In the heather-covered hills of bonnie Scotland, a world of enchantment awaits. Once there, you’ll never want to leave, says Annunciata Walton.
One suspects that, if required, even the wild Scottish weather will submit to the will of the staff at Skibo Castle, such is their quiet, all-conquering capability – let it rain during the aromatherapy spa appointment, the sun will shine for galloping and golf.
This Highland retreat is without equal. It is not a hotel; it is the five-star Carnegie Club, fit for a discerning few – Madonna and Guy Richie were married here – and, at the moment, there are a few membership spaces up for the taking. Don’t you want to be one of the lucky ones?
A wild but welcoming 8,000-acre private estate on the romantic Dornoch Firth, a quiet corner of the Northern Highlands, with pine forests, moorland, brown-trout fishing lochs and Lake Louise, named for the club founder’s wife. Welcome to the land of hill and heather.
Skibo is the finest sort of home from home, where members can stay for a few days or weeks at a time and be part of a joyously Edwardian country-house party.
The not-so-dulcet tones of the bagpipes (distant not discordant, thankfully) are the first things you’ll hear in the morning, à la Balmoral; at various times of day, an organist entertains with everything from Lady Gaga to Greensleeves; and the piper will also rouse you from cocktail hour and escort you to supper.
If your eardrums can take it, there’s nothing more characterful, except the poetically addressed haggis, a weekly rite. These traditions stem from the eccentric lifestyle of Andrew Carnegie, the 19th-century industrialist-cum-philantropist who, having conquered America, returned to his beloved Scotland in 1898 to build a castle on the site of a Viking fort and give all his money away (more on him below).
The social ethos of the club – think dressing for supper, singalongs around the piano, cosy chats by the fire with pre-dinner cocktails and the occasional reel – is in honour of the founder, whose tenure at Skibo triumphed the democratic dinner party. Whatever walk of life his guests came from, they supped together and made interesting conversation: Edward VII, Churchill or Rudyard Kipling might sit next to a Rockefeller or a Vanderbilt, or even one of Carnegie’s Dunfermline neighbours.
Carnegie was born in a one-bedroom cottage in Dunfermline, Scotland. His father was a weaver and his mother repaired shoes. Virtually penniless, the family emigrated to America in 1849, where, aged 13, Carnegie worked as a bobbin boy in a Pennsylvania cotton mill. He read voraciously and, eventually, one clever share purchase set him on the road to founding Carnegie Steel Co and becoming ‘the richest man on Earth’.
But Carnegie longed to return to the country of his birth. He was heavily fond of the whimsical Scottish baronial style, which was already, by the end of the 19th century, going out of fashion. Nevertheless, when he purchased the dilapidated Skibo estate in 1899 as a place for his daughter, Margaret, to grow to love the mother country, he was well able to rebuild it as his own fairytale castle with battlements, gables, stained glass and all those American mod cons he’d become accustomed to (and for which he built his own power station to achieve, now a luxurious spa, see below).
Uniquely ahead of his time, this captain of industry, the original man of steel, believed that ‘the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced’; indeed, when he married Louise in 1887, she signed a pre-nup, approving of his plan to give away his entire fortune during his lifetime.
He has been called the father of modern philanthropy and is particularly well known for gifting public libraries the English-speaking world over, a cause touchingly close to his heart – he believed that anyone who had access to books and the will to learn could achieve the greatest of heights, as he had done. When Carnegie died in 1919, he had given away more than $350 million.
From a former ballroom to Carnegie’s master bedroom, it’s safe to say that you will meet with every luxury here, paired with beautiful original features such as tiled Edwardian fireplaces, turreted corners, four posters and even a private library. ‘You can lock the door, if you like,’ said my host. ‘Most guests don’t bother.’ It’s unusual to sleep well in an unfamiliar bed, but I really did – cosily enveloped in Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet-scented feather down.
Stay in one of the castle’s 21 bedrooms or, if you’ve come with all the family – incidentally, there’s a children’s barn, petting zoo and outdoor playground and babysitters are ever on hand – you can take your pick from 11 exquisitely converted lodges on the estate. Dogs are most welcome and you’re encouraged to drink whisky (Skibo’s own) as soon as you arrive – what more could you ask?
Skibo’s 18-hole course undulates with the natural surroundings of the Dornoch Firth peninsula, invigorated by sea breezes. It is arguably the best in the country and, in particular, the final three holes are said to be among the finest finishing stretches in the world.
Carnegie loved to play here – he built the original (9-hole) course. Since his day, a Clubhouse has been built – a great spot at which to meet your professional golfing instructor and enjoy a delicious lunch and a jaw-dropping view.
Swimming at Skibo creates the perfect metaphor for your stay. As you float along on your back, gaze up, beyond your ethereal reflection in the glass roof (framed in steel, of course), to the endless sky – it feels like flying across the top of the world and this euphoric experience was by far the favourite part of my stay. Something to muse on: the pool house used to double up as a ballroom in Carnegie’s day.
The accompanying spa is in the building Carnegie built as his own personal power station – exquisitely converted with open fires and cocooned luxury. The treatments offered by Aromatherapy Associates are second to none and heaven-scented.
The noble steeds in the extremely well-kept stable at Skibo are so well behaved that even my gangly-limbed fiancé was able to freely gallop without fear. There’s an excellent clay-shooting range, too, and fishing, walking, boating, Segway-ing… whatever your heart desires.
A well-stocked cloakroom of wellies and jackets in every size ensures you can travel light and a fleet of golf buggies for travelling around the extensive estate are at your permanent disposal. If you’d like to go further afield (I can’t imagine why, but sure enough, any whim is catered for), there’s a fleet of chauffeurs, too.
What do you expect me to say? Of course, the food and wine are without fault. Every single thing served up at Skibo has been planned to perfection, is exceptionally delicious – even the haggis – and, despite the American influence, is served in portions of perfect size. You can dine privately or with the other guests and no request is too farfetched.
How to be a part of the Carnegie Club
To become a member, you have to get on with the delightful hosts and fellow guests and be approved by a committee. Once in (the current joining fee is £25,000), your annual dues are £8,000, not including an all-inclusive daily charge (reduced for children) when in residence. Currently, the Carnegie Club also offers a trial year – this costs £10,000. Visit www.carnegieclub.co.uk for further information.