Skibo Castle - Sutherland Comfort
Most of us have heard of Peter de Savery's Skibo Castle, tucked away on the Dornoch Firth. Very few of us will have visited it, partly because there are no signs to it and partly due to the cost of staying there.
Greg Norman is a member, Fred Couples loves it, Sean Connery, Michael Douglas and Catherine frequent it and in the past the Rockefellers, Rudyard Kipling, Edward Elgar and King Edward VII were inmates. Eulogies apart, one thing PdS cannot control is air traffic reliability - a three-hour delay spent in salubrious Luton airport is a cracking start to a foul mood on Friday night.
Landing at Inverness, a chauffeured Mercedes whisked us the one-hour to tranquility and we swooped up the winding drive just short of Cinderella's pumpkin time. Hungry and a little frayed at the edges, a gaggle of kilted adonai swarmed around us on arrival with whisky and sympathy in equal measures and "the grumps" were quickly abated with a platter of solid fare and a good glug of Chateau Skibo.
Requesting mustard with my ham provided a huge challenge, and one kilted wonder returned from the kitchen empty-handed. Later on, fancying some chocolate with my claret sent another young steward into a spin, and returning from the larder he came laden with a bowl full of skittles (chewy fruit things) and a plate of Scottish tablet (fudge) with the plaintive cry: "Sorry ma'am, there's nay chocolate."
I was beginning to have that slightly haphazard house-party feeling and, as I mounted the grand main staircase, I could have sworn the stuffed moose winked at me.
Time to investigate my boudoir boasting elegant and frayed silk curtains, so vast I felt I was lying in state. Oh joy! a real old-fashioned thunder-box and on the loo-chain a polite tartan bow sign reminding "please hold chain down until flushing cycle is complete". Bubbles in the gigantic pistachio bath, a decanter of whisky, more Scottish tablet, and for the midnight munchies a tin of homemade shortbread was temptation beyond endurance.
From deep slumber to bolt upright in seconds due to Skibo's piper honking manfully round the castle at 8 o'clock in the morning - Carnegie must have had a sense of humour or a sadistic streak. My stomach grumbled and I bravely asked for kippers - breakfast, taken in the morning room, gave the first taste of other Skibo residents. There was a distinct American twang to the porridge, golf-clad but not the brash type, and the tables were encouragingly big enough to lay the Daily Telegraph out on.
In the main hall an organist tootled away and the resident Falconer introduced me to a fluffy white owl (his golden eagle was still consuming its break fast - thankfully). Skibo certainly has its quirks, all part of it's jigsaw puzzle uniqueness. With rocket- fuel coffee inside me, I headed for the stables to shake the liver up with a gallop around the estate.
Skibo is luxurious, but purposely not reminiscent of a five-star hotel. To know a little of Andrew Carnegie helps to explain the ethos behind it. The son of a weaver, by the age of 52 he was one of the wealthiest men on earth, known as the "Steel King". Returning from America to Scotland he spent his latter years immersed in philanthropy - the name Carnegie is synonymous with libraries. He set up over 3000 of the things. He loved organ music, so he donated over 800. Five months of his year was spent at Skibo being incredibly sociable. He mixed with characters from all walks of life, regardless of politics religion nationality or colour. His epitaph would be 'The man who dies rich, dies disgraced.'
PdS considers himself custodian of this philosophy and wisely he has altered little - faded autumnal shades oozing warmth and roaring log fires abound. The 100 year-old Otis lift still works, and Carnegie's beloved books are protected by massive steel fire doors behind the oak panelling in the main downstairs rooms - just in case.
There is a similarity between the present incumbent at Skibo and Carnegie: they both married Americans, hate shooting and love the sea. Flying high from the main tower is a hybrid flag of the Stars and Stripes and Union Jack, which Edward VII endorsed. The name Skibo is a Gaelic-Norse name 'Schytherbolle', meaning enchanted place. And there is definitely an atmosphere. Bought in 1990 for $10 million, PdS has invested at least another $30 million as he builds his time capsule - a haven from the pressures of modern living.
Back to my gee-gee. BJ (a 16-hand bay) set off through cornfields, tricky woods and open fields with a backdrop of rolling mountains and swans on lakes. It's always a mistake to think the jockey is in control, and at 90 miles per hour we hurtled straight towards a five-bar gate, both of us nearly landing on the fourth green of the picturesque nine hole Monks Walk course. Suitably dishevelled, a plus-four clad shining knight whisked me off in a four-wheel-drive Range Rover for my next activity -attempting to hit a clay pigeon.
Loathed to admit it (I was a captain in the army), my shooting eye was a trifle askew. But three boxes of cartridges later, and with ace instruction, the clays began to disintegrate - whoopee! I can't think of a better cure for frustrating three putts and shanks than letting off a few rounds at imaginary birds of every airborne angle.
You can walk to the clubhouse but I was beginning to feel there was a wine barrel between my legs so I opted for the Land Rover Defender. The club house is a triumph of positioning, built on the peninsula set between Loch Evelix and the Dornoch Firth with heather-clad Struie Hill in the distance. Rustic, tartan, with antler chandeliers, some appetite-wetting raw asparagus dipped in home made pesto went down a treat with an aperitif.
Having the relaxed and civilised European feel of the club table at St Norn La Breteche (where you find a space at one long table), fresh basil and tomato soup, chicken pie with perfect crisp vegetables and weight-gaining apple crumble were washed down with carafes of house red and white served from milk bottles with a tartan bow.
Although the tempting leather armchairs, suit-ably worn, encouraged the after-lunch snooze, it was time to sample the Donald Steel masterpiece. Being 6,671 yards of neat turf with proper bunkers and an intelligent use of wonderful natural land, it is a great pleasure to tackle. Characters make places and Alan Grant, the club secretary, is much in evidence. He appears whacky, is an artist, plays the guitar and has a handicap of five. While an art student, he fell 74 feet from the roof of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He is very much a people-person, very sane, a great raconteur and refreshingly unique to golf.
This thinking-man's golf course demands that you position your shots well. The 13th, with the green perched on a shelf, is truly tough. The par-three 15th is seriously scary - if you have a slice, a salmon is likely to swallow your ball. An elevated tee shot dicing with danger on the edge of the sea leads you to hell's bunker guarding the 17th green. Reminiscent of Pebble Beach, the 570-yard par-five 18th teases as you choose how much to bite off from the tee, but beware the clubhouse armchair-critics who will smirk if you land in the drink. You can nobble the ball along the ground but this is a true test of your game - Greg Norman and Fred Couples opened the course on July 14 1996. Couples shot 76, Norman 78, and the two of them crept forward to the ladies tee on the 13th.
"More tea Vicar!" Nothing beats home-baking and cups of tea and, in my gym kit, a quick practice of scales on the Bechstein grand piano before speeding off on a mountain bike to explore the swimming pool and gym - Skibo was definitely seducing me. Original and well-tended green houses containing a mass of flowers and edibles lay hidden in the shadows of enormous pine and redwood trees and a few gear changes later the health complex came into view down by Loch Ospisdale. The elegant pool was purpose-built with a rollback roof for stargazing. Warm, huge and glacially peaceful, a dip is definitely recommended to ease out the knots of your backswing.
As befits a castle, dressing for dinner is a must, with drinks at 7.30 pm. Your glass is refreshed before you have a chance to swallow the last gulp while comparing notes with fellow Skibos. After canapes, the piper summons the diners and we chattily amble into the oak-panelled feeding emporium. Alan Grant, resplendent in a tartan Billy Connolly suit, proposes the toast to Andrew Carnegie. Place names are set and new friends made in true dinner party fashion.
White-gloved silver service provided us with three courses of wholesome fare - although this is not a 'foodies' restaurant, it is excellent and the menu is set. After ample wine consumption smoking is permitted when you "sit soft" or retire for digestifs. Then it's songs around the piano, a game of snooker, boogieing to '60s hits, or quiet contemplation - even counting sheep is possible.
The fairies had been and turned my bed down, and dressing gown on I soaked in the moonlight vista from my balcony. With crisp clean air and a feast of stars overhead, the only thing missing was tall, dark and handsome... safer thoughts turned to how the Monks Walk Course could be conquered on the morrow.
Carnegie built the nine holes so that members could roll out of bed before breakfast and work up an appetite, or fit in a few shots whenever the mood took them. Played either as a conventional par-35 or as nine par-threes totalling a par of 27, it is a pretty, gentle and well thought-out wander through spectacular scenery. Hiding away at the far end of the walled garden, amid the cabbages and leeks, is the quaint clubhouse, just big enough to swing a mouse in. Heather grows on its roof.
With hunger befitting a cart horse, my lunch was wolfed down as Inverness Airport beckoned. Dining is integral to the Skibo experience, but excess baggage can be removed with strenuous or gentle activities. Good-value shopping for top-quality cashmere and tweeds is high on the list.
Bags packed, I could reflect on whether member¬ship of Skibo is money welL spent. At £3,000 per year and £300-400 a day, it self-selects its market. Everything is included, with endless golf (which is a major plus point), but if you want to ride or shoot anything with a heartbeat, that's extra. If you fancy your castle warm, no plumbing problems, a "your wish is my command" attitude and you enjoy people, then Skibo is for you - finances permitting.
When you leave, the staff wave goodbye until you can no longer see them - old-fashioned perhaps, but it touched my heart (though I hate to imagine what they were saying under their breath...)
Golf Today Course Directory - Sutherland