Great Places to Stay
- Hotel Eilean Iarmain, Skye
The article below by Bruce Stannard was originally published in the SCOTS Heritage magazine. This lavishly illustrated and informative quarterly publication is the Journal of the Scots Heritage Society and over the years it has published articles on many aspects of Scotland - including reviews of some great Scottish hotels. The editor has kindly agreed to it being reproduced here.
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Recommended Without Question
After a lifetime of travelling throughout the world I've come to know exactly what I like in an hotel and it's definitely got nothing to do with glittering chandeliers, uniformed staff and outsized atriums. I don't want a television in my room, still less a computer terminal. I don't want a mini bar or a trouser press. No, what I want is simplicity itself: a clean, comfortable room with windows that open to a view and fresh air; crisp linen, a good strong, hot shower and a restaurant that serves fresh local fare. Simple and yet oh, so hard to find. In all of Scotland I know of perhaps half a dozen favourite places that I'm prepared to recommend without question. Eilean Iarmain, a delightful early 19th century inn by the sea, is one of them. I'm looking forward to going back, again and again.
As soon as I laid eyes on Eilean Iarmain, gabled and white-washed and glittering in the sun, I knew I had discovered something special. Named after the Ossianic hero Diarmid, Eilean Iarmain is perched above its own delightful little harbour, close to the southernmost tip of Skye. The hotel commands a quint-essentially Scottish view out across the still waters of the Sound of Sleat to Isle Ornsay with its winking owhite lighthouse and the hills of Knoydart on the mainland beyond.
I arrived late on a glorious autumn afternoon with the glassy sea reflecting the green and golden hills. The air was still and warm and pungent with the salty tang of ebb tide kelp. Heckling gulls "wheeling and darting above a bright varnished smack -were chiding a pair of yellow slickered fishermen as they offloaded their catch of silver Sea Bass at the tiny stonewalled harbour. I watched as the fish were placed almost reverently into wicker baskets and then carried with some ceremony from the boat straight to the hotel kitchen. I made my choice for dinner then and there.
"The Gaels Invented Whisky"
Eilean Iarmain and the 2000 acre estate that surrounds the hotel are owned by one of Scotland's most dynamic businessmen, Sir lain Noble, a banker and entrepreneur whose vision and generosity led to the establishment of the Gaelic College on Skye. Sir lain got caught here in a snow storm a few years ago. He liked the place so much that he decided to buy it. He and Lady Noble have completely transformed the hotel, refurbishing all the interior spaces and building a completely new wing of beautifully appointed, apartments between the hotel and the sea shore. It was in one of these duplex units that I stayed and I have to say I don't think I've ever been more comfortable nor more completely at home anywhere in Scotland. The elegant country-style decor features a wonderful combination of rustic pine staircase and furnishings with clean white walls and drapes and bedclothes. The shuttered windows look directly onto the sea. There are 12 bedrooms at Eilean Iarmain: six in the main hotel and six in the Garden House where I stayed.
Although Sir lain was off in the wilds of Khazakstan when I was at Eilean Iarmain, Lady Noble was a most gracious hostess. It was she who introduced me to the wonders of the Gaelic Whiskies. In 1976 Sir lain set up Praban na Linne which means "the little whisky centre by the Sound of Sleat" to supply the Gaelic-speaking islands off the north west coast of Scotland. Since then his Gaelic Whiskies have found ready markets throughout the world. The Gaels invented whisky, Lady Noble told me proudly, which is why the labelling is all in Gaelic. "And besides," she said straight-faced, "it greatly improves the flavour". She was absolutely right. I tried Te Bheag (pronounced chey vek) which means 'the little lady' or a 'wee dram' in colloquial Gaelic); and a robust 12-year-old malt called Poit Dhubh (pronounced potch ghoo) which means black pot or illicit still). Sir lain likes to maintain that he is "not prepared either to confirm or deny that Poit Dhubh comes from an illicit still locally". Although I am by no means a connoisseur, tasting those wonderfully peaty whiskies made me feel as though I had arrived at one of life's significant milestones, the discovery of a whisky style which suited my palate perfectly. I said no to wine with dinner that evening, preferring instead to hold fast to the memory of the richly aromatic Poit Dhubh.
"I'll Have That Sea Bass"
The young lady who waited on my table looked surprised when I told her there was no need to show me the menu. She then smiled knowingly when I explained how I'd spied out the Sea Bass on its way in from the boat to the kitchen. "Oh aye," she said, "be sure to have it grilled with our own wee tatties. What about scallops for an entree ? Scallops is fresh today." Aye, aye, I said.
The scallops were indeed the freshest I've ever had anywhere in the world. Simply seared in butter, they were so wonderfully tender and full of flavour that having savoured half a dozen and mopped up their salty sea-juices with crusty home-baked bread, I was tempted to give in to a greedy inner-voice that cried out for more.
My waitress smiled at my mopping up and admonished me to "leave room for the Sea Bass". I no sooner uttered an obedient "aye, aye," when the great fish itself which had been swimming just a few hours before, landed glistening, piping-hot and pungent on a plate before me. Superb! I couldn't resist lifting the plate, closing my eyes and savouring the steaming salt sea aroma. There is nothing half so good as fresh Sea Bass except perhaps the fish you catch yourself. The "own wee tatties" were lightly doused in butter and chopped parsley but the fish itself "was exactly as I'd ordered: plain grilled with all its juices seared inside. It was excellent. I sent my compliments to the chef who, at meal's end, popped his head around the kitchen door and gave me a smiling owink and a good old Gaelic V-for Victory sign.
Sleep of the Innocent
I slept the sleep of the innocent that night and woke the following morning to the cry of gulls. On the pebbled beach outside my room a whiskered sea otter gave me an insouciant look as it lolled like a half-tide rock in the kelp. There had been a shower of rain during the night and the early morning air was cool and clear. A pair of fishing smacks were putt-putt-puttering out to sea and I heard that greedy voice again wondering what they'd catch for tea....
For more information or to make a reservation see the Eilean Iarmain Hotel Web site or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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