Great Places to Stay
- Kinloch Lodge, Isle of 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.
The SCOTS Heritage magazine is one of the finest (if not the finest) magazine about Scotland. If you want to confirm that for yourself, there is a 30-day free trial subscription offer on their site.
Warm and Welcoming
On the Sleat Peninsula, on the south-eastern coast of the Isle of Skye, at the head of the broad, shallow arm of the sea known as Loch Na Dal, (the Loch of the Devil) ever-watchful otters are suckling their cubs on the rocks below the manicured lawns at Kinloch Lodge. In the warm spring sunshine, cheeky black-faced lambs follow their mothers, sneaking over a cattle grid to nibble the golden Daffodils and Jonquils nodding by the water's edge. Everyone's eating! And the wonderful odours wafting from Claire Macdonald's kitchen tell us a hearty Highland breakfast is not far away. We are about to tuck into steaming porridge, smoky Mallaig kippers, black pudding and crusty home-baked bread.
Lady Macdonald's well-deserved reputation as Scotland's best-known cook lies, at least partly, behind the extraordinary success enjoyed by Kinloch Lodge, the small hotel she runs with her husband, Lord Macdonald, High Chief of Clan Donald. The envy of hoteliers throughout Scotland, Kinloch Lodge boasts almost 100 per cent occupancy, no matter what the weather, for an astonishing eight months of the year. The handsome, whitewashed, 17th century farmhouse and former shooting lodge, has been voted one of the 100 best hotels in the world. For the past 25 years, guests have come to Kinloch Lodge from all over the world for the unique experience of fine dining with the Macdonalds in one of the most beautiful settings in all of Scotland.
Kinloch (the Gaelic name means head of the loch) is not so much an hotel as a warm and welcoming Highland home. There are only 15 rooms here but each is beautifully furnished and extremely comfortable. Kinloch's intimacy is another of the keys to its success. "We do try to make our guests feel as though they've been invited home for the weekend," Lord Macdonald says. "This is our home, after all, and we love meeting and mixing with people."
Blazing Log Fires - And Islay Malt
When we arrived, toward evening, thoroughly exhausted after 30-some-thing hours flying from Australia, log fires were blazing in both drawing rooms and immediately Lady Macdonald made us feel welcome with, in my case, a pungent single malt from Islay. Like Ratty and his rowing, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much fun, as being settled in front of a crackling, open fire with a lovely old cut-glass tumbler of powerful Hebridean whisky. When a guest had the temerity to ask for Pimms there was a great good-natured hoot from the hostess followed by much clinking of bottles and cries of mock dismay as she rummaged through the liquor cabinet. Then a shout of triumph: "oh, good-oh!" she cried. "You're in luck. Bottle and a half here! Should keep us going for a while, eh?" Eh, indeed. The drawing rooms overlooking Loch Na Dal are where Kinloch's guests meet the Macdonalds and each other. We found none of the stiffness and the ghastly silences one might expect in similar circumstances south of the border. Here, people quickly succumb to the Macdonald's charm, genuine warmth and complete informality. Notwithstanding my Clan Mackenzie kilt, one tweedy English guest confided that, at first glance, he thought I might be the Lord of the Isles. No. His Lordship appeared, not with a three-feathered bonnet but tall and elegant and distinguished-looking in a pair of olive corduroys, navy blue cashmere sweater and smart pale pink shirt and silk tie. Moments earlier I had been looking closely at his gilt-framed pastel portrait as a child, a beautiful little boy with big, sad eyes and masses of tight blonde curls. Suddenly seeing him in the flesh, 50 years on, brought a smile of recognition. "Are you comfortable?" was his first question. "Is there anything we can get you?" By this time the Islay single malt was working its magic and Ratty answered for me, "nothing, absolutely nothing."
A Truly Memorable Meal
At dinner, guests are seated separately at polished antique oak tables evenly spaced around a splendid room. A gallery of Macdonald ancestors looked on approvingly above their ruffs and military uniforms and brightly burnished armour as the first dishes came steaming from the kitchen. The choice: either Pan Fried Scallops with Parsley and Garlic Butter or Mushroom Tart with Chive Cream Sauce. I love mushrooms but the Scottish scallops offered a temptation too strong to resist. Only once before have I eaten scallops as deliciously fresh as these and that was on the wild west coast of faraway Tasmania nearly 20 years ago. I might have been content simply with the scallops but this was merely the beginning of what was to be a truly memorable meal. Next came Broccoli and Lemon Soup. Superb, creamy, thick and hot! And after a proper interval, the main course. Both of us selected not the Chargrilled Monkfish but the Roast Rack of Lamb with Herb Crust and Sauce Paloise. This was served with Mousseline Potatoes, Butter Glazed Carrots and Cauliflower, Sautéed with Coriander. This was a meal fit for a Laird and made all the more so by the spicy Beaujolais we chose from the 50 wines on Kinloch's list. Most were French but I was pleased to see the list was also graced by some of the better quality Australian and New Zealand wines. Lady Macdonald kept a discreet eye on her guests from a central table where she and Lord Macdonald entertained a visiting Bishop and his priest. Catching her eye, and a conspiratorial wink, I was struck by the great joy she obviously feels in having created not just these wonderful dishes, which were clearly giving people so much pleasure, but the whole Kinloch experience. When I finished my lamb I swore I couldn't possibly contemplate dessert. But then, when the young lady who served us recited the choices, all resistance vanished. Panna Cotta with Lemon and Orange Compote won out over Coffee and Flaked Almond Meringue Cake with Dark Chocolate Sauce.
