For art lovers and aesthetes, the eclectic mix of artefacts found behind the multi-gabled Victorian façade of The Fife Arms – a five-star hotel in the village of Braemar, in the Scottish highlands – makes it Britain’s rural staycation retreat nonpareil. Originally built as a hunting lodge by the Duke of Fife, the hotel was acquired in late 2014 by Swiss husband-and-wife art dealers Iwan and Manuela Wirth, whose vast restoration project turned it into the 46-room the toast of the hospitality tastemakers it is today.
Within its glorious, quirky décor – which feels at one with the organic pastoral hues, punctuated by mauve heather, that surround the village – the first-time visitor will first encounter a watercolour of a stag’s head, painted by Queen Victoria, that hangs in reception. Look the other way and they’ll notice a Steinway grand piano, given an eye-catching bleach treatment by Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford. Approach that and, over to the right, they’ll see a fireplace whose elaborate carvings depict narrative snippets from Robbie Burns’ poems before turning around and, looking up, marvelling at Los Angeles artist Richard Jackson’s ‘Red Deer Chandelier’ – a chromatically dazzling offering composed of enlarged replicas of bagpipe drones and glass antlers (references to locale are rife at The Fife).
Elsewhere in the building there are 16,000 or so more antiques, artworks and curios – one of Pablo Picasso’s musketeer paintings, a chandelier by Subodh Gupta made up of Indian kitchen utensils and coloured bulbs, works by Lucian Freud, Gerhard Richter and Bruegel and a watercolour by Prince Charles among them – while the latest draw for art-lovers is actually a brisk ten-minute walk away: an uplifting, neon sculpture reading “Everything Is Going To Be Alright”, created by Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed, lit up each nightfall outside the front of Braemar Castle.
“I was thinking about how if someone offers you a few words of comfort when you are distressed,” said the Glasgow-based artist of the piece, also called ‘Work No. 3435’, which clearly has added resonance given the current crises. “Even if the words are empty because there is not anything to back them up, it can be comforting… I’ve been very comforted by people saying something like that to me.”
The Wirths will no doubt continue to inject further artistic exuberance into the hotel and its surrounds as time goes on: since its reopening in late August, though, The Fife has also made serious efforts to accommodate the post-lockdown hospitality culture by encouraging visitors to make the most of Braemar’s expansive setting: and if you’re tempted to think there’s little to occupy you around a small Highlands village, The Fife has more than a few surprises up its sleeve.
Hotel guests are now encouraged to roam and ramble the unspoiled Cairngorms National Park, which is right on the hotel’s doorstep, with a new self-guided directory, which features walking and cycling itineraries, curated to fit all levels of fitness and keenness to explore. There are options aimed at family groups, lone rangers or couples looking for a romantic foray à deux, and scavenger hunts, nature trails and activity sheets are available for younger guests.
Guests may alternatively choose to take a hike with one of the hotel’s now expanded team of dedicated ghillies: a crucial aspect of the hotel’s offering (“We were inspired by the story of John Brown, Queen Victoria’s favourite and the ultimate ghillie,” explains general manager Federica Bertolini, “but really, everyone is a ghillie at The Fife Arms – we’re here for our guests”).
Ask politely and you may end up partaking in your Fife Arms hamper backpack – which features homemade pies, hearty sandwiches, meats, locally sourced smoked salmon and sweet treats made fresh by the pastry team as well as flasks of tea and coffee – outside a gorgeous hut, built for and frequented regularly by the Royal Family when visiting Balmoral Castle a few miles away from The Fife. The ghillie team can also arrange golf, or a botanical tour of the area with medical herbalist and forager – Natasha Lloyd (ask her about the mycorrhizal networks between local trees – you won’t be disappointed).
Back at the hotel, a great deal of effort has also gone into accommodating the mores and priorities of the post-lockdown era: afternoon tea in The Drawing Room and pre-dinner drinks in the art deco glamour of Elsa’s Bar can be a private, socially distanced affair if requested, and both can also be taken in guests’ own rooms; local Scottish firms have provided personal protective equipment for guests and the hotel team; Scottish Linen has created facemasks for the hotel; and the front of house team are wearing visors designed by local architects Moxon Architects. There’s even a machine which takes guests temperature in seconds, on entry.
The Fife is fortunate that it can embrace its majestic location, when accommodating people’s collective wish to not be too close to each other in the current situation: its efforts to offer exactly same warmth and generosity of spirit post-Covid, though, has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with guile and diligence.
Rooms at The Fife Arms start at £414, including VAT and breakfast (+44 (0)1339 720200/www.thefifearms.com. Those wishing to avoid Aberdeen Airport can take a car from Edinburgh – please contact Peter Martin at Ecolux Cars
See below for more pictures of The Fife Arms experience