard day’s farming in its life. Dammit, the floors are heated — that’s practically illegal north of the border. And every time you return home someone seems to have left fresh peat and logs for the fire, chocolates and, before bed, hot-water bottles. You can cook for yourself or have a chef come to you. If you prefer, you can head to the clubhouse for a barbecue or to the castle to enjoy local lobster and Aberdeen Angus beef in the dining room, where you sit side by side with, well, whoever’s there. Once, I was next to Goldie Hawn.
All this doesn’t come cheap: Skibo is a club that costs £24,000 to join and has an annual subscription of £7,660. Anyone recommended by a member or thinking of becoming one can go to stay for a night or two without joining. It costs around £1,350 a night all in. My advice? Beg, borrow or steal an invitation and go. Even if you only go once, even if you have to fly easyJet (you do if you fly commercial), even if it rains the entire time, even if you are rubbish at ceilidh dancing after dinner, and even if Peter Crome doesn’t like your trousers, just go. Twenty years after my first visit, I still think there’s no better grand country house hotel in Britain and I suspect there never will be.
Ness is more
Like Skibo, Aldourie Castle, which dates from 1626, is a fairy-tale castle that fell into such disrepair it almost collapsed into the icy waters of Loch Ness, on whose banks it sits. Before they sold up, its traditional family owners inhabited only a few rooms and regularly emptied buckets full of water from the others.
Skibo photography by Chris Close