Lord of the Isles
At the end of a meal like this, one is tempted to toddle off happily to bed. But having come all that way, we were easily persuaded to return to the Drawing Room where coffee and fudge were served by the fireside. It was there that I spoke with Lord Macdonald. I asked him about all those ancestral portraits; was it burdensome or perhaps a liberating experience to have them watching over him like that?
"I must confess I've never really thought about it in those terms," he said. "If you're brought up with the expectation that you will fulfil a role, you get on with it and hopefully do it to the best of your ability. I always love walking around the house looking at the portraits because I think these are the ancestors with whom I can identify. And yes, to a certain extent I do feel they're keeping an eye on me. I'd like to think that they'd be proud that I was continuing the tradition, living on Skye, albeit under slightly different circumstances to the ones they lived under. But life's what you make it, isn't it. It's got to be."
Although Lord Macdonald is focused almost entirely on running Kinloch Lodge, he still finds time to meet with Clan Donald kinsmen who make the proper arrangements well in advance. From time to time, he says, he encounters people from outside Scotland who have the cheek to suggest that the Clan system is these days a bit of an anachronism. "The answer I always give is that it is most definitely not an anachronism," he said. "But, of course, the emphasis has changed. The relationship between the Chief and his clansmen, feelings of abasement and obedience are dead and gone. They've been replaced by a feeling of belonging. And as the clan becomes more dispirit, more dispersed around the world, people become much more interested in tracing their roots, finding out where their ancestors have come from, their history within Clan Donald and perhaps in the process arrive at a more profound understanding of themselves. These days, with travel so much more widely accessible, it brings it within the scope of many people to come back to Scotland. I look on my role today as High Chief of Clan Donald as being that of an ambassador. When I travel abroad, I do so as a representative of my people, as a living link with history. It's fascinating and I must say, I love it."
Although Lord Macdonald regards himself as being "basically a Scot," he says he is "a Highlander, first and foremost." "I am an Islander and a Highlander," he said, "and I'm very proud of that. My ancestors were the Kings of the Isles and if one looks at history, one sees that we actually fought pitched battles with the Scots. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, we lost. So, we were sucked into Scotland rather than went in voluntarily. The forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles was the beginning of the end as far as the Isles folk were concerned. There was an awful lot of inter-family rivalry, which was very much to the detriment of the future of the Kingdom as a whole. Today, my life revolves around Kinloch. In these days of pragmatic inheritance one has to earn a living."
The following morning, Lady Macdonald asked if we had enjoyed the meal. No, we assured her, we had not simply enjoyed it, but genuinely appreciated every aspect; the preparation, the flavours, the textures, the service. It had been not so much a meal as a truly memorable dining experience.
Claire Macdonald has written 13 cookery books and when she is not demonstrating her techniques at Kinloch Lodge she travels throughout Britain, Europe and the United States appearing on television and promoting the best of Scotland's larder. Her demonstrations at Kinloch Lodge have become so popular that the Macdonalds have designed and built a beautiful new kitchen complex just below the main house. They call it simply, Kinloch. There are non-residential demonstrations in summer and during Scotland's autumn and winter months they offer residential demonstrations.
In all her demonstrations Claire Macdonald says she emphasises, fresh, top quality Scottish food. She loathes what she calls "the supermarket mentality." "I'm afraid it's very much in vogue in Scotland, as it is everywhere else in the world," she says. "I'd like to kill the chefs who cultivate the notion that one can have asparagus, for example, 12 months of the year. The result is that it has to be flown in from Chile or Kenya. Wherever possible, I urge people to go back to using their own locally grown fruit and vegetables in their natural seasons. We do and it is highly successful. I've established a solid network among growers and farmers and fish merchants and the result is we always have the best of everything."
Did people come to Kinloch purely for what one might call the Claire MacDonald experience? "I hope not," she said smartly. "But there are people who come here from all over the world precisely because Kinloch has, over 25 years, established a hard-earned reputation for wonderful food. So yes, they come for the food and for the experience, the sheer delight of being here. There are lots of ways one can recharge one's batteries and relaxing here and dining with us is certainly among them. But people also come for the wildlife. We've got rare seabirds, and sea creatures like the otters and the seals, wonderful wild-flowers and shrubs. That's why we're called The Garden of Skye. In fact we have two guests who teach botany and who have been coming for 23 of our 25 years. Even after all that time they haven't seen it all."
For more information or to make a reservation see the Kinloch Lodge Web site or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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