Scottish Highlands: Take the long way round
This scenic yet stylish route from Glasgow to Edinburgh is the chance to enjoy the high life in the Scottish Highlands, says Mark C O'Flaherty
Saturday 11 September 2010
There is a proud, introspective look and sound to modern Scotland. Young musicians are reinventing folk for a new generation that finds the stones of Callanish more magnetic than bleached pop frippery. The Harris Tweed Artisans Co-Operative formed a year ago in the Outer Hebrides to bring attention to new styles in a classic textile, selling wares at Flowers by Violet in Stornoway. In Edinburgh, Howie Nicholsby can make you a bespoke new-wave kilt suit in some unique varieties of it at his 21st Century Kilts atelier. And the textiles and wallpapers of Glasgow's Timorous Beasties are bold, edgy, sharp of wit... and totally Scottish.
There's still tartan, of course. If you're starting a clockwise tour of the Highlands, stay at the Hotel du Vin in Glasgow, one of the most handsome urban hotels in the country. Converted out of a row of Edwardian townhouses – all wood panelling and stained glass – it is now resplendent with claw-footed Victorian tubs and ravishing, gothic, black on black tartan twists; it's a paradigm of mod Scot style – something old; something radically new.
You must, of course, take the West Highland Line out of town from Queen Street when you go. There's nothing swank about the service on the five and-a-quarter-hour haul via Fort William to the ferry port at Mallaig, but the view's the thing – including the inevitable "Oooh! Harry Potter bridge" moment at the crossing of the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
If Kent is the garden of England, the Highlands are the stately, almost alien-beautiful Elysian Fields in Glasgow's back yard – and the coastline along Mallaig, facing the Isle of Skye, has some of the best scenery in the world. Swap the rails for a hire car and drive inland to the bay town of Plockton and from there on to Applecross. It might take longer than you'd anticipated, allowing for camera breaks and strolls into infinity curves of green.
Stay at the Little Hill of my Heart, a B&B that does everything right, from the polished, plush bedrooms to the L'Occitane Verbena candles and landlady Avril's cracking full-Scottish breakfast. This is a guest house for the 21st-century, charming and clued-up.
The next "wow" along from Applecross is Loch Torridon. The Torridon is a Victorian redux gothic pile with sumptuously modernised rooms. Its turrets sit dwarfed by the mountains behind, with the loch sprawling before it, and no other building nearby. This is a high-style country lodge, with crackling fires, a zodiac-crested dining-room ceiling and a whisky bar that glisters with hundreds of bottles. You could spend a glorious week here, strolling along the water's banks and beside the horned cattle and feel, justifiably, like you've "done the Highlands".
The alternative destination from Mallaig is a ferry across to Skye – venue for some of the best modern dining in the country. Stay at Number Ten, a self-catering apartment belonging to local landscape artist Diana Mackie. It is attached to her painting studio and cottage on a charmingly desolate beach to the north. Mackie is a whirlwind of style and energy, and with Number Ten she's created an ultra-modern, ultra-luxurious, light-filled hideaway for two, with underfloor heating, satellite TV for when it's dreich, an amazing kitchen and some of her own superlative design touches, including wonderful stained glass, and a bed made from whisky barrels.
Mackie also had a hand in the interior of the nearby Three Chimneys – which, in my opinion, must surely be the most celebrated restaurant in Europe without a Michelin star. The grande dame of Scottish cooking, Shirley Spear, handed the kitchen reins to Michael Smith in 2005. What started life as something of a folly in an old cottage now continues to offer the most muscular and elegant updates of Scottish cuisine anywhere, with the bulk of the menu ingredients locally sourced, including scallops served in a hazelnut crust and lamb loin with its own haggis.
There are nevertheless Michelin stars aplenty in Scotland, and they come attached to some similarly wizard chefs. Philip Carnegie has brought a lighter touch to the dining room at Inverlochy Castle, but it's still a studied and solid portrait of formal dining within an explosion of eccentric theatrical chintz.
There are always, wherever you go, some guarantees of modern culinary wonderment. Number One at the Balmoral in Edinburgh is a restaurant that looks like vintage Manhattan and tastes like heaven. The tasting menu includes celeriac pannacotta and the most perfect of venison plates. And Martin Wishart's eponymous satellite restaurant at Loch Lomond has given Glaswegians yet another reason to spend the whole day at Cameron House (the day spa, particularly the rooftop hot tub, is also well worth a splurge).
Then there are the surprises: Broad Bay is a remarkably swish four-bedroom B&B on the Isle of Lewis, run by Ian and Marion Fordham who moved five years ago from North Wales to the Outer Hebrides. They've constructed a glass over-sea lookout/dining room and between them serve dinners to their guests that knock the Arran socks off most chefs with decades more experience. Portions are big and game is a speciality – if a guest has shot it that day, expect to taste it later.
But try to make it to the Albannach, possibly the most remote Michelin-starred establishment anywhere. The drive up along the far north west coast to what is technically a "restaurant with rooms" in the Sutherland village of Lochinver, takes you through some unique landscapes: distant mountains, artful ruins and petrified trees half-immersed in lochs.
