Time for a break? Try a trip to The Fife Arms, a new art hotel in the Scottish Highlands that's proudly making an exhibition of itself
Until recently Braemar’s main claim to fame was its annual Gathering, the flamboyant Highland Games held on the first weekend in September that is traditionally attended by the Queen and Royal Family – Balmoral Castle, the monarch’s much-loved Aberdeenshire estate, is just nine miles east.
Now there’s another reason to visit this scenic riverside village in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park – The Fife Arms, an imposing hotel dating from 1856 that has been transformed into an art-filled extravaganza by the Swiss gallerists Iwan and Manuela Wirth. Their company, Hauser & Wirth is a major player in the world of modern and contemporary art with galleries in London, New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, along with diverse projects that include Hauser & Wirth Somerset, a combined arts centre, restaurant and holiday farmhouse that opened in Bruton in 2014. They’re clearly no strangers to putting on a good show and this Scottish outpost features over 1,400 art-works, antiques and curiosities, including pieces by Picasso, Lucian Freud, Gerhard Richter and Louise Bourgeois.
Four years in the making, the new Fife Arms features site-specific installations by leading international artists such as Zhang Enli, who has painted a sensational ceiling in swirling colours that float above the traditionally-furnished drawing room, while Indian sculptor Subodh Gupta has filled a private dining room with a glistening storm of pots, pans and household utensils. Scottish crafts and culture are to the fore – textile designer Araminta Campbell produced the house tartan and tweed while some bedrooms have hand-carved headboards inscribed with lines by poet Alec Finlay. Checking in here feels like visiting a fabulous art gallery, natural history museum and auction room all rolled together – except that as a hotel guest you can spend as long as you fancy looking at everything.
Each of the 46 rooms and suites is a work of art in itself inspired by the Scottish landscape and historic personalities. These include spirited women such as Princess Louise, the eldest and ‘rebel’ daughter of Queen Victoria, and the glamorous Frances Farquharson, a Vogue fashion editor who married a local laird in 1949. It’s worth looking online to find a room that suits your taste – two to consider are ‘The Socialite’, devoted to Princess Frances Dolgorouki, and ‘Marion Angus’, celebrating a Scottish inter-war poet. All come in a cosy Scottish style including lots of books, fun stationery, pampering bathrooms and bone china tea cups with shortbread biscuits.
The Fife Arms is a showcase for high class Scottish produce with breakfast and dinner served in the airy Clunie Dining Room where the walls feature a huge Breughel canvas and Cubism-inspired murals by Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca. The first is a sumptuous feast ranging from porridge with rhubarb and ginger to kippers and a ‘Ghillies Full Breakfast’. Dinner makes full use of a monumental wood-fired oven with a menu that includes Orkney scallops, birch-smoked beef fillet and Invercauld honey meringue. Save time for a cocktail in Elsa’s, a delightful art deco bar featuring Man Ray photos of fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, while the informal public bar The Flying Stag is ideal for some house-cured salmon, haggis or local cheeses. Fortunately, there are plenty of good walks from the hotel front door so you can work all this off (you can borrow maps, waterproofs and wellies), or if the weather’s not co-operating head for the Albamhor spa where treatments feature organic products from the Hebridean seaweed-based ishga brand.
The Fife Arms (01339 720202, thefifearms.com).
Double rooms cost from £252 including breakfast. The nearest airports and railway stations are in Dundee and Aberdeen.