The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle, a residential private members’ club, is much more than a destination golf course and somewhere to sip the finest whisky. It’s a feast for the five senses and a place you wish you could call home
Let me start by saying, there’s something rather annoying about The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle. When reflecting on my stay there, I experienced a maddening frustration. I was struggling to put the magic of the castle in Dornoch, Scotland, into words – which, for a journalist, is not ideal. So, dear reader, what follows is my best attempt at portraying the eccentricity, exclusivity and effortlessness of Skibo Castle – a place that if you’re ever lucky enough to visit, you’ll never want to leave.
The words ‘private members’ club’ can often conjure notions of arrogance. The shining attribute of the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle is its humility. In order to get a taste of the sweet Skibo life, you are allowed to arrange one visit as a non-member. From the moment I was collected from Inverness airport by the club’s chauffeur, I was made to feel right at home.
Entering the grand, wooden panelled entrance hall, where walls are adorned with mounted deer heads, I’m greeted by eternally ebullient managing director Peter Crome. Crome is an esteemed name in the world of luxury hotels, having worked at the Hyde Park Hotel (now Mandarin Oriental London), The Savoy, the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews and Chewton Glen. He’s very much a visible persona and can be found chinwagging with guests in the lounge or walking his dogs in the grounds.
While I’m being shown up to my room, via the wide sweeping staircase, which plays host to two throne-like chairs at its zenith, I catch a glimpse of members taking afternoon tea in front of a crackling fire, avidly engaged across the sofas. It feels more Edwardian house party than stuffy members’ club.
Skibo is a Grade A-listed castle, sitting in 8,000 acres of land. In 1898, the baronial estate was taken over by Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest industrialists of the Victorian era and erstwhile the wealthiest man in the world. The first mention of the castle is from a 1211 charter, but by the time Carnegie arrived, it was essentially a run-down country estate. He transformed it into a millionaire’s playground, creating lochs stocked with brown trout for fishing, a golf course and a swimming pavilion – the castle also tripled in size to incorporate a mansion. Carnegie dubbed it his “heaven on earth”.
The experience available at Skibo can perhaps be best described through the five senses, starting with smell. Taking a deep inhale outside the castle, my nose is filled with fresh, clean, light air that carries hints of freshly cut grass. Upon entering, the roaring fireplace lets off aromas of musky, comforting smoke that warm you before the heat does. Elsewhere on the estate, you might smell the scent of fresh gunpowder, shot from a round of clay pigeon shooting. You can take it from me, that softly-spoken tutor Colin, will instil complete confidence in any novice.
Skibo is not just a feast for the stomach (we’ll get to that later) but for the eyes also. Of course, in all its grandeur it’s undeniably beautiful– but there’s more to the castle than striking architecture and roll-top baths. When I visit, in November, it’s the Arts, Wine and Music Weekend, which showcases an impressive creative programme. Headed up by Peter Stanyer and John Ross, founding directors at The Artworks, a pioneering independent art school and gallery in Halifax, drawing classes intend to demonstrate that anyone can draw, or at least have a crack. (John Ross also happens to be the artists in residence at Skibo Castle.)
Many of the club’s charm lies outside of the castle in the undulating, almost endless, grounds. Many people would recommend taking a leisurely stroll around them – I suggest taking a drive in one of the golf buggies. Just watch out for the dithering pheasants.
Another sense to explore at Skibo is touch, whether it’s by flicking through one of the 2,500 original books in Mr Carnegie’s library, the sensation of slipping into the soft monogrammed ‘Skibo’ dressing gowns or the feel of the slowly fizzing Penhaligon’s bubble bath against your skin. It’s all very comforting.
Feasting at the club is actively encouraged. By the end of my stay, my taste-buds needed an additional holiday both from all of the food and libations. Champagne is offered at almost every instance – fine by me. During my visit, there was an informal wine tasting with the owner of Château Mont-Redon, Jérôme Abeille, who talked guests through several vintages.
After the shooting in the frosty outdoors, I retired to my room, and helped myself to a dram of whisky from the decanter there. I also helped myself to a complimentary jar of Highland fudge, although the far bigger feast was yet to come.
On Saturday evenings, managing director Crome hosts a dinner in Mr Carnegie’s dining room. A lavish affair, where I was presented with a menu of local langoustine and beef, perfectly matched with Château Mont-Redon wines. It was bacchanalian banquet but as comfortable as a friend’s dinner party.
Elsewhere, there are more informal dining options. The golf course’s Clubhouse (on which, I’m told, there are no tee times, so that you can even putt in the middle of the night) offers easy but well executed food, like burgers. The Clubhouse (which has an equally well-stocked bar) often hosts barbecue dinners serving brisket and haggis sausage.
Lastly, and for me the most notable sensory experience of Skibo Castle, came the sounds to be found there. From the 1904 organ that sings sweet morning music while you eat breakfast, to the gathering around the original Bechstein piano in the drawing room before dinner, noises fill the silence of this part of the Highlands. Music is a big part of the club, and during my stay, I’m treated to a concert in the swimming pavilion by the Highland Chamber Orchestra, joined by Stephanie Childress, a hugely accomplished violinist at the tender age of 17, who was a finalist in the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year.
I couldn’t write this article without mentioning the traditional Scottish knees-up that is the ceilidh, which occurs after dinner on Saturday. Nor without thanking the endearingly spirited dancing coach Mary, who will have you hopping to Strip the Willow in next to no time.
“It’s nice to be important,” said 20th-century American philanthropist and businessman, John Templeton. “But it’s more important to be nice.” It’s a mantra alive in everyone you meet at Skibo.