Scotland’s most exciting hotel opening in 2019

"Все дети - художники. Проблема в том, чтобы остаться художником, когда ты вырос." Пабло Пикассо ©
Время на прочтение: 6 минут(ы)

The first civilian guests – not friends or family or professional stickybeaks – arrived at The Fife Arms just as I was leaving. Young handsome couple. City slickers, I guessed. They stood stock-still in the middle of the lobby and gazed about in a sort of reverie. I swear I could hear a soft ‘thunk!’ as their jaws hit the floor. ‘Ah. Lucky things,’ I said to myself. ‘You’re going to love this place.’

  • Scotlands most exciting hotel opening in 2019

    Above: The Wirths in front of the carved chimneypiece.

    In 2005, Manuela and Iwan Wirth – arguably the most influential contemporary-art dealers in the world today – moved from Switzerland to England. In 2009, they bought Durslade, a working farm near Bruton, Somerset. Their galleries across the world continued to thrive while they busied themselves with bee-keeping, truffle-hunting, tending vegetable patches and fruit orchards, hosting classes for nearby schools and overseeing the wildly successful gallery-guesthouse-restaurant combo that they built on the property. Not only did people come; they came in droves. Bruton has a population of about 3,000; some 500,000 visitors have made the trek to Durslade Farm since it opened. And now the Wirths have done something equally marvellous and, if anything, even more surprising in the Scottish Highlands, with The Fife Arms, a former hunting lodge in Braemar, near Balmoral Castle.

  • Scotlands most exciting hotel opening in 2019

    Balmoral was the preferred rural hideout of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that together they invented the kind of shortbread-tin Scottishness most of us take for granted. We may think of turrets and tartan and terriers that dance the Gay Gordons as profoundly traditional, but in fact pretty much all of that is a mid-19th century phenomenon. The Fife Arms takes this cheery fantasy, spikes its whisky with acid, electrifies the bagpipes and dials them up to 11. Figuratively speaking. The only background noise I heard, other than happy laughter, was the hypnotic murmur of the Clunie Water, a tributary of the River Dee, flowing fast beneath my window at night.

  • Scotlands most exciting hotel opening in 2019

    Above: The Kuitca mural.

    Large-scale portraits by Picasso and Freud dominate the lobby – but did you spot the little watercolour stag’s head just inside the door by Queen Victoria herself? Or the oversized chimneypiece intricately carved with scenes from poems by Robert Burns? The mesmeric ceiling in the drawing room by Chinese artist Zhang Enli, which I’m sure will cause a nasty crick in many a neck, looks like an Ordnance Survey contour map made of sliced agate. The Cocktail Bar – tiny, mad, irresistible – is devoted to tiny, mad, irresistible Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian couturière whose signature colour was shocking pink and who, it turns out, adored the Highlands and was a regular visitor to Braemar. In the Clunie dining room the food is excellent (smoked-venison tartare, turbot, roasted celeriac, honey meringue), and there’s a feast for the eyes, too, in the form of a semi-abstract mural by Argentinian Guillermo Kuitca, which represents the countryside around the hotel but might almost have been peeled off the walls of some previously undiscovered cave in the Andes, alongside hominid bones and stone tools.

  • Scotlands most exciting hotel opening in 2019

    Above: The Edward VII Suite.

    It would be difficult to overstate the strangeness of these spaces or the sense of childlike wonder to which they give rise. The same goes for the 46 bedrooms – although there’s such variety among them that it would be unfair to generalise. Go as large as your budget allows, and if the Duke of Fife Suite isn’t available, ask for the Indian Suite. Opulent doesn’t begin to describe it. Interiors panjandrum Russell Sage, a serious but clearly by no means humourless scholar of Victorian textiles and design, has outdone himself.

    You could point to a small number of hotels – London hotel The Goring[/link], The Carlyle in New York – where something similar has been attempted, with equal success. But not many, and generally on a room-or-two basis rather than in this thoroughgoing way. Some of Scotland’s best hotels though again not many, and fewer the farther north you go. Gleneagles, Glenapp Castle, Killiehuntly, Skibo – they’re all marvellous in different ways. But The Fife Arms is something else. For now, at least, it’s in a category all its own.

  • Scotlands most exciting hotel opening in 2019

    Above: Victorian furniture and art.

    What’s so curious is that the Wirths, by their own admission, knew nothing whatsoever about hotels, yet that hasn’t been a barrier to their creating ravishing, zeitgeisty, mould-breaking joints. ‘You go to a gallery or a museum for an experience,’ Iwan told me reasonably. ‘An exhibition should be something that’s unique and curated. Like an exhibition, a great hotel is a curated experience. I think of The Fife Arms as a long-term group show. So a show or a stay – for us they’re one and the same thing.’

    The Fife Arms has long been the focal point of social life in the village; it will only become more important as the Wirths’ programme of talks, activities and events gets into full swing. Whether the effect on Braemar will be as dramatic as it has been on Bruton remains to be seen. It’s a slightly different proposition – The Fife Arms is not, for one thing, a gallery in any strict sense, with constantly changing exhibitions. But I wouldn’t bet against it. Directly or indirectly, its impact will oblige other hoteliers, especially but not only in Scotland, to pull their Argyll-patterned socks up sharply, and to give serious thought to the ways in which art and design can help them tell their own particular stories.

  • Scotlands most exciting hotel opening in 2019

    One thing Iwan said really stuck in my mind. For him, the Braemar sensory adventure starts with the smell of wood smoke coming up through chimneys from open fireplaces. But then, he continued, you’re going to encounter an explosion of impressions. What you notice next depends on what sort of person you are – it could be anything. The important point is that your level of awareness is raised. Your senses are on high alert. ‘You can see it in people’s eyes,’ he said. ‘It’s the same with a show, when the show’s well done. For some people, when they arrive here and step inside, it’ll be the Picasso or the Freud. The reason those big, recognisable pictures are here is not to impress you but to tell you that what’s on the walls is worth looking at, that it’s special. They’re a way of getting you to pay more attention.’

    A way of getting you to pay more attention. Precisely. You’re not merely looking but thinking, too. The pleasure isn’t passive but active. You’re engaged, involved. And if that sounds suspiciously like hard work, contrary to the interests of the would-be weekender, don’t worry, it isn’t. The Fife Arms is as invigorating as a lungful of crystalline Highland air, and as easy to enjoy.

    Address: The Fife Arms, Mar Road, Braemer, Scotland AB35 5YL

    Telephone: +44 1339 720200


    Prices: Doubles at The Fife Arms from £250; suites from £795

    Scroll down for more pictures of the Fife Arms…

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  • Scotlands most exciting hotel opening in 2019

    The Jacobite Risings room.

  • Scotlands most exciting hotel opening in 2019

    Detail in the Heather room.

  • Scotlands most exciting hotel opening in 2019

    Outdoor gear in the utility room.

  • Scotlands most exciting hotel opening in 2019

    Chocolate mousse

  • Scotlands most exciting hotel opening in 2019

    A fireplace and ceiling art by Zhang Enli.

  • Scotlands most exciting hotel opening in 2019

    The Farmer Croft room.

  • Scotlands most exciting hotel opening in 2019

    The Jacobite Risings room.