The Albannach itself is like visiting a friend's house, albeit a friend with a penchant for imposing wood furniture. Expect wintery red meats and a lot of love in every dish. It's worth the trek, particularly if you're combining camping with a night here (a popular combo, according to the owner, Lesley Crosfield). Dinner for non-residents is a reasonable £55 and the wine list is splendid, with some bargains (Cloudy Bay at off-licence prices, for example).
Even a modern tour of Scotland demands a trip to that Loch. The Clansman Hotel is an unreconstructed tartan monstrosity with a vast fibre-glass Nessie outside and a two-storey sign that advertises itself as "the ONLY hotel on Loch Ness". Just behind the sign is Loch Ness Lodge (another "restaurant with rooms", so the Clansman isn't exactly fibbing), where you'll be better off staying. Again, it feels like a private home, albeit one furnished by a very skilled interior designer who has taken their cues from thistles and tweed and done something jewel-bright with it. And the food is divine.
Next stop: Inverness, a largely unlovely city with a nefarious one-way system and a superb modern design shop for Harris Tweed oddities in the form of Judith Glue. It also boasts a rather out-of-place, drop-dead chic boutique hotel in the Rocpool Reserve, with a Roux restaurant and one particularly in-demand room that has a balcony hot tub. You'd do well to dine downstairs in the former and stay put in the latter for the evening, then get the early train to Pitlochry.
Ah, Pitlochry. It's hard to imagine a more twee tourist town. And yet there's a lot to like. Craigatin House is a very cute, urban-minded B&B that's taken one of the Lottery-win Victorian properties that clutter the place and turned it into a thrifty but contemporary and comfy bolt-hole. A 20-minute walk from the Craigatin, on the edge of a desolate wood, you come to a glowing glass arts centre and the Port-na-Craig restaurant. Port-na-Craig is an accomplished mix of contemporary and quaint – and the Stornoway black pudding and cheddar salad is a must, as is the haggis with mashed tatties.
Any clockwise tour of modern Scotland must end in Edinburgh, the most des res city in the nation. Two openings last year sealed the deal: super-chef Paul Kitching abandoned his beloved Manchester and set up 21212 here, with some dubious Space: 1999 signage mixed with otherwise ravishing décor and some stellar dishes (and bedrooms) in a dream of a building on the Royal Terrace.
And the other, of course, is the Missoni Hotel. The locals complain about its unpalatable exterior, but it's now the lunch destination du jour (and quite rightly so). The interior, full of Rosita Missoni's vulgar-adjacent 50s/60s jewel-box colours and pop-art inspired patterns, is beyond delightful. The hotel is the work of Glasgow's Graven Images, one of the hottest design companies in Europe right now. In putting their stamp on the most fashion conscious new hotel in the world, they've underscored how Scottish style is world class and as vibrant and as seductive as the landscape it comes from.
Travel essentials: Scotland
* Mainline trains to Glasgow and Edinburgh are operated by East Coast Trains (08457 225 225; eastcoast.co.uk) and Virgin Trains (08719 774 222; virgin trains.co.uk). The West Highland Line is operated by Scotrail (0845 601 5929; scotrail.co.uk). Ferry services to Skye are operated by Caledonian MacBrayne (0800 066 5000; calmac.co.uk).
* Broad Bay House, Back, Isle of Lewis (01851 820990; broadbay house.co.uk).
* Craigatin House, 165 Atholl Road, Pitlochry (01796 472 478; craigatinhouse.co.uk).
* Hotel du Vin, 5 Devonshire Gardens, Glasgow (0141 339 2001; hotelduvin.com).
* Little Hill of my Heart, Camusterrach, Applecross (01520 744 432; applecross accommodation.com).
* Loch Ness Lodge, Brachia, Loch Ness-side, Inverness (01456 459469; loch-ness-lodge.com).
* Missoni Hotel, 1 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh (0131 220 6666; hotelmissoni.com).
* Number Ten, 10 Borreraig Park, Dunvegan, Isle of Skye (01470 511 795; number10-skye.co.uk).
* Rocpool Reserve, Culduthel Road, Inverness (01463 240089; rocpool.com).
* The Torridon, Wester Ross (01445 791242; thetorridon.com).
* 21st Century Kilts, 48 Thistle Street, Edinburgh (0131 220 9450; 21stcenturykilts.com).
* Deryck Walker's Micro, 1 Argyle Arcade, Glasgow (0141 248 1708; deryckwalker.net).
* Judith Glue, 15 Bridge Street, Inverness (01463 248529; judithglue.com).
* Timorous Beasties, 384 Great Western Road, Glasgow (0141 337 2622; timorousbeasties.com).
* Flowers by Violet, 40 Point St, Stornoway (01851 702 264).
Eating and drinking there
* 21212, 3 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh (0845 22 21212; 21212; restaurant.co.uk).
* The Albannach, Baddidarroch, Lochinver (01571 844407; thealbannach.co.uk).
* Inverlochy Castle, Torlundy-Fort William (01398 702177; inverlochycastlehotel.com).
* Martin Wishart at Loch Lomond, Loch Lomond (01389 722 504; martin-wishart.co.uk).
* Number One, 1 Princes Street, Edinburgh (0131 557 6727; restaurantnumberone.com).
* Port-na-Craig, Pitlochry (01796 472777; portnacraig.com).
* Three Chimneys, Colbost, Dunvegan, Skye (01470 511258; threechimneys.co.uk).
* visitscotland.com; 0845 22 55 121
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