By Charlotte Pearson Methven
It’s not often that one hears “castle” and “members-only” in the same sentence; the former connoting grandeur steeped in medieval heritage, the latter having the newer twang of a country club. But the two have been married beautifully at the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle, deep in the highlands of northern Scotland, a short flight from London to Inverness, and then a one-hour car journey. Emerging at the bottom of a winding drive, fringed by Scottish pines, moorland and lochs, the castle—a sandstone pile, bathed in late October sunshine—comes as a surprise. Not even its highest turrets can be seen from the road or from the narrow bridge that crosses Dornoch Firth, whose banks it sits on. Perhaps this sense of seclusion is why Madonna chose Skibo as the venue for her super-secret wedding to Guy Ritchie in 2000. Skibo has lasted quite a bit longer than that marriage.
The property has American roots, on proud display. It is the only place in the world allowed to fly a flag with the Stars and Stripes on one side and the Union Jack on the other. Permission was granted to former owner Andrew Carnegie by King Edward and President Roosevelt—a testament to the respect felt locally for Carnegie. (Resist the urge to draw comparisons to the rather different regard a far brasher modern-day American with a golf property in Scotland may be held in.) But the flag is only fitting at Skibo, where nearly fifty per cent of members are American and the current owner is London-based, Missouri-born businessman Ellis Short.
Mr Carnegie—as he is still respectfully referred to by club staff—bought Skibo and its 8,000-acre estate in the 19th century, as a nod to his Scottish heritage and because, by all accounts, he simply fell in love with its romantic beauty. The Carnegie family retained ownership for nearly a century and their imprint is still keenly felt in the splendour of the place they renovated so sumptuously; there’s dark wood panelling, stained glass windows and antique furnishings aplenty. As well as the Americans and Brits who make up the vast majority of the membership, there is a small smattering of “other” (mostly Europeans, usually not “emerging markets”, I am told. “We need people who will appreciate how we do things here.”)
Carnegie’s legacy is keenly felt in this elite, cherry-picked group—up to 90 of whom take up residence at any one time, often bringing guests—who are all vetted to ensure they uphold his sense of discretion and propriety and share his love of the outdoor pursuits that this spot lends itself to so perfectly; these are, in the main, golf, shooting (the season runs from October through early January, when the club closes until late March), fishing and riding.
Aside from its role in the Material Girl’s biography (resist, too, the urge to wonder if Carnegie would have approved of her patronage), Skibo has remained resolutely low-key since its conversion from a private residence to a member’s club by former owner, property magnate Peter De Savary, who bought it from the Carnegie family in 1991. De Savary spotted an opportunity for a country property that could make guests feel they were on their own private estate, but without the hassle of actually having to do anything so tedious as actually run it, and, crucially, with all of the comforts of the world’s great hotels. (And anyone who has stayed on a real Scottish estate will know that even the grandest do not often have five-star heating and plumbing.)
De Savary was clearly onto a winner: he sold Skibo, after falling on hard times, to New York-based investment fund Westbrook Partners, who in turn sold to current owner Short; through these transitions, the formula has remained intact. There are currently some 350 members—many, like Carnegie, Americans of Scottish descent—who have paid a one-off £25,000 joining fee and £8,500 annually to call Skibo their home away from home. The list is currently open to others who might fit the bill, with membership capped at 400.
The club works hard to ensure that from the moment one arrives—you are greeted with the offer of a wee dram of whisky, sloe gin, or, for children, orange juice—everything feels effortless. There are virtually no extra charges and precious few rules. Almost everything—sports, food, even alcohol and babysitting—is included in the, admittedly steep (in excess of £1,000 per room), nightly charge. And most activities don’t need to be booked—there are no tee times on the 18-hole Carnegie Links golf course and holes may be played in any order.
This is one of those places where they’ve thought of everything. Before setting off on a walk, one needs only to grab a waxed Barbour jacket and a pair of Wellingtons from the exhaustive collection in the boot room. When you want to retreat to your cottage, simply hop into the Land Rover Discovery you’ve been loaned (there is a fleet at guests’ disposal), grab bicycles or a golf buggy, or ring for a driver. Families with children stay in one of the 11 guest lodges scattered about the estate, so that the castle’s 21 bedrooms may be reserved for those desiring peace and quiet. (My children not so tactfully noted that our lodge, Ferry Cottage, was about the same size as our home in London.)
Skibo is Scotland as many wish it was: the ridiculous comfort, of course, and the incessant views of mist rising off the firth; the tartan upholstery; the bagpiper playing you into supper; the organist piping Scottish tunes at breakfast; the perfectly heated indoor pool; and the food: salmon and oysters from the nearby loch, pheasant shot on the estate, jam made with fruit from the walled garden, vegetables grown right on the grounds; and the joys of a full Scottish breakfast, complete with black pudding and several kinds bacon. For children, a visit, when you aren’t eating (Skibo is not a place for dieters), is a whirl of pony rides, golf lessons, rounders matches on the front lawn, a Halloween treasure hunt in the walled garden and playing with Hattie, the club’s tortoise, or jumping on the trampoline in the Children’s Barn (the all-singing, all-dancing kids’ club).
Carnegie’s belief was that Skibo should be a place where all would come together as equals, and this egalitarian attitude is still reflected today in the popularity of the formal “hosted dinner” held in the castle dining room each night. Members invariably say that this feeling of communality, even more than the impeccable facilities or anything else, is their favourite aspect of life at Skibo. At these dinners, guests from all corners (during a recent visit this included a ten-strong party of Texan shooting fanatics, London thespians, English home counties families and an older couple from Boston, who heard about Skibo from neighbours in Nantucket) dine at one long table; they are regaled with stories by “resident entertainer” Alan, a long-haired jester with an encyclopaedic knowledge of both the castle’s and the Carnegie family’s history, before retreating for a sing-along at the piano in the drawing room, which often continues well into the night.
Yes, all of this jollity comes at a price. But as you roll back to Inverness airport, hearts sinking as Dornoch Firth fades from view, it seems one well worth paying.
Our only regret? That we didn’t do as those in-the-know do and book the Caledonian sleeper train for the journey home so we could enjoy a full final day in the highlands.