Travel: Skibo Shangri-La
Mention the Highland towns of Dornoch, Brora or Golspie to a golfer and you’ll lose them to a misty-eyed reverie of the game in its purest form; man versus the land, the elements and himself. If you drive the long journey north, it becomes something of a pilgrimage, travelling from Glasgow on the A9 and onwards up the spine of Scotland, past Stirling, Perth, skirting Gleneagles through the Cairngorms towards Inverness (on a stretch of road dubbed “The Killer” due to accidents caused by continual switching from single to dual carriageway). As you cross the Black Isle with Inverness behind you, you move beyond the UK’s most northerly city and the skies widen over a place that feels simpler, ancient, where land and sea meet to create a unique patchwork of coastal dunes, salt water marshes, tidal lochs and heather-clad mountains.
Glance to the left as you cross the Dornoch Firth and you’ll notice a solitary white cottage on the northern shore. Rather than a crofter’s lonely outpost, the cottage marks the boundary of the Skibo Estate, 7500 acres of lochs and lakes, woodland, ornamental gardens and Giant Sequoia, home to Skibo Castle, the Carnegie Club and a golf course to rival any other on this fabled, far-flung coast.
The entrance to Skibo is unprepossessing; a gateway off a narrow country lane and an intercom to announce your arrival before tracing a wooded driveway down to the house itself. And then all bets are off. When J. K. Rowling wrote of Hogwarts’ Room of Requirements, in which whatever you were most in need of would magically appear, she may have got the idea at Skibo.
On arrival car keys are handed over to a liveried staff member and it is whisked away to who knows where, but you won’t need it; transport is provided by a fleet of spotless golf buggies or specc’d up, chauffeured Range Rovers that you can summon seemingly by the power of thought.
The Carnegie Club is named in honour of Andrew Carnegie, Scots born steel magnate and philanthropist who bought Skibo in 1872 and whose family retained the estate until 1982 when it was bought by a private investor and transformed into an exclusive members’ club, whose number total around 400 gilded individuals. The house itself is less a castle, more a crenellated Edwardian manor with 20 huge, ludicrously comfortable suites and the magnificent wood panelled Great Hall, where you are warmly welcomed with a dram of whisky (in keeping with members being considered honoured house guests, there is no official reception desk). There are also 12 Estate Lodges scattered through the grounds, perfect for families or anyone wanting a little more seclusion, although with a maximum of 90 guests on any given night, privacy isn’t an issue, peace and tranquility hang lazily in the air.
The pace of life here is slow, time is irrelevant and you can do as little or as much as you like, whenever you like; nothing and nowhere is off limits. The pace of life here is slow, time is irrelevant and you can do as little or as much as you like, whenever you like; nothing and nowhere is off limits. Wander, aimless, through Scots Pines and historic parkland, swim in the jaw- dropping, steel-clad, glass-roofed pool (which you will have to yourself) or arrange a treatment in the excellent spa next door. Ask Colin to work miracles with your clay shooting, try quad biking, horse riding, fishing……..or golf. The Carnegie Links course is world class, re-vamped and re-built under the supervision of director of golf, David Thompson. Surrounded on one side by a salt water inlet and on the other by a fresh water haven for trout, it is a pristine homage to seaside golf, there are no tee times and holes can be played in any order. And it is unlikely you will see another soul. The clubhouse is one of Scotland’s most scenic, overlooking tidal Loch Evelix where wild geese perform formation fly pasts. Non members can now play the course with two fourballs available every day midweek in summer. At £300 per person (including lunch), it isn’t cheap, but then this is once in a lifetime stuff.
For all the space and serenity, Skibo is a social place. Families are welcomed and facilities are excellent. The Club offers a rare opportunity to spend quality time together in as safe an environment as possible, full of magic and discovery for kids. And if overwrought parents need some time for themselves, the Children’s Barn is fully supervised and packed to the rafters with toys, games, fancy dress, Nintendo Wiis, a petting zoo, sunken trampoline and craft or baking classes. All things to all people.
Members meet and greet every Saturday evening over dinner, hosted by local bard and eighth-generation Dornocher Alan Grant, complete with haggis address and witty banter, where formal dress and formal surroundings belie a fun and friendly occasion. Any lingering reserve goes out the window in the ensuing ceilidh – bravely attempted but riotous and anarchic under the tutelage of the ever-patient Mary, for whom herding cats might be an easier endeavour.
Skibo and the Carnegie Club is unlike anywhere else, at once rarefied and relaxed, where, for a price, you can experience what is priceless; the beauty of nature, time and space to breathe, a place where life is made easy and uncomplicated.
My memory of Skibo feels hazy, as though it were a dream, something borne out in its Norse translation – Fairyland of Peace. Indeed.
- Membership is currently available at The Carnegie Club, although be warned, it is not cheap.
Members pay a one-off joining fee, an annual fee and a daily rate during their stay, including all food, drink and most activities, including unlimited golf at the Carnegie Links, the Children’s Barn and 4 hours of babysitting per day.