Don’t expect a lot of signposts to the Skeabost Country House Hotel when you turn off from the main road just outside the island’s main town, Portree. There might have been a couple of signs once upon a time, nowadays however, the route is virtually unmarked.
But if you carry on (and on) along the unpaved drive shaded by beautiful old trees on one side and the indolent river Skeabost on the other, you’ll eventually reach the hotel which has a commanding position overlooking the wonderfully-named Loch Snizort.
On the day we arrive, the Loch is perfectly still and seems to stretch as far as the horizon. It is disarmingly beautiful in the late afternoon sun and the views from the Loch-facing bedrooms must be delightful (our own, from the large suite at the front of the house, looks out onto the well-tended gardens and the car park – which isn’t as bad as it sounds as the grounds beside it are so pleasant).
Check-in is performed by a charming young man who welcomes us warmly and explains where everything is. Another staff member bustles by and acknowledges us with a cheery greeting.
It really does feel as though we are arriving in someone’s home (though not many homes can claim a rather gorgeous and magnificently threadbare sofa such as the one in reception. I learned later that it had, many years before, belonged to a senior member of the Third Reich, and it lost its appeal almost as quickly as I leapt off it).
There are just 14 rooms at Skeabost, some – like ours, the MacDonald – are decorated in the traditional country house chintzy style – as well as a handful in the modern boxy addition at the back facing the 9-hole golf course and the Loch.
Our room is apparently a suite (but it doesn’t have a separate sitting area so it is stretching the term a bit) but it is very large and comfy. If we’d brought the baby I’d have moved the cot into the bathroom which was so spacious that a more parsimonious hotel owner might have considered selling it as a separate bedroom.
I might also have considered sawing off one of the pillars of the four poster bed in order to watch television without having to perform the twist but we agree we haven’t come here to idle in bed, especially as one of us is planning an early departure with a view to climbing one of the Cuillin Hills at the far end of the island.
The convivial manageress, Janet, has thoughtfully provided guests with a little map of the immediate area – complete with directions to the island in the middle of the river where there is a burial site for the former Chiefs of the Clan Nicolson dating back to the days when the river – now a prime salmon-fishing destination, was where the warriors would throw the heads of their vanquished foes. Very Highlander.
A 10 minute walk – which can be at times slightly muddy and midgey (so do remember repellent, helpfully available at reception) leads to a rickety bridge that smaller or older people might need help getting over) over to the island. And then you’re really alone with the ghosts of the past. But rather than feeling spooky there’s just the sensation of being in the presence of some very old souls – and a few stone cairns.
Back at the hotel I take a quick trip down to the edge of the Loch – trying to avoid the early evening golfers taking advantage of the glorious sunset.
Then, having scoped out the lie of the land we’re ready for dinner and as the menu card in the room highlights the fact that local suppliers are used wherever possible we’re slightly disappointed to find that the bar (where the charming receptionist has morphed into a charming barman) only serves generic beer – and no local ales at all.
But the food is delicious and nicely presented and our charming waiter (guess who?) assures us that my plaice comes from the West Coast (though he can’t vouch for the rest of the meal).
There’s still time after dinner for another wander – the house has lots of nooks and crannies – including a wonderfully romantic rooftop turret with a panoramic view over the Loch and grounds that is sadly off limits to guests for the moment.
Surely someone is missing a trick here? With a bit of investment it would make a cosy little eyrie or private dining space.
We hole up with after-dinner drinks in by far the most interesting room I’ve seen in a long time; the old games room which looks – by the condition of the threadbare wall coverings and the well-used snooker table as though it hasn’t been really appreciated since the building was first built for the Clan MacDonald.
At the end of the room are a marvellous ‘snug’ and a superb old fireplace partially blocked by a bizarre 1970s style fire screen. A selection of delightfully quirky books adds to our pleasure. We love this beautiful room which seems the only part of the place that retains a sense of the grand old building it must have once been.
There are plans afoot I’m told, as we depart after a breakfast of kippers and poached eggs, to give the place a lick of paint – the outside could certainly do with it. I just hope the owners know what a treasure they have (and I don’t just mean the multi-talented, multi-tasking staff). The upkeep of an old building – especially one with so many corners and additions isn’t easy at the best of times. But somewhere this unique is worth restoring to its former glory.
Nearest airport: Inverness – then a 2–3 hour drive.
By Train: Nearest station: Kyle of Lochalsh – trains connect with services to Scotland and the rest of the UK at Fort William or Inverness. Scotrail has fares on the London to Inverness Sleeper from £60.00 and from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh from £11.30.
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