A towering Douglas fir presides over the lochan on a country estate in the Scottish Highlands. A duck sends a ring of ripples across the glassy surface, which reflects the green slopes and rocky summits that rise to the east. Neither tree nor lochan – local speak for “wee lake” – are indigenous. Both were imagined by a Scotsman who helped lay the foundation for Canada, then returned to his birthplace and built a manor that celebrated these two cultures.
Glencoe House, the grey granite and red sandstone mansion at the heart of that estate, is now a seven-suite, five-star hotel. And that man, Donald Smith, who set sail from Scotland in 1838, a teenager hired on as an apprentice clerk in the fur trade, is better known as Lord Strathcona. He rose through the ranks to become governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company as well as a member of the House of Commons, president of the Bank of Montreal, chancellor of McGill University and the visionary behind the Canadian Pacific Railway. When the last spike was driven into the ground at Craigellachie, British Columbia, in 1885, Smith swung the hammer.
I am thinking about that iconic legacy while sipping a dram of peaty Laphroaig single malt whisky from the bar in the sitting room of Suite No. 3 – Lord Strathcona’s former library. A wood fire blazes in a marble hearth with a gleaming oak mantle. Outside my window, night is falling on Loch Leven and the windswept hills beyond. There is a knock at the door. Chef Brian Gunn would like to know if I’m ready to discuss tonight’s menu. One of Glencoe House’s distinctive features is that there is no restaurant; guests take meals in their suites. “It’s cold and dark and wet outside,” says Gunn, touting the appeal of in-room dining. “The fire is on and the bar is open. You don’t want to go out.”
Such warmth in such a rugged setting – no wonder so many foreign-born Scots make the pilgrimage to their ancestral home. There is something about this land that calls its children back. I’m here to experience this phenomenon at a pair of grand Highlands-estates-turned-hotels of similar provenance. Lord Strathcona’s homecoming begat a luxurious country retreat that visitors can now enjoy as boutique accommodations. Just over 100 kilometres away, at Kinloch Lodge, the reigning lady and lord returned to the family seat and saved their estate from ruin by reinventing it as a culinary destination. In Scotland, it seems, rediscovering your roots is not the final scene, but the start of a new chapter.
Glencoe, a two-hour drive northwest from Glasgow, is Scotland’s most dramatic mountain valley. Steep cliffs forged by volcanoes and glaciers, and heather-clad glades that come alive with wildflowers in spring flank the waterfalls and riffles of the River Coe. The mist that perpetually swirls around the peaks gives the glen a mystical feel. It is also a magnet for hikers and climbers, drawn by trails that weave through the hills, by red deer and golden eagles, and by the delicious bounty harvested from saltwater lochs.
The current owner of Glencoe House, Roger Niemeyer, a hotel industry executive who has a home nearby, did not know much about Lord Strathcona when he first saw the property: “To me, he was another Victorian gentleman with a long white beard.” But as Niemeyer and his wife Julie Pate began renovating the mansion, which had been boarded up for three years before opening to overnight guests in 2012, they became enthralled by the self-made lord’s story.
In 1896, after achieving fame and fortune in the New World, Strathcona moved to London to serve as Canada’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom. Completed that year, the Highlands manor was a love letter to his wife, Isabella, who was born near James Bay of aboriginal and Scottish parentage. North American trees were planted, and the lochan was carved into a valley on what are now forestry commission lands adjacent to 10 acres of private gardens. Architect Sir Robert Rowand Anderson, who also worked on Balmoral Castle, the Scottish royal residence, included touches such as the couple’s initials carved into the house’s sandstone exterior, and a crest depicting a beaver gnawing the trunk of a maple tree above Strathcona’s one-word motto: Perseverance.
Although he lived in London and remained high commissioner until his death in 1914, Strathcona spent six weeks at Glencoe every year. Most of the estate was sold in the 1930s, and the mansion became a military hospital during the Second World War, morphing into a maternity hospital and eventually a home for surgical convalescence and geriatric patients until finally closing its doors in 2009.
As thick coats of white paint were stripped away and the linoleum flooring was peeled off, Niemeyer found that many original features had been preserved. The ornate plasterwork ceiling of the great hall, where today’s guests are greeted with a glass of champagne, conjures the grandeur of another century. Visitors can fish, sail and kayak on the area’s sea lochs or tour coastal villages and then retreat to the hotel, where Baltic pine shutters – and that whisky – seal out the damp. A heavenly end to the day.
Call of duty
The more I explore, the more stories I hear of people who felt the powerful pull of their heritage. From Glencoe, I’m led northwest, deeper into the Highlands, stopping at the scenic Glenfinnan train viaduct, a recurring sight in the Harry Potter series. Rob Hall, our dreadlocked, kilt-clad, half-Scottish tour guide – his Afro-Cuban father pretended to be a Jamaican member of the Commonwealth so he could join the Royal Air Force – recommends a panoramic viewpoint. In Mallaig, where the road and railway end, we back onto a small ferry for the half-hour crossing to the Isle of Skye.
The more I explore, the more stories I hear of people who felt the powerful pull of their heritage.
North of the serrated ridges of Skye’s Cuillin range, Glaswegian Paul McGlynn was pressed into service on his in-laws’ oyster farm. His wife’s dad took him down to the shore at low tide one day and said, “Well, get on with it.” So he did. McGlynn opened a market and café selling the freshest seafood imaginable. “I don’t have a liquor licence,” he winks, plunking a bottle of single malt onto a picnic table inside the resto-garage, “but buy a fridge magnet for £2 and you get a free drink.”
At the end of a slaloming single-track road that clings to a grassy headland on Skye’s southern Sleat Peninsula, jeweller Heather McDermott shares a work shed with her painter father. She went away to art school, then came back to a place where the brisk breeze and constantly changing light helps keep your perspective fresh. “I decided I wanted to move home,” says McDermott, “and make a go of it.”
At sunset, we reach a sheltered bay near the top of the Sleat. It was here in 1951 that Lord Alasdair Macdonald converted a 17th-century farmhouse on his family’s hunting estate into a hotel. When he died suddenly in 1970, his 23-year-old son Godfrey inherited the dilapidated, debt-ridden lodge. Godfrey and his wife Claire, the newly anointed lady and lord, could have bolted back to Edinburgh. Instead, they rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt. Godfrey ran the hotel and Claire took over the kitchen.
With a focus on fresh ingredients from Skye’s natural larder, Kinloch Lodge developed a reputation for dining.
With a focus on fresh ingredients from Skye’s natural larder, Kinloch Lodge developed a reputation for dining. Claire became one of Scotland’s most beloved cooks and food writers, appearing regularly on television and penning 18 books, including her seminal The Claire Macdonald Cookbook. When she and Godfrey stepped away from the day-to-day operations in the mid-2000s, their daughter Isabella moved north from London. She refreshed the rooms and invited Marcello Tully, an inventive Brazilian-born chef with a Scottish grandfather, into the fold. Like Niemeyer, he saw the region’s rich history as a springboard, choosing culinary evolution over revolution, and earned a Michelin star.
The evening at Kinloch begins in the cozy Talisker bar, beside another roaring fire, where a young man from New Zealand – “the Scottish part of New Zealand,” he insists – switches seamlessly between concierge, bartender, maître d’ and sommelier. Tully sends out a plate of canapés, including a shot glass of cranberry jelly topped with sweet corn panna cotta and grilled chorizo, and I select a bottle of a vibrant Spanish red before being shown to my table.
The meal that follows, in a dining room lined with ancestral Macdonald portraits, is an epicurean journey meticulously mapped out by Tully. A potage of foamed parsnip and Pernod; seared wild pigeon breast; salmon korma with caramelized banana; venison fillet with deep-fried parsnip “antlers” jutting out of a sweet-apple-and-parsnip mash; and a lemon tart with popcorn ice cream.
“Skye is a chef’s paradise,” Tully tells me the next morning when I join him in the kitchen for a workshop. “There is water all around us, and deer and lambs in the hills.” Louis, a French chef who is working in the pastry section for the day, pulls a tray of pain au chocolat out of the oven. Still stuffed but unable to resist, I resolve to climb one of those hills after lunch.
Stretching my legs on the path behind the lodge, I take in the view. The craggy shoreline and rolling terrain remind me of Canada’s East Coast, which once shared a landmass with this part of Scotland. The Atlantic Ocean and millions of years of continental drift now separate the two regions, but geology underpins geography, and a timeless bond endures. Looking up at the looming mountains, I understand Lord Strathcona’s affinity for the Highlands. And feel the first stir of my own ache to